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One pixel at a time: Diplomacy and domination in Reddit's artistic masterpiece, r/place23:08
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(Courtesy of Reddit)
(Courtesy of Reddit)

Over the course of four days, ten million people from around the world sought to mark their territory at r/place, a blank canvas for users to fill in one pixel of color every five minutes.

After its first successful iteration in 2017, Reddit revived r/place on April 1, 2022. Subreddits gathered their members, coordinating plans to create murals, flags, and other symbols together, while battling encroaching, rival groups. Alliances were forged, peace treaties were broken, and fraught negotiations took place at all hours of the night over Discord for pixelated dominions.

On this episode of Endless Thread, we sat down with two Redditors who retold the battles they encountered in r/place and persevered until the end—despite being vastly outnumbered.

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

Ben: Amory what is your favorite thing that just perfectly typifies how on the internet, there is so much good, and also…everything is terrible.

Amory: Ooh, there's a long list for that, but I'm going to holler back to an episode from our meme series.

Ben: Holler.

Amory: The one about the woman yelling at a cat meme.

Ben: Mhm, I know it well.

Amory: Because I feel like if you've heard that episode, if you haven't, I mean, come on.

Ben and Amory: Get on it.

Amory: But (laughs) if you have, you know that people are so clever with this very funny meme. But the story behind it also is one that should not be turned into clever, funny memes.

Ben: Yeah.

Amory: So it's, it's tricky.

Ben: Opportunity and cost.

Amory: Yeah.

Ben: Alright. Um, so one of my favorite things that really I feel like represents the full spectrum of the internet is r/place.

If you don't know what r/place is, you're in for a treat because we heard from a bunch of listeners who wanted us to cover r/place and we decided to interrupt our regularly scheduled programing to bring you two stories from two listeners who have very direct experience with this kind of internet experiment that happened recently. And one of those people who I talked to is named Talon.

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Talon Stradley: My name is Talon Stradley, I am a podcaster and audio engineering student based out of Long Beach, California. So my day-to-day currently, I'm in my last semester of college, so my day is kind of living the life of the college student, you know? So all the rest of my time is filled with uh projects, homework or the every now and then the ability to relax and (laughs) breathe for a moment.

Ben: Got it. Pretend you're explaining r/place to someone who has no idea what it is. How would you describe it?

[RETRO 8-BIT VIDEO GAME MUSIC FADES IN]

Talon: So picture, you have a I mean, just a massive, massive white canvas, right, like on like the floor of a basketball court. So you're looking down on just this big white thing and you just have a little eyedropper and you can fill that eyedropper with whatever color you want, right? So you can do purple, blue, red, green, whatever. And up from the rafters, you can kind of drop it and then you're dropping one little, one little splotch of color onto a single spot on this massive canvas, and you can only do that once every five minutes. So, you’re kind of start collaborating, you meet with other people you have, you know, communities and teams and organizations, and soon you get a bunch of people all adding their own pixels, right, their own little drops to this massive canvas that then can become these gigantic pieces of art. Or you might need to defend from someone who is trying to put a different color or a different piece of art where yours is. And so it kind of becomes this expansive, you know, place that forces you to kind of build these communities and these, these kinships.

[MUSIC FADES OUT]

Ben: What do you think is interesting about it?

Talon: I think the kind of powers that come into play, especially as it goes on, right, you get these larger and larger groups, you get people kind of trying to accomplish different things, all at the same time. So a massive rendition of the original Star Wars poster, you know, that was a detailed, it was, you know, pixels everywhere took a lot of coordination. That was awesome.

Other things that are there are like flags that are very simple repeating thing, right? Just like three bands of straight color, very easy to leap on to very easy to replicate. And they are kind of trying to accomplish something else, they're expanding, they're expanding fast, you know, so you kind of have these different players. And then in between that all you have these smaller groups that are just trying to get their little bit of art. And I think the, the give and take between all of that between bots, between, you know, these streamers that come in and just destroy things or put their own whatever, you know, and kind of everyone fighting for their piece of the puzzle in their own distinct ways, I think that interplay is the most interesting thing to me about place.

Ben: What are the streamers doing? They're basically like saying to all of their followers, like, you guys gotta jump in over here in this part of the place and like, we're all gonna place a bunch of pixels that create this kind of picture.

Talon: Yeah, that's exactly right. So with kind of the more like traditional, if you will, route right, you have subreddits on Reddit and those communities will gather together and oftentimes they'll gather in discord for a little bit more real time communication. But that's still kind of slow because you're doing messages, you're doing this, you're doing that.

So streamers kind of have the ability of like they're talking to their audience. One, they're a single figurehead, right? So you don't have any like other splinter groups going off. It is like everyone is there clearly listening to this one person, this one streamer, and they're able to give instructions in real time, right? So they can say, “All right, everyone go place it now,” and they can have their thousands or in some cases, hundreds of thousands of viewers go and do that at the same time, you know, they can say, “Hey, don't place anything, save your pixels at 12:35, we're going to blast it.” And so that allows them very easily to take over areas.

I think a lot of streamers, uh, they had a reputation of, you know, more destroying instead of creating because they were kind of coming in and planting their stuff over, you know, this detailed work that took up, you know, hours and hours and tons of coordination to create.

Ben: That's so interesting. It reminds me of tagging, like it reminds me of spray painting where like, they're kind of like—

Talon: Yeah.

Ben: This culture pops up, of like, rules of the road and like what's deemed as like, cool and good and what's deemed as like, not cool and bad.

What are griefers? You wrote in your email to me, you said that you were fighting off streamers, griefers and others who are out to destroy art. What does that mean?

Talon: So griefers, that's essentially a term of these people who just kind of come in and just destroy, right? The first time I heard that particular term was like in relation to Minecraft, right? You might have a Minecraft server, you have your nice block house that you made. It's great. You go to sleep, you wake up and you find out that somebody had come and just blown it all up with TNT, right? So it's this idea of kind of you're taking the time to make something. You have this thing that is being made, but there's somebody out there. There's this griefer that is just going around and destroying whatever they can, just for the fun of it. You know, it's kind of like a troll, but a little bit more focused and destructive in an artistic sense.

Okay, this is my personal favorite, uh throughout the entirety of r/place. While all of this is going on, while there's tons of different communities having their own versions of this story.

[MUSIC: “O CANADA"]

If you look over at the Canadian flag, just this relatively small Canadian flag, they just cannot get the leaf right. They can't get the leaf right, like the leaf always looks awful. It looks atrocious. It looks like they have no idea what a maple leaf looks like, and they were kind of the target of a lot of, you know, in fun, just, you know, throughout, but a lot of teasing of, you know, “Hey, look at Canada, they don't even know their own flag. They can't even get this right.”

And of course, what was happening is, especially as that became a meme and became more well-known, like people would purposely go there and place pixels to disrupt any plans the Canadians had to like, fix their leaf. Um, at one point, Germany made a Germany colored leaf on their own flag just to say, “Hey, look how easy it is, we did it.” And meanwhile, poor Canada is sitting there just being attacked by anyone and everyone just trying to form their own little flag.

["O CANADA" FADES OUT]

Uh, there's at least one screenshot out there where they had a decent looking maple leaf, but I think pretty much all the rest of the time it was just a red blob of a, of color.

Ben: So when you and I are talking, place is like done right like it's I don't think I can place a pixel anymore, can I?

Talon: Yeah, it's done, like you can't, you can't contribute any more art to it.

Ben: Tell me about this small community excited for an upcoming handheld gaming console. Tell me about that.

Talon: So the Playdate is this small yellow, you know, Gameboy looking kind of console, this gaming console that uh, the US company Panic is putting out. It's about the size of a post-it note, it's bright yellow and it has a crank on the side, you know, so you have this different kind of input system. It's very friendly, very inviting um, it has a low-resolution screen. It's only one bit so black, white, no grays. The preorders started last year, but it hasn't shipped yet due to, you know, various delays in the system. And so right now they're just getting ready to ship, probably in the next couple of weeks, so everyone is just kind of very excited about this little thing and kind of, you know, lots of undirected hype in the Discord, if you will.

Ben: Is Playdate on there?

Talon: Playdate is on there. Yeah, we did succeed.

Ben: And tell me more about what it took to succeed in and who you fought off to succeed.

Talon: It was crazy. We started just trying to find any spot right, we’re a small group only really about like ten people maybe which is very hard to get your footing because these larger groups run you over, and if someone has more people than you, it doesn't matter if you're maintaining your art, it's gonna get destroyed.

Ben: When you describe ten people doing this, I would assume your approach is not to make a picture that is literally 10 pixels only…

Talon: Yes

Ben: But that it's larger than that. And the trickiness is you can place a pixel every five minutes, so you can, so all ten of you, you know, every five minutes can place new pixels. But if you start getting painted over by other groups and other users, you have to kind of defend your territory, right? So it gets tricky to like, expand when you're, you know, you're, you're you're you're likely fighting off something else, right?
Talon: Yeah, that's exactly it. So really, our challenge isn't so much of like fighting off someone or taking this territory or playing that kind of game, but it's almost just more like diplomatic, small fit in where we can, you know, so our, our main goal was to find a place that wasn't claimed by someone else that wasn't near highly contentious area somewhere that we could build kind of unnoticed where if there was a little something, you know, it might get overdrawn, but no huge community of like, you know, a hundred thousand redditors is going to come to try to defend it. So that kind of became the largest challenge.

Ben: Why do you think you succeeded?

Talon: Persistence. Just pure persistence (laughs). We, like I said, we did that, we got ran over, people are pretty dejected.

Ben: Are you, are you getting ready for like next year already? When do you think they're going to do it again? What’s your…?

Talon: If I was Reddit, I would wait another five years. I think r/place is great. It's awesome. I think it would get really exhausting and old if it was done every year. Um, so keep it up, you know, do your other experiments try to find something else that people like. But I would say, you know, every five years, bring it back and let community make what they will.

Ben: Talon, thank you very much for chatting with me.

Talon: Thank you Ben. It was a pleasure. It's been great to recount this.

Amory: More beautiful, silly, awful, internet madness, in a minute.

[SPONSOR BREAK]

Amory: So Ben, you talked to Talon, which is a very cool name by the way.

Ben: (Imitates a bird call) CAW!

Amory: (Laughs) I talked to someone named Shaun who also had a personal story about fighting for his right to T-Rex. Do you know anything about this story from a listener?

Ben: All I really know is that it involved the offline game, the offline T-Rex game. You know?

Amory: No (laughs).

Ben: You've never played that game. When you go offline, when like, Chrome goes down?

Amory: This is the T-rex that pops up, when, yeah, when you don't have internet.

Ben: Yeah! It's a game.

Amory: No, it's not a game (laughs)

Ben: You've never played the game when you go down offline.

Amory: It just pops up! It's just a T-rex!

Ben: No, dude, it's a game! It is a game that you can play.

Amory: How does one play the T-rex game?

Ben: You hit spacebar and the T-Rex sets off runnin'. You gotta jump over the cactus. You gotta watch out for the pterodactyls. You've never played this?!

Amory: This, this is mind boggling (laughs). Should I like, kill my wi-fi right now to try to make the T-Rex pop up?

Ben: I don't think it ha—well, no, I guess it does. Yeah. If you kill your Wi-Fi, it should actually work.

Amory: Okay.

Ben: Does it work?

Amory: Um...

Ben: Does it show you offline?

Amory: I mean, is this, is this worth this tangent? Let me just do it for a second. Trying to connect.

Ben: I cannot believe you've never played this game.

Amory: Show me the dino! Okay, I'm hitting the spacebar. Ahhhh! He jumped, he's runnin’, he's runnin, into a cactus (gasps).

Ben: You have to jump over them.

Amory: Well, I didn't know. How do you do that, you hit the spacebar again?

Ben: Come on, Amory, it's your basic platform.

Amory: All right. But, but in the future, do I hit the spacebar again?

Ben: Yeah, you hit the spacebar. I think the up button works too.

Amory: Wow. Today I learned, and I hope I'm not alone (laughs).

Amory: Yes, it's a real game. (Imitating Ben) “Guys! It's a game! It’s a…”

Ben: Any time you see me offline, this is what I'm doing.

Amory: Well, someone named Shaun had a story that he pitched to us.

Ben: Mhm.

Amory: And we thought it was worth telling. There's agony and ecstasy involved, and it all has to do with protecting this little internet dino from...K-pop fans.

Shaun: At the very beginning, you know, there's probably twenty of us, thirty of us, um and it's very Wild West, right? We're trying to put our pixels, but there's people, you know, north and south and east and west of us that are coming into our box. And so we're trying to delete their pixels. So it becomes this like push and pull of like, you almost have to annoy everyone around you enough that they're going to say, okay, well, I'm not going to waste my time over in that black box because everything I do is getting undone. And and so that's where it started kind of snowballing into this bigger like tension of people around us.

Amory: Most of the tension ended up being with one group in particular. 

Shaun: Yes, there’s a fandom for a K-pop group called LOONA that I had never heard of. But now I know.

[MUSIC: “STAR” BY LOONA]

Shaun: There was this empty spot about 10 pixels tall below us and we wanted to move down into there. And then we were battling with people just putting white pixels and we didn't know who they were, and they were very fast. Like clearly, they had lots of people at the same time doing it. And this agreement gets made between LOONA and somebody from our community, and the agreement was they won't touch our dinosaur, but our dinosaur has to wear a cape and hold a light stick. And one person said, “OK, that's fine,” and then told all of our Discord. And that was a big, big decision. You know, it kind of compromises the design integrity of what we're going for (laughs).

And so everyone was not happy about it, but we rolled with it because we couldn't, you know, there are probably 50 of us at the time, and on that evening we couldn't fight the LOONA people, they had hundreds of them.

Amory: So what's the significance of the cape and the light stick? Clearly, I'm out of the loop on LOONA as well.

Shaun: Don't worry, I was too. I came to learn that I guess they sell specific capes that their fans will wear to shows, and they sold his merch and then the light sticks. I think each, I think there's twelve members of LOONA, but I believe each member of the band has their own custom made light stick that they like, hold up and, you know, do cool stuff with. And so the cape and lights sticks like just these iconic symbols for LOONA.

Amory: OK, so and this was the sort of thing where resistance was futile because there was just too many of them. Exactly. To fight the cape and the light stick.

Shaun: Essentially, yes. And so people were unhappy about it, but we just kind of side and rolled with it for a day. So people were frustrating. And then, of course, you can't actually control everyone on the internet. So some of our members were going in and deleting what LOONA was doing. So we had to like, say, “Hey, please stop. We have an agreement with them. Please stop.”

Amory: Oh, wow.

Shaun: And so they, the LOONA community, had people in our discord, and we had some people in there in their chat as well. So we had like diplomats, if you will, and everyone was just arguing and I was looking at my phone and I didn't know what was going on. And I asked LOONA, “Hey, can we just like we kept the cape in the light stick for two days? Can we just get rid of them so we can finish our design?” And they were like, “Absolutely not.”

And so our side was getting really mad and saying, “That's not fair. You're being bullies. You know, this is our design." And they said, “Well, if you delete it, then fine, we're going to take over your, your space.”

And so it was just this like, you know, it's low stakes because it's pixel art, right? But it felt really high stakes.

Amory: So what ultimately happened? How did it get resolved?

Shaun: Yeah, so I created a private chat. I asked for two representatives from LOONA, two from our side. So I was one of them. And then we had a neighbor that was right next to us in the coordinate, you know, on the canvas. And he had just been like one guy defending us and we were defending him. And so we said, “Well, you're a neutral third party, will you come in as well?”

Amory: (Laughs)

Shaun: So we had a five person private chat to negotiate.

Amory: Mmhm!

Shaun: And so that, that lasted about two hours. It was a long conversation.

Amory: Two hours!

Shaun: Yeah.

Amory: Wow.

Shaun: Yeah.

Amory: Okay, and and and what happened?

Shaun: So some insults were hurled, to start with.

Amory: Oh no.

Shaun: And that was not good. Not not by me. I was really trying to keep it calm. And, you know, we were saying, “OK, how do we move forward? Here's what we would like to do. We would like to remove the cape and the light sticks so we can finish our design, but will defend you if someone comes after your art and you'll defend us.”

And they said no to that. They said “No. If we we, you have to keep the cape in the lights. It gets too important.”

And so we couldn't really say, OK, well, then no deal, we're just going to delete it because they would have come and erased us, right? They had tons of people and we did not. So it started with arguing and then it started with, “Let's come to an agreement on three options.”

And the biggest issue was that no one in our community knew who agreed with LOONA earlier that we will do the cape in the light stick. It wasn't a moderator. No one knew who it was, but they kept saying, “You have to hold up your end of the deal. You made this deal,” and we kept saying we did not. We did not, as a community, agree to this. One person did, and we said, “OK, fine.”

So what I was trying to do with the negotiation was, can we come up with two or three options that we all think are fine and put it to a vote.

Amory: Can you summarize what the options were?

Shaun: I can. Option number one: keep everything as is. Option number two: keep just the light stick. Option number three: keep just the cape. Option number four:  dissolve the current pact.

Amory: Dissolve the current pact and wage full on war that we will inevitably lose (laughs).

Shaun: Yes, and I was very, I was very sure that people, because it's Reddit right, that people were going to choose number four. But we chose number two pretty overwhelmingly. That was the light stick.

Amory: Wow. And so the LOONA Group agreed to this.

Shaun: The LOONA Group agreed. And right after that, I don't know if you you know about this from place, but there was a, a streamer. I think he's French-Canadian, who got like his millions of followers on Twitch to paint a big purple swath across the entire canvas. And quite literally, three minutes after we came to this agreement, the dinosaur and LOONA got painted purple.

Amory: Oh no!

Shaun: But we fixed it together, so they helped fix us. We helped fix them.

Amory: Ah! Okay, so I'm going to, I'm about to open something that I haven't opened yet that I haven't looked at yet, which is the final...not entirely true. I have seen the final place canvas, but I haven't looked at it since knowing about the dino. So, I'm opening it now to try to see if I can find where the dino is and just looking at this. Oh my God, this is like Where's Waldo on steroids.

Shaun: He's very tiny.

Amory: All right, give me, give me a region. Northeast, southwest?

Shaun: Kind of the central northwest.

Amory: Yeah, yeah, I'm going to need some landmarks here. Oh, I found him. I found him!

[VIDEO GAME POWER UP SOUND EFFECT] 

Amory: Oh, this is incredible. You know, it's incredible about this is that he's so tiny.

Shaun: He's so tiny.

Amory: And there’s so much drama over. I couldn't even I wouldn't even know, how to how to describe the fraction that this dinosaur is of the whole large canvas.

Shaun: You know, it's interesting, you know, somewhat tense, dramatic story of negotiations between two very different groups over something that's ultimately silly.

But I think that's what's fascinating about Reddit, it brings humans together around things that you would never think about.

Ben: Alright, that was Shaun.

Amory: And Talon.

Ben: And we want to thank them for bringing us their stories. By the way, Talon is a podcaster in their own right.

Amory: Wonderful.

Ben: And we will drop a link to Talon’s podcast action in the shownotes.

Amory: And this episode was produced by Megan Cattel and Dean Russell. And mix and sound design by Matt Reed.

Ben: Alright. We will talk to you next week.

Amory: (Bird call) Caw-caw!

Megan Cattel Twitter Freelance digital producer, WBUR Podcasts
Megan Cattel is a freelance digital producer for WBUR Podcasts.

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Ben Brock Johnson Twitter Executive Producer, Podcasts
Ben Brock Johnson is the executive producer of podcasts at WBUR and co-host of the podcast Endless Thread.

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Amory Sivertson Twitter Senior Producer, Podcasts
Amory Sivertson is a senior producer for podcasts and the co-host of Endless Thread.

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Dean Russell Twitter Producer, WBUR Podcasts
Dean Russell is a producer for WBUR Podcasts.

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