Imagine a room. It’s entirely blank, save for a 60-second countdown timer, and a button to reset the constantly-advancing clock. Anyone can come in and press the button, but once they do, they can never touch the button again. What do you think would happen?
If you guessed “the timer will still be ticking almost a month later,” you’re on the right track. If you guessed “almost a million people will push the button,” you’re getting closer.
Give up? Did you guess “all these people will drag a bunch of predictable narratives into the room, there will be a standing population of around a hundred thousand people watching the timer, they will create numerous factions around the button, and there will be a giant political controversy and a schism among the room’s occupants on day 25?”
You should have guessed that. Because apparently that’s what would happen.
On April 1, 2015, Reddit opened a room like this, in the form of a new subreddit (kind of like a section in a newspaper or a group in a social network) called “The Button.” It was presumably an April fools joke, but it’s still there and still running as of now, the timer resetting before the fateful zeros appear.
(If you want to hear someone explain it better than I can, just watch that video above or, if you’re not burned out by explainer-fatigue, go to Vox, then come back and skip to the part where I say “that’s all background.”)
The rules are simple: every user who had a Reddit account before the button appeared can click the button, but only once. And once the user clicks, their username gets a little colored circle next to it (called “flair”) notifying all others at what counter-number they clicked. So those who click immediately after someone else, right after the counter resets, get very high numbers (in the 50s), but those who wait get lower numbers. Each band of about ten numbers comes with a different color. High numbers get purple circle flair, and numbers below twelve get red flair.
The lower numbers didn’t start to appear at first. It was days and days before the timer ever crept close to those lower numbers, because new people would show up and click pretty quickly, before the timer could run down significantly. As a result, some flairs are more rare than others.
The result is that the button-pushing process becomes a “game,” and one that is surprisingly complex. Some people are competing to get the lowest possible flair numbers. Some are trying to be the first person to click in a new color range or at a new number. Some are trying to make the timer last as long as possible. Still others consider clicking the button a kind of weakness, carefully guarding their status as non-pressers with gray flair. There are “religious groups,” factions, other subreddits for people with specific flairs, data collectors, visualizations, surveys, art, anything you could imagine. If you want to see all of that, go check it out at the subreddit. The bottom line is that the timer has been running constantly, reset at least once every 60 seconds, since April 1st. And it might go quite a bit longer.
That’s all background for the thing that interested me. Up to a few days ago, the timer had never gone below 12 seconds, so no one had the coveted red flair. People were waiting to see who would be first to get the red flair, to get their name enshrined in a document called “The Complete Catalogue of Rare and Exotic Button Pushers” (so good!) as the first to breach a new color band. Then, the unthinkable happened: there was a glitch. The nature of the glitch is maybe a little too complicated to be interesting, but the end result was that the timer was still ticking and resetting even though not everyone could see it, so someone, during this gray glitch period, clicked the button at 8 seconds and received the first red flair.
There was a bit of an uproar as to whether or not glitched red flairs counted as actual red flairs, i.e. whether this user deserved their position as the “first red.” As anyone who has ever been part of a tiny subculture would know, this got a little heated and ugly. The user in question even hid their flair while browsing so people wouldn’t be able to see that glaring red circle when the user posted in the community, like someone trying to cover their scarlet letter and blend into the crowd. Things eventually calmed down, and everyone accepted that this user was the first legitimate red. The button kept ticking along.
Until there was another glitch, this one worse than the last.
It was worse because, to all people watching, the timer looked like it was running normally. But clicking the button didn’t make a difference; the timer just kept ticking. Some clicked in the 50s and 40s. It kept ticking. Some clicked in the 30s. It kept ticking. Some clicked in the 20s, but the timer kept going down, lower than it had ever been before. Within a minute, as all of these people who had made the button a big part of their lives for the past almost-month watched helplessly, the timer ran out. The thing people had been fighting for 25 days happened: the timer turned over to zero, and a message came up saying that the experiment was over.
When the glitch was fixed and the button resumed its count-and-reset-cycle, it was revealed that a number of people who clicked during the weird outage had received the corresponding flair, even though their clicks didn’t actually reset the button. These clicks, wasted on a dead button, still counted as the “single click” for a bunch of users. There were a slew of new red flairs, including one person who received a “zero seconds” flair, presumably the lowest possible flair (and hailed as the flair of the “Pressiah”).
One notable new red-flaired user revealed himself as well: a Reddit employee, creator of the experiment, and moderator in the /r/thebutton community. (I’ll just refer to him as the “moderator,” since, while it’s very easy to discover his name and I’ll be linking directly to things he posted and things posted about him, using his name feels a little like heaping onto the garbage-pile forming on top of him right now.)
This moderator found himself in a bad place. He had wasted his click in this giant experiment, his one shot at playing the game. He wasn’t happy. And I get it. I’d be pissed, too. But what he did with his anger was a little troubling: he used his powers as administrator to reset his flair and give himself a new click.
In case it’s not clear from the above: a second click is antithetical to the whole button ecosystem. The idea always (haha “always” means “for almost four weeks” in this case) has been that every user gets one chance to click, and they have to choose which values this click will embody, what identity they create with their decision. This one-chance mechanic is what made the button such a great metaphor, such a great narrative-producing machine. This moderator had undone one of the core philosophies of the button community and given himself a second chance, pretty seriously shaking up the foundation upon which so many narratives had been built.
Interestingly, most people in the community actually WANTED those affected by the glitch to get a second press (see the first comment in this thread, with over 2000 upvotes). It seemed unfair to punish them and remove them from the game because of a technical problem, and it made a sort of narrative sense to nullify these circumstantially-coerced clicks. But what challenged the structure of the button community was that only one person actually got a second chance: this moderator, the person with the power, the creator of the experiment. The elite.
People were furious.
This moderator soon decided that resetting only his flair and giving only himself a second press was the wrong move, so he restored his red flair, with its low number. But now there were over 50 people, some active in the community, who had been locked into being victims of the deceptive glitch, removed from the game, even though the majority of the community wanted those users back, wanted them to be given a second chance.
In the end, the moderator did what every person who seemingly abuses their power eventually does: he wrote an apology:
Up until yesterday’s outage I had thought of myself as a non-presser. However, when faced with the dwindling timer I pressed the button: I found myself, despite my previous thoughts, wishing for this project to continue.
Once I realized my press had not reset the timer I thought to exempt myself from the rules of the button by reverting my presser status. This impulse stemmed from my own sense of importance within this community. I have a position of status here and misguidedly thought it was okay to preserve that status by exempting myself from the rules. For me, this was the test of the button. I am grateful to the community for calling me out on my error.
As the others who pressed during the outage, my flair shall remain. The rules remain and apply for all:
You may only press the button once.
On the one hand, this all sounds very admirable, and I congratulate this moderator for realizing the power he wields in the community around his creation and apologizing for misusing it.
On the other hand, what the moderator did here fits almost too perfectly with what politicians always do when they are called out for abusing their power but want to minimize it and move past it. First, it took 22 hours for the moderator to apologize, presumably so that he could do whatever possible to fix the problem before owning it. Second, the language of the apology is exactly what you’d expect: an explanation why the moderator made his mistake, in emotional terms with which people will sympathize; some sappy pandering to the community for calling out the mistake; and an assertion that the rules apply to everyone equally, regardless of their status.
That last bit rings false to the community, because the power this moderator had would have allowed him to listen to the community and give action to the thing they all wanted. He chose a different thing, a thing that matched his values instead of the values of the community that sprung up around his creation.
Cue an onslaught of posts in that most classic of internet genres, the “I’m leaving” posts. Some examples are below.
- The above image called “Et tu, [moderator]?” showing the newly-red-flaired moderator stabbing a gray non-presser in the back.
- “[A]lthough many thousands of us have been playing for almost a month under the guise of certain rules and endgames, the mods have betrayed that trust and decided they can change the rules on a whim due to whatever glitch they claim. I’m not mad about it, just not willing to continue giving my time to a game where the goalposts move like this.” -/u/ad8871
- “The button: Showing people everywhere how power corrupts.” -/u/beefhash
- “So, you asked us what to do with those who clicked during the outage, and we expressed our opinion very clearly. But now you are going to ignore our opinion just because you personally were affected? . . . [These actions] are much more detrimental to the button’s integrity than a few people getting another click. This kills the button.” -/u/mncke.
- Notably, /u/mncke developed a controlled button-pushing app and heads one of the large factions in the community. More from /u/mncke: “I’ve been interviewed for media outlets twice already, and twice I said that the button is an extremely interesting and unconventional experiment. Turns out, it is an experiment in community destruction, power abuse and extremely sloppy product management. I’ve been gilded thrice in this sub [i.e. three different people have paid Reddit actual money to sponsor /u/mncke getting a preferred membership with Reddit for a few months], and I am disgusted by the fact that a part of the money people paid to show appreciation of my work goes to your salary.”
- “Today the button feels like a TV series that was canceled and ended awkwardly, only to then be picked up again and continued via some highly improbable and poorly written plot twist.” -/u/Fish_oil_burp
- “The button is dead.” -A LOT of people.
The moderator at the heart of this controversy only posted his apology three hours ago, and already /r/thebutton looks kind of like a community on the brink of revolt. Things are still happening over there as a result of this whole mess, and it’ll be interesting to see how it all lands. (As of this writing, people are suddenly all aiming to get “42” flairs, presumably because it gives them some sort of answer to their questions about the meaning of the button…)
I usually don’t like writing so soon after a thing has happened, but this is the kind of thing that I’m betting will wash away pretty soon and go unnoticed outside of the button community. Yet I was so struck by this, since it provides such an elegant demonstration of how narratives work on the internet in particular, and also how narratives work in general.
You can’t kill a narrative, no matter how much you challenge its core being. Because a narrative is the head of a hydra, growing two more of itself when it gets beaten. And it’s a pathogen, rapidly mutating to fit its new circumstances. And it’s a shelf full of broken records, repeating forever: power corrupts, politicians pander, we revolt, propaganda starts circulating, we threaten to move to Canada, and then we don’t, instead staying where we are to reinforce our identities with whatever narrative wave washes by next.
The internet changes some things. Things move faster on the internet, and people in small communities find each other more easily. And as a result, some would say it’s a whole new thing, totally unpredictable, and possible inherently bad for us. But at bottom, the internet is just a blank room, until we rush in and fill it, dragging our narratives along with us.
Unshakeable Narratives and /r/thebutton was originally published in I Live On The Internet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
Read the responses to this story on Medium.