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By Joshua Belhumeur

Inside “the button”, a Reddit Social Experiment

The internet has a unique ability to unite strangers in the most bizarre ways. Fetishes, fantasies, fanaticisms, fears, there is a place for everyone to participate no matter how embarrassing, how silly, how disgusting. And with the cloak of anonymity, free from stereotypes and rash judgements, we are free to join others and form communities with no regard to age, race, culture, gender and other common social stratifiers.

The most fascinating communal experiences are those that are arbitrary and superficial. Something seemingly unimportant can become a great unifier. Places like Reddit have heavy doses of meme-ified quips repeated ad infinitum, pop culture reference galore and comment threads spontaneously breaking into shared song lyrics or puns. People find these silly not-so-inside jokes to be socially gratifying, a way to instantly connect with strangers and feel belonged.

That’s why it shouldn’t be a surprise that when Reddit admins launched an innocuous April Fools Joke that relied on communal participation to work, it practically blossomed into a religious movement.

I’m referring to “the button”, a mysterious 60 second countdown paired with a button that only registered users prior to April 1st can press, and only press once. Each time the button is pressed the countdown resets to 60 seconds. So the community as a whole is keeping the timer running, each press delaying the inevitable moment of zero a little longer.

What happens when time runs out? Nobody knows. Few people care. What matters is that each presser of the button receives a color coded flair next to their username with the time they succumbed to their desire to click. The purples are the early pressers and each color of the rainbow is represented as you get to lower and lower times. On the flipside, the greys are the non-pressers: those who often argue they have superior self control, not giving up the one precious press they had.

Early on nobody had pressed below the 50 second mark because so many people were clicking, thereby resetting the timer before it could count low enough. As each day passed, the low point dipped further and further with fewer people pressing. At the time of this article, 10 seconds is the lowest it has gone (with those pressers adorned with red flair). In essence the lower pressers are more elite, as there are fewer of them, and many are proud of their red flair.

These flairs have become so integral to the button experience that communities have sprung up around them. Greys are part of /r/NoColoreds (perhaps a poor choice of name) and preach about self control. The sidebar says “Welcome brothers and sisters. This is our sanctuary. Here we are free of the taint of the rainbow menace.” In response, the /r/KnightsOfTheButton was created with a mission of vigilance in pressing the button and ensuring it never hits zero. And every individual color has created their own niche subreddits to commute. Yes, communities built around an arbitrary color from an arbitrary button press.

You frequently see religious-esque rhetoric in the discussions surrounding /r/theButton. There is talk of the “Zero Event” and what the “aftertime” will be like. Greys advocating that abstention from pressing will be rewarded in the aftertime. Subs like /r/NoTap making satirical comparisons to alcohol and porn addictions with those who cannot resist making the press and offering support.

It’s becoming difficult to see where the line between tongue-in-cheek humor and true fanaticism actually falls. If you pretend long enough is it no longer pretend? Much like The Third Wave, an experiment in fascism created by a high school history teacher that spiraled out of control, we humans can get carried away even when the stakes are relatively low. The button is a microcosm of how the fires of religious and political fanaticism are stoked simply by our innate desire to place ourselves into groups.

Before you think I am arguing the button is a precursor to the next Holocaust, I’ll digress. Regardless of how fascinating the button is as an insight into the human condition, it is also a master class in online community building. We should look to it to learn how to foster such dedication and participation from our own audiences, no matter the goal.

What exactly is that secret sauce?

  • Gamification – There is a reward model built in to the button. The flair you receive is a badge you can be proud of, similar to how startups such as Foursquare were able to blossom into the heavy hitters they became.
  • Active Engagement – The running timer gives the whole experiment legs. It’s active and ever changing and a reason to return. How many participants does the button have today? What is the lowest time it has reached? These questions keep people coming back.
  • Communal Goals – Everyone is working together to accomplish a singular goal. This promotes easy sharing and discussion.
  • Mystery – Nobody knows what the button actually is, but because it came from a respected source — Reddit admins — people are intrigued.

The button also benefited from a massive built in audience on Reddit. A single post on the Reddit blog immediately reaches millions of people, providing the immediate critical mass required for it to succeed. If we were trying to capture the magic of the button with a much smaller audience, we would need to tweak it so that it wouldn’t die on the vine.

But whatever the reason for its success, the button is one of my favorite web-based spectacles in a while because of just how arbitrary it is, yet how engaged we all are. I stand as a grey, non-presser eagerly awaiting the aftertime to see if the saga of the button continues in another carnation. As one Redditor suggested, maybe it starts counting up. Whatever will we do with ourselves then?

By Joshua Belhumeur