The story of r/Place. As told by a foot soldier from r/Mexico (Part 2)
History does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes
A few hours before The End Of It All…
I heard a sentence that has since kept shining bright in my memory, like a lighthouse on a foggy night. It was the mumbling words of a fellow soldier in our Discord foxhole. Their text whisper, written amidst the endless shouting, rage and panic that characterized our channel by this point, gathered no attention from the hive mind of users who were gathered that morning, and was quickly forgotten as it floated away in the foam of comments.
But I noticed. And till this day, these words ring loud and true in my mind, like the echo of a gong on the top of a snowy mountain chain. For they were the most deep reflection I had ever read on how the Utopian promise of r/Place had taken a wrong turn, and had fallen into a ravine of madness…
Which translates roughly as:
“You all studied international politics in Ages of Empires with the cheats on, right?”
But once more, I’m getting ahead of myself. As the road to these bleak, last hours must first pass through sunnier gardens. For the desperation that almost oozed out of people’s mouths during these final moments did not grow without the fertile soil of excitement and optimism from which it originally rooted. And the state of Total War we were all submerged in did not ferment without the ingredients of hope, camaraderie, and peace first mixed in.
Thus, before we talk about the battles that would become commonplace throughout the Canvas, when countless armies would meet in the ravaged borders between artworks to share salvos of colorful pixels at each other for hours…
…we must first talk about one of the most inspiring and heart-melting examples of friendship I have ever seen on the Internet (which is saying something).
A Most Perfect Sunday Morning
One of the greatest frustrations of the Internet as an anthropological phenomenon is the simple fact that the world is round. Which means that while roughly half of the (online) world is asleep, the other half is busy breaking things up, and vice-versa.
This is particularly frustrating in the case of international live events such as r/Place, as it provokes on the newly awaken a sort of Time Traveler Syndrome. For as you boot up your computer, phone or crystal ball of choice, and read the news of what transpired overnight, you are forced into this sort of crash course of what feels like decades of human history you just slept through.
And that Sunday morning of April 2nd was no exception. For as the sphere of the Earth slowly turned and wave after waver of people read the news about what had happened in r/Place during Europe’s waking hours, we were greeted with the kind of tale that even a brain would find too absurd to use as the foundation for a fever dream. The sort of story one would expect a lazy fiction writer on a deadline to come up with.
In short, you simply couldn’t make this stuff up.
Truly, the gods of the Canvas seemed to enjoy a dark, almost juvenile sense of humor. For the German people who just the previous day had begun the not-insignificant task of willing their nation’s flag out of White Sprinkle space, had soon discovered that instead of struggling to grow the flag outwards, they could instead expand it along the flag lines, allowing them to claim vast amounts of wild lands at a fraction of the coordination costs.
Enter, the German Beam:
But before we talk about what happened next, I want you to take a moment to appreciate how every single pixel flash in this time-lapse was caused by a person (for now at least). A human somewhere in the world with their own mind, their own motivations, and their own circumstances. And each of them is only able to lay a single pixel once every 5 minutes. That’s a maximum of 12 pixels per person, per hour (not counting those lapses when the timer expanded to 10 minutes between shots, for reasons only the Gods understand).
Thus, if the r/Place experiment lasted for a total of 72 hours, this means that if you were somehow able to stay awake throughout it all, doing nothing else than laying pixels, this rectangle is the maximum you could have aspired to draw. Ever.
In reality, the contribution of every user to the Canvas was just a fraction of this. Meaning that, in the grand scheme of things, you affected nearly nothing. Even more so when you consider the fate of the vast majority of the pixels you once laid:
Nonetheless, tasked with the choice of what to do with their limited time on this digital world, given the option to place their pixels anywhere they wanted, for whatever reason they wished; each of these users, these soldiers, willingly chose to be in this particular battle. To be part of a greater whole, a greater effort, a greater mission.
But then! After a carnage that prolonged for hours, after a ruthless fight to secure even the tiniest of ground for their respective team, what seemed like the greatest, most ironic simulacra of a historical event on Reddit’s history, made a turn that surprised even the most sardonic among us:
And before you know it…
For a moment, the entirety of Reddit said: “Awwwwwwwwwww!”
This event, right here, became the talking point of The Second Day. For it’s hard to overstate how huge of an example this was for the rest of us. Diplomacy worked! It actually worked! Who knew?
Two very powerful, very engaged user bases had collided head on, battled for hours to claim the same land, and yet, had found a way to stop their conflict in peace, with each side happy with the final result. A compromise! On the Internet!
This was nothing short of an omen. A comet brightening the night sky during a time of reckoning. The template to follow. A sure sign of things to come.
For it had demonstrated that peace on The Canvas was not only possible, but likely. Conflict could be avoided, diplomacy could actually work.
A new era was at hand, and we had the entirety of our Sunday to figure it all out. The signs of camaraderie and good-will were all around us. For in people’s minds, a new, tantalizing thought had just materialized:
We can actually do this.
When The Void Stares Back
Weeks later, after the dust had settled, after the memories of The Great War were beginning to fade in people’s minds, a nameless user remarked, in a post I’ve long since lost from my browser history:
The Void was the best thing that happened to r/Place
This too, rang true to me. For nothing unites people into a common cause like the existence of a common Enemy. And on that Second Day, the battle-hardened veterans who had fought against, and along, BlueCorner, gathered their gear to fight once more.
It would not be a fight any of us would see finished. For The Void, as this initially small, black spot on the Canvas named itself, sought no compromises, no negotiations, and listened to no reasons. Unlike BlueCorner and the other Color Corner Empires from old, The Void consumed White Sprinkled space, Titans, Rainbows, and Artworks of any kind, shape or allegiance in equal measure. It showed no preference, no ideological leaning, no channels of communication.
For its purpose, its raison d’être, was not the consolidation of a new, grand empire, but the burning of the old ones. The members of The Void voiced their mission with their chins high and their words proud. They were Natural Selection in material form. Any artwork who survived them did so because they were strong, necessary in the final shape of the Canvas. But if the ancestral home of a smaller community got extinct from because of them, then that was their burden, and not The Void’s, to bear. Or so was its thinking.
Others better than me can tell how The Void was fought during this early time, how it was defeated by a coalition of forces, only to re-emerge hours later in another spot of the Canvas. Only now stronger, better organized, and more voracious than ever. Worst yet, it now seemed to have a plan…
Yet I am not the person to tell this story. For at this point in my tale, these events seemed to happen far, far away on the Canvas, completely unrelated from my new home in the relatively peaceful suburbs of r/mexico, west of the massive Mona Lisa frame, whose overwhelming scale almost seemed to shield you from the dangers of the outside world.
Almost, that is.
Thunders in the Distance
I’ll relate in better detail in the next, and final Part of this series, how it all began. How I wandered aimlessly as a stray gun-for-hire through the land of the Canvas until I eventually settled back on my homeland, both figuratively, and literally, of r/Mexico. How I witnessed the construction of this peaceful place, with alliances that raised and fell with neighboring communities, and tensions constantly threatening our tiny federation. But in the end, how in our own, flawed way, we held on to each other and our allies like a family. Together, against an increasingly hostile world around us.
And hostile it was. For even here, in our small corner of camaraderie, the talk about the latest Void raid, or other international incidents that were boiling in the horizon (such as that bizarre war against the OSU! logo), began to feel much like the news on late night TV. As worrying, unfortunate events you learned about, but at the same time, were not things you could do much about, given all the day-to-day issues you already had to deal with back home. We may be small, but we were not idle. And so the my scope of the events that were now shaking the Canvas seemed to get smaller and smaller as my life as a pixel farmer dragged on.
Yet the storm, while still far in the distance, kept flashing in our night, and the growl of thunders, more and more frequent, kept shattering our comfortable countryside silence, reminding us of the bad things far away. The things we were not yet ready to face.
For as the dawn of the Second Day approached, it was undeniable that the warm, soft winds of the morning were changing course. And the air was now loaded with the smell of rain, of conflict. Three dark clouds in particular, highlight in my mind as the worries that accompanied us as we went to bed that Second night. The things we may be forced to learn a crash course about by the time daybreak arrived.
The Three Thunders
It may not seem like much, but by midday of the Second Day, the sheer amount of banners around the Canvas felt like a parade of nuclear missiles at Moscow’s Red Square.
Before the emergence of these banners, only the most recognizable communities had any chance of coordinating thousands of followers, such as the aforementioned Pokemon or the national flags, whose centers of communication were easy to find, and had little redundancy. But for the rest of the more niche groups, just knowing where to look for the others who were organizing themselves into a common task was half the battle. After all, a small but highly coordinated community was much more deadly in its attacks, and successful at its defense, than a large but decentralized one. And thus, The Banner became a top priority for many, allowing them to quickly draft hundreds of onlookers into ready-to-march soldiers, and allowed them to synchronize chat rooms and Discord channels into a single, coherent whole. Indeed, a terrifying sight to see.
To top it all off, r/Place was gaining more and more visibility not only on Reddit, but on the Internet in general, causing a gradual but unstoppable swell in the ranks for even the smallest of communities. For when even the most niche of places realizes that they aren’t so small anymore, the once crazy ideas about invading new lands stop sounding so crazy after all…
Armies of the Script
As my own boss can tell you, fighting one pixel at a time along thousands of strangers online in the search of dominance and immortality in a massive online experiment from an aggregator website; does not mix well with your 9–5 office hours, or your work, or your weekend plans in general.
Enter, The Bots. Unwieldy, yet deadly weapons of war that made their debut during the Second Day. First as a curiosity or maintenance tool, but soon, as an indispensable part of any successful community. Or for that matter, of any successful invader.
And just like with actual mechanized warfare, access to these weapons was not distributed in a fair way. For not only did you needed users with high levels of expertise in scripts and programming I won’t even try to explain; you also needed an actual army of alternate Reddit accounts for your bots to use. And given how any account made after April 1st was unable to place pixels on the Canvas (to stop from people just mass-producing them after the fact), whoever happened to have more of these accounts, effectively controlled the universe.
And lastly, of course…
Was the constant hiss of thunder by a certain group that placed nothing else than black pixels. And who were now on the move.