Reddit’s Circuit of Culture—Through the Lens of R/Place
Reddit is one of the most popular sites on the web, and chances are you already use it on the regular or has a friend who does. This is not speculation: Reddit is the 17th-most-visited website in the world and 7th most-visited website in the US.
Reddit is a social news aggregation, discussion, and content rating website all in one. Reddit is made up of smaller communities called “subreddits”. Each “subreddit” is basically a webpage where all the contents are about a specific topic. If you have an interest, you will probably find a subreddit dedicated to that interest, no matter how obscure that topic in your head is. Don’t believe me? Just to list a few strangely specific subreddits: birds with arms, bread stapled to trees, screaming fish, and adorable roombas. If you have an obscure interest and can’t find a subreddit for it, no problem: you can just create one yourself!
Now that you know how reddit and subreddits work, what can you actually do on reddit? As a user, you are able to submit links, images, videos, etc as a “post”. Each post is then viewable to anyone visiting that subreddit, and everyone votes up or down on that post. If a post gets a lot of upvotes, then reddit shows it to more visitors. If not, the post will “die”, which is to say the post eventually is shown to no one. If a post gets enough upvotes (usually at least in the thousands), then it might even be shown on the front page! If you are worried that this just means all the shown posts are old content where people keep upvoting, reddit has a secret algorithm that weights in the time of upload when deciding which posts to show. If a post is consistently upvoted, it will stay on top of a user’s page for awhile, but since every user can only vote on a post once, eventually the number of user who can upvote it approaches 0, and the post slowly goes down on the page. This is so that new posts gets a chance to shine, and it is working pretty well considering you can log in to reddit every day and the content will always be fresh new.
In order to analyze such a hugely influential and content rich website through the different aspects of the circuit of culture, it won’t do to just look at the website itself (and not nearly as fun). Therefore, I will focus on what I believe is a great demonstration of the reddit culture as a whole — the 2017 April Fools social experiment r/Place . I will first briefly explain r/Place, then in each of the following sections I will use examples from that event to highlight an aspect of the circuit of culture of reddit.
r/Place is the subreddit that hosted the 2017 April Fools social experiment. On this subreddit, not only can users post and vote on posts, there also exists a 1000*1000 canvas (1 million pixels in total) where every user can change the color of a single pixel every 5-20 min. No other context was given: no instructions or goals. Yet, over the course of 3 days, over 1 million users changed over 16 million pixels, sabotaging and cooperating, eventually painting a beautiful collage of pixel art representing a multitude of internet culture and groups.
On the Production aspect of the circuit of culture, reddit is among those apps and websites where the majority of content is produced by the user. In terms of r/Place, it is even more apparent. The canvas can be seen as a metaphor for reddit as a whole – essentially a blank canvas, but is made as beautiful (or as ugly) by the users contributing to it.
For the production to be entirely based on users has its positives and negatives. Reddit notoriously “sheltered” extremist views, racism, and discrimination in general by allowing the people who posts these content on the site — and that is by a very conscious decision in the website’s design. On the plus side, having this amount of freedom is what allowed the website to thrive as it promotes exactly what most users on the site like (which fortunately for everyone is usually memes and cute animal gifs).
In the case of r/Place, this effect is also present. In the beginning of r/Place, where people are all confused about what to do with such a massive white canvas, many individuals instinctively started doodling what most people probably expected: phallic symbols. And the most written phrase? Well…
However, on the very final state of the canvas, very few vulgar shapes remained. As subreddits began to work together, complex art emerged. Again, this mirrors reddit as a whole: as communities become more organized, rules are established and a common goal is made clear – to curate the best content of the specific topic of the subreddit’s choosing. On r/Place, this translates to the creation of the ultimate expression of art: Mona Lisa.
On the consumption aspect of the circuit of culture, reddit not only allows users to view the content on the site, it also allows users to vote on them as well as join in on discussions in the comment section. This means that consumption on reddit is, in a way, production. Every upvote contributes to a post’s popularity, no matter how miniscule. Similarly, every comment contributes to the discussion as well. Many even consider the interactivity of reddit and the engaging discussions in the comment section is the real reason reddit is as popular as it is.
In terms of r/place, this cannot be more true. Imagine yourself as a user of reddit, and on April Fools day of 2017, you stumbled upon this strange new subreddit with a canvas. Naturally, you look at it, taking part in the consumption aspect of this website. Then, as you are about to leave to browse other more interesting subreddits, you notice that you can also add your own pixel. And despite not having any pattern you want to make yourself or not having any amount of interest in any squabble ongoing on the canvas at all, you put down your pixel just for the heck of it. Maybe you spotted that beautiful rainbow expanding from the middle of the frame and wanted to contribute to something beautiful, or you saw the absolutely gigantic and ever expanding “blue corner” and wanted to be part of that conquest, or you just saw your country flag tarnished by a few out of place pixels and wanted to fix it up a little. Either way, your consumption of r/place has become production as well. This is why, despite every user only able to contribute a single pixel at a time, the end result can be so breathtaking.
Just like reddit itself, r/place entices a user who is consuming its content to also contribute to it, and this magical lure shapes the whole site into the beauty that it is, despite every user only able to contribute a tiny part of the whole.
The Identity aspect of reddit is very obvious: each subreddit has its own identity, and every user in that subreddit more or less subscribes to that identity. On the one side we have users of popular gaming subreddits, where the identity is basically “I am a fan of this game”. On the more ridiculous side, we have users of “r/trebuchetmemes” strongly identifying with the superiority of trebuchets as a siege engine, especially compared to the “inferior” catapult. Either way, to be a member of a subreddit is to be part of a group identity.
This fact is even more true on r/place, where all users from all subreddits come together. Despite the vastness of the canvas, if you look at the final result, it is very hard to find empty space that is not “claimed” by anyone. Every inch of space has been filled to the brim with patterns representing subreddits. If you took part in the 3 day social experiment, this probably seems natural to you. After all, to maintain any pixel art on such a contested space required the level of organization only possible through collaborations, and the unit of organization is very organically the subreddits. For such a once in a lifetime event, every subreddit want to be part of history. Therefore, people who are already likeminded and under one identity comes together and stake a claim on the canvas. That little pixel art that represents “them” and “their identity”, however small, is theirs to defend and be proud of. This strong sense of identity stemming from reddit itself is the reason why the final image is as packed full of details as it is.
The aspect of Representation in the circuit of culture is very important for such a visual website. Despite the general style of reddit being the same (rows of content, side bar for extra links, a title on top, etc), every subreddit can be highly customized in terms of visual representation. From the background image to the upvote button icons, sometimes visiting two different subreddits can give you the impression that they are two completely different websites.
This fact is obviously more true on r/place, where the main focus of the subreddit is literally a massive canvas of pixel arts. In the section above about Identity, I’ve already talked about how multiple groups try to represent their identities on the canvas through collaboration. And just like I’ve said before, r/place is a metaphor for reddit as a whole. The pattern that each group drew is unique, and so is every subreddit. Instead of looking at more r/place pixel arts, in this section I’ll just show you what a few of the subreddits look like. When you remember that their representation is a strong reflection of their identity, and you’ll begin to understand why so much effort is put into these pixel arts.
In terms of the Regulation aspect of the circuit of culture, reddit has a few rules. Considering that reddit makes the majority of their revenue from advertisement, this is not surprising. As a website that is based around user submitting content, the level of freedom of speech is important. On the other side, if unregulated, not only will parts of the user base would be displeased, the advertisers might be hesitant about placing ads and giving Reddit their ad money. Those rules that applies to the whole website are basically “don’t break any laws”. However, in every subreddit, there are rules that are established by the moderators of those subreddits. Most of the time, the rules prohibit “karma farming”, which basically means posting uninspiring content that has the sole aim of getting upvotes; rules banning bigotry is also common; off topic content is usually also banned, because without them most subreddits risk losing sight of their main focus and eventually losing their identity.
On r/place, the only listed community rules are: 1. Be creative, 2. Be civil, 3. Follow site wide rules, 4. Don’t post personal information. As one might think, these rules are either obvious or intentionally vague, which fits pretty well for a social experiment. After all, what fun would it be if the content on the canvas is gated by rules? However, despite the lack of rules, just like how community rules emerge for each subreddit, users on r/place usually band together to enforce some unspoken rules.
One major example of this is the pushing back of the Void. The Void is the name of the black smudge that threatens to devour all there is on the canvas, contributed mostly by griefers and trolls who would rather destroy than create. Fortunately, despite being large in number compared to most smaller communities, the Void is pushed back by the much larger user base of r/place who saw the expansion of the Void and decided to help out those whose art is being destroyed. Eventually, the expansion of the Void is pushed back and we are left with the beauty that is the final canvas.