On July 21 2023, Reddit accounts asked others to explain what “the deal” was with subreddit r/place in a post to the self-explanatory subreddit r/OutOfTheLoop:
An attached post explained that mentions of r/place appeared on several unrelated subreddits, and it read in part:
I’m a bit out of the loop on this one [r/place]. I’ve never heard of the subreddit until a few days ago, and I’m still not entirely sure what it even is. And now it seems like you can go on any subreddit it and someone [on any subreddit] made a post about r/place. I know it had a big return recently, but I don’t understand why it’s this significant. Heck, even the Reddit app changed their icon to reflect the return of r/place. I’m just wondering why it’s so significant.
On July 21 2023, the most popular post published in Reddit in the last 24 hours was to r/place:
So what is r/place, and what was going on with it on July 21 2023?
A Very Brief History of Reddit’s r/place
Wikipedia maintained a fairly comprehensive entry on Reddit’s r/place, and a short summary at the beginning explained what it was and how it came to be:
r/place is a collaborative project and social experiment hosted on the social networking site Reddit. Originally launched on April Fools’ Day 2017, it has since been repeated again on April Fools’ Day 2022, and is taking place for a third time on July 20, 2023.
The 2017 experiment involved an online canvas located at a subreddit called r/place. Registered users could edit the canvas by changing the color of a single pixel with a replacement from a 16-color palette. After each pixel was placed, a timer prevented the user from placing any more pixels for a period of time varying from 5 to 20 minutes (depending on whether the user had verified their email address). The idea of the experiment was conceived by Josh Wardle. It was ended by Reddit administrators about 72 hours after its creation, on 3 April 2017. Over a million users edited the canvas, placing a total of approximately 16 million pixels, and, at the time the experiment was ended, over 90,000 users were actively viewing or editing the canvas. The experiment was commended for its representation of the culture of Reddit’s online communities, and of Internet culture as a whole.
In short, r/place was a subreddit, a “collaborative project,” and a “social experiment,” where registered Reddit users could “place” a single pixel per interval. The interval was apparently between five and 20 minutes, capping a user’s number of pixels at between 72 and 288 in a 24-hour period.
In October 2020, r/place was the subject of a paper published in the Conference Companion Publication of the 2020 on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing, “Understanding Community-Level Conflicts Through Reddit r/place” [PDF]. An abstract described the aims of its authors’ research into r/place:
Conflicts between communities in social-networking sites can degrade quality of communication and discourage participation, so understanding conflict dynamics can aid community management. However, studying inter-community conflict is challenging due to the open-ended nature of communication between communities. We study r/place, a 3-day pseudo-experiment on Reddit that provides an opportunity to observe inter-community conflict in a zero-sum environment. We quantify conflicts on r/place, identifying users and communities involved. We find that conflicts on r/place involve multiple communities on both the winning and losing side, and that communities get involved in conflicts due to geographic proximity on the canvas and due to existing political or cultural conflicts. Examining conflict winners reveals that total number of users is more important than highly-active users. Our results have implications for mitigating negative inter-community conflict on social-networking sites.
Reddit’s API Protests in 2023
Reddit is serious about ending the blackout API protests that have kneecapped the platform since last month.
Most subreddits have since reopened amid threats from the company to remove protesting communities’ mods. But, some have continued to stay private, locking visitors out and blocking users from posting. And Reddit is making good on those threats.
But, just because the original blackout protests are being shut down, that doesn’t mean that Redditors are done voicing their displeasure with the company. For example, according to Reddark, members of r/aww and r/pics, two subreddits with more than 30 million users each, continue with a new protest action: Filling up the subreddits with solely posts of photos of comedian John Oliver. Other Redditors have taken their protest message to the relaunched open pixel art canvas at r/Place.
These Reddit protests are in response to recent decisions made by the company, led by its CEO Steve Huffman. The focus of the protest is Reddit’s new paid API plans, which priced-out many popular third-party apps, forcing them to shut down.
On June 23 2023, the New York Times‘ “Reddit’s Chief Says He Wants It to ‘Grow Up.’ Will Its Community Let It?” covered ongoing conflict between Reddit and its users. After quoting one of Reddit’s protesting moderators, the outlet explained why Reddit users were uniquely positioned to challenge the site’s owners and paid staff:
But [a June 2023] uprising at Reddit stands out because it shows the outsize power of the site’s community. The day after moderators closed down hundreds of Reddit forums, users spent 16 percent less time on the site, [based on] to estimates from Similarweb, an analytics company.
“Reddit is basically entirely community led,” said Adrian Horning, a Reddit user and data scientist who built a bot that “scrapes” the site’s data as a response to the fee changes. “The power regular users have is just inherent in the platform.”
In an interview on [in June 2023], [Reddit CEO Steve] Huffman said his goal had been to make Reddit better for newcomers and veteran users and to build a lasting business … Mr. Huffman and Alexis Ohanian founded Reddit in 2005 as a site with a countercultural attitude toward the internet and its advertising-based economy. Reddit espoused free speech at any cost, zero ads and an insular culture that laid a foundation for Web 2.0’s meme culture.
Reddit’s chief executive officer Steve Huffman (u/spez) was quoted at the end of the piece:
“For better or for worse, this is a very uniquely Reddit moment,” he said. “This could only happen on Reddit.”
In 2011, Swartz was accused of using an MIT computer system to download numerous academic articles from the online archive JSTOR. JSTOR decided not to pursue charges, and asked the government not to prosecute, but Swartz was indicted by federal prosecutors for 13 felony charges. Prosecutors refused all settlement offers that did not include jail time, and required Swartz to plead guilty to felony charges.
The case was pending when Swartz died at age 26 in January 2013. Concerns that the charges were excessive have led to a Congressional investigation of the way prosecutors handled the case. Since then, Swartz’s case has inspired proposed amendments to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act that would remove the “dangerously broad criminalization of online activity,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
On June 28 2023, technology news site techcrunch.com quantified a dip in participation by Reddit users as the protests continued.
Reddit’s API Protests and r/place
As indicated above, r/place was inherently transient in nature, with millions of accounts each placing one pixel on a shared canvas in time-restricted interviews.
On Wikipedia, the aforementioned r/place entry explained what initially took place during the July 2023 re-emergence of the subreddit:
On July 19, 2023, Reddit announced it would bring back r/place the following day [July 20 2023], a break from the pattern of having it active on April 1 [prior to 2023]. The announcement was met with negative responses from users, who criticized Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, also known by his Reddit username “spez”, in the wake of a controversy regarding access to Reddit’s application programming interface. On the first day, “fuck spez” was written many times on the canvas, and German users wrote that “u/spez is a son of a bitch” (u/spez ist ein Hurensohn) on top of the German flag. Users also drew a guillotine decapitating u/spez, like the aristocracy during the French Revolution.
Wikipedia detailed how Reddit “announced” the return of r/place on July 19 2023. On that date, technology news site The Verge published “Reddit is bringing back r/Place at perhaps the worst possible time”:
Reddit is bringing back r/Place — a collaborative project where individual users can edit pixels on a giant canvas — at a time when users are still furious over things like Reddit’s API pricing that forced beloved third-party apps to shut down, the company’s decision to remove chat history from before 2023 with hardly any warning, and its recent announcement that it would be sunsetting the current system to give Reddit Gold. The 2023 version of r/Place kicks off on Thursday, July 20th .
As you might expect, users are already using the announcement post to air their grievances toward the company. The current top comment in reply to the post just says “fuck u/spez” (“spez” is CEO Steve Huffman’s Reddit username), and many of the other comments say only “API,” so I wouldn’t be surprised to see that sentiment show up in some way on this year’s r/Place canvas.
On July 20 2023, r/place featured a time-lapse of the canvas on that day:
Wikipedia also mentioned the appearance of a guillotine on r/place, as part of a coordinated protest. The second most popular post on r/place on July 21 2023 (“It was beautiful”) captured the guillotine:
On July 20 2023, Reddit elected to re-open r/place for the third time on July 20 2023. Previously, r/place was active on April 1 2017 and April 1 2022. The third activation of r/place occurred against the backdrop of ongoing Reddit protests, due to the platform’s decision to introduce high monthly fees for access to Reddit’s application programming interface, or API. Among notable collaborative r/place efforts was a detailed guillotine with chief executive officer Steve Huffman’s username (u/spez) on it, alongside Reddit’s “Snoo” mascot.
Update, 7/21/2023, 2:33 PM: This article has been updated with details about Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz. -bb