What does the Reddit Button say about you?

This article appeared on the TouchVision website May 8th, 2015. I am reuploading it today because I am about to publish an article on Forbes where I reference this material. This particular post was also picked up by PBS Digital, and mentioned in their video about the subject

What can a meaningless Button on the Internet tell us about society? A lot, actually.

Since April 1, denizens of the online community Reddit have been embroiled in a heated debate over a game involving a simple Button with a timer next to it. The one rule in this game? You can push the Button only once, and only if you created your account before April 1.

To push, when to push or not to ever push the Button is the question, and it turns out, people have very strong opinions on the matter. Over the past month, the mysterious Button has inspired distinctive factions based on colors, philosophies and religions, as well as data tools, art, poetry, comics, merchandise and even graduate school theses. One user named Psychotic Whispers said in an interview the Button is God. It’s become a long-running, role-playing exercise to many. To others, it’s a discussion on the meaning of life. Whatever it is, more than 800,000 people have pushed the Button to date.

Originally launched on April Fool’s Day as a social experiment via a brief blog post, Reddit proper hasn’t commented on its invention since. Reddit Director of Outreach Ashley Dawkins explained in an email they are not commenting on purpose so as to not interfere with the experiment.

“We are unfortunately unable to address most questions directly because an important part of this project is our hands-off approach,” Dawkins said, “allowing the community to make of it what they will.”

What the community has willed is a war of colors, specifically over a colored circle (known as flair) that appears next to your username, documenting the time you pushed the Button. The color of your flair is your faction, your status symbol and a kind of personality and personal religion or philosophy indicator.

The flair colors are based on the wavelengths of light. Purple, the color you get when you press the Button in the first few seconds of its countdown, is both the most popular and most reviled flair in the community. Purples are called idiots and losers for wasting their one Button press, and they are stereotyped as impulsive and foolish, generally pitied by the other factions. Purples, however, describe themselves as living in the moment, without worry, and the life of the party.

Another popular faction is the Hitchhikers group, who are blues who became disenchanted by the Button after a Reddit server outage and pressed the Button at the 42-second mark as an act of protest. The number 42 is a reference to sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Greys are users who have not pressed the Button at all, and they generally think of themselves as the most intelligent. It’s worth nothing that each faction believes they are the most important and the best, naturally. One Reddit user named Nemin32 recently wrote, “The tyranny of the Button must stop! He grows from our clicks! Every day he nearly dies, but someone saves him! And what we get for this? We are being divided into classes speaking about how well we saved ‘Our great Leader.’”

Andre, a Russian programmer in his twenties who designed data tools related to the Button, thinks the color wars are part of human nature.

“People like to get tribal, they like to organize by colors and they like meaningless things on the Internet a lot,” said Andre, who goes by mncke on Reddit.   

“I have seen art work and music, I have seen stories, I have seen everything you could possibly imagine come from such a small amount of inspiration. And I think that serves as a testament to just how creative people can be with even the most minimal prompting” said Max Schlienger, who goes by Ramses the Pigeon on Reddit. Ramses is the founder and prophet of the Grey Hopeful, one of the Button’s religions.   

Eventually, there won’t be anyone left to push the Button, and the timer will run out. What will happen then?

“There are some who believe that when the counter times down, some horrible calamity will befall us, but I tend to believe that those who show their resolve will be rewarded in the after-timer,” said Ramses.

Those who follow the Grey Hopeful religion believe once the timer reaches zero, all users of the community who have not pressed will earn premium membership known as Reddit Gold.

“And so we of the Grey Hopeful believe that although we may be grey today, we will be gold tomorrow,” said Ramses. “And this gold may not come in the form of a trinket, but in something we carry within ourselves,” he added.

That something is the proof that one has willpower and resolve, as opposed to say, the Purples.

Not everyone welcomes the end times of the Button. The Knights of the Button is a faction that strives to keep the timer running as long as possible, by pressing the Button only when the timer gets low. Andre is one of the leaders of these Knights and one of the Button-related tools he has built monitors and protects the Button.

“I had an idea to build an app that would allow people to coordinate their clicks, to spend them in the most efficient way, to prolong the Button’s life,” Andre said.

“I like solving problems, and the problem of pushing the Button to the limit, of making it live for as long a time as possible, is a very interesting problem to me.”

Andre and the Knights are constantly at war with other factions, including various Assassin factions like the aptly named Assassins of the Button. This particular faction seeks to directly undermine the Knights’ efforts in various ways, like pretending to be a Knight and then when their time comes to press the Button, forgoing their pledged responsibility.

“The assassins [also] put up Reddit posts that trick new users into clicking the Button inefficiently,” Andre said.

Redditor liminalsoup, who created the Assassins of the Button, explained in a series of private messages that he created the faction because as “a writer,” he knows “every good story needs a villain.”

All anti-Button factions want the Button to reach zero as soon as possible. There’s even a Button hate group called “No Coloreds,” who call those with flair other than grey “the rainbow menace.”

Psychologists who have weighed in on the Button say it is an experiment in impulse control, addiction, instant and delayed gratification, and a means to deal with one’s own mortality. The Button has been compared to psychologist Tom Pyszczynski’s Terror Management Theory, which in a nutshell says humans invent meaning out of seemingly random things in order to push away their fear of death.

“Watching the clock and clicking the Button, on an unconscious level, becomes a way to keep something alive, to keep it ticking, to keep the heart beating,”  said John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University, in an interview withthe Washington Post. “Otherwise, the game and the illusive group of people playing it will vanish.”

Ramses the Pigeon has a less sinister take on the whole matter.

“Speaking as the so-called prophet of the Grey Hopeful, I think that it’s fun to look at Reddit and the Button as a parable for life in general,” said Ramses, who believes the Button will resonate in the cultural consciousness for years to come. “In the end, if you step back and look we can say that we are really the universe entertaining itself.”


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