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What Happens When 1 Million People Collaborate On One Work Of Art

Infighting, creative genius, and a whole lot of dicks.

What Happens When 1 Million People Collaborate On One Work Of Art
[Screenshots: Reddit]

The internet has enabled new forms of artist production once unimaginable—like working with thousands of sometimes-anonymous collaborators from all over the world. Earlier this month, over 1 million internet denizens came together to build an elaborate, fantastic 8-bit tableau of a digital art piece. They built it pixel by pixel, working both with and at times against each other, over a 72-hour period. And it all played out on Reddit, of all places.


[Screenshot: Reddit]
The subreddit, called Place, launched on April Fool’s Day; it has since ended, but the blog sudoscript documented the whole three-day ordeal. The creators of Place, who like all Reddit users are anonymous, set up what was essentially a digital blank canvas and palette. The rules allowed for each user to choose one pixel from 16 colors and place it anywhere on the page. Users could continue placing pixels, but they had to wait five or 10 minutes in between each one. In the meantime, other users could build upon your pixels to develop characters or scenes—or they could destroy it in service of their own. Reddit tells Co.Design that users placed more than 16 million tiles in all.

In its first iteration, Place had no structure whatsoever, which led users to place pixels willy-nilly with no sense of direction. The result was chaos—to build anything meaningful would take forever. So the creators added a grid overlay to the canvas, allowing users to sketch out an idea, so to speak, and giving others a framework inside of which to work. Here’s a rather crude example, with infantile Reddit humor on full display:

See the full documentation here. [Screenshot: Sudoscript]
When working en masse, Reddit users could place pixels faster, and new objects emerged on the page. This time lapse few shows both the tremendous scope of the project and the incredible level of detail involved in each individual piece.

As the users’ understanding of the tools and manipulation of the process became more sophisticated, so too did the subjects. Spot the Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, intricate hearts and rainbow banners, the American flag, suspect-looking smiley faces, and an impressively long scroll of text that is apparently a rendering of a Star Wars prequel meme.

See the full documentation here. [Time lapse: Sudoscript]
The end result is incredible. Yet, as the sudoscript piece points out, this wasn’t a heartwarming, collaborative effort to achieve common ends. In fact, there were factions and in-fighting that led some groups to virtually paint over the pixels of another group. There was a group called the Bluegousie, for example, that dedicated itself to forming a blue mass that crept up the page, either swallowing or granting mercy to the other tediously-created artworks in its path. At one point, 4chan caught wind of the project and began to swiftly create a black pixelated void in the center of the canvas—just to throw an indiscriminate wrench in the process, as 4chan is wont to do.

Just watching the time-lapse, you’re unaware that you are watching creation and destruction, with enemy factions battling for territory across pixelated lines. With that knowledge, though, it’s a little bit like viewing a zoomed-out view of the internet at work, with anonymous users interacting, collaborating, and building on each other’s ideas in the best case scenario; in the worst, users isolate themselves into siloed groups, feed destructive habits, and manipulate the openness of the internet to reek havoc on each other. Either way, both scenarios yielded beautiful work.

In that sense, other collaborative projects could learn from this one: It worked well to have a sense of tension, with people working with each other and against each other, to challenge the best concepts to rise to the surface and remain there. Or maybe it’s a stretch to try to pull lessons on creativity from an anarchic Reddit experiment.

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.