Culture

Reddit’s Diabolical Social Experiment ‘The Button’ Is Setting The Internet On Fire

To push or not to push?

“The timer will count down from 60 seconds. If the button is pressed the timer will reset to 60 seconds and continue counting down. Only users logged into accounts created before 2015-04-01 can press the button.

You may only press the button once.

We can’t tell you what to do from here on out. The choice is yours.”

At 9am on April 1, 2015, the reddit community was presented with a diabolically simple and mysterious social experiment: The Button. An enigmatic post from the reddit admins, the experiment was simply a button attached to a 60-second countdown timer. Once a reddit user presses the button, the timer resets. Each user only gets one press, and new redditors are barred from engaging in the experiment. Its purpose remains a mystery, a dynamic that seems designed exclusively to thrust members into an existential dilemma. Do you wait to push the button, give yourself the chance to keep the timer alive when it most needs it? Or do you rush to push first, earning some kind of reward once the timer finally reaches zero? Do you even engage with the experiment at all?

As of today, over 745,000 “participants” have clicked the button, each earning coloured flair corresponding to what the timer read when they pushed it. Purple is earned for times between 52 and 60 seconds, blue for 42 to 51, and on through green, yellow, orange and red. Grey is assigned to those who are abstaining from pressing. As Vox points out, coloured flair is a permanent addition to your account, adding a layer of “status competition” to the proceedings. According to The Guardian (yes, THE The Guardian), the lowest time reached as of April 13 was 27 seconds, a record set on Sunday April 12 at 9.48am.

It’s now been a fortnight since the button appeared and redditors are none the wiser as to its purpose, but damn it all if they haven’t transformed a seemingly pointless experiment into something mind-bogglingly complex. Clinically insane, but complex nonetheless.

Before we go on, head over to the utterly mesmerising Button Monitor, a tool developed by James Romeril that tracks every button press and its correlating flair in real time.

Brace yourself: we’re heading into reddit territory.

reddit

How Did The Button Happen, And What Does It Mean?

The scope and depth of the Button’s current state is staggering. Having been blasted with an insane amount of speculation and discussion, the Button as phenomenon has — in true Reddit style — flourished into what is surely the weirdest microcosm of humanity currently in existence.

Users from across the globe have flocked to the Button and embraced its myriad existential issues, creating supportive groups in a sea of confusion and excitement. The discussion has blossomed into what can only be described as a functioning medieval realm, complete with warring factions, each spurring the creation of button religions, button ideologies, churches and even cults. The grey “Non-pressers” formed the religious groups “Followers of The Shade” and the “Grey Hopeful”, vowing to help run the clock out and ensure the inevitable. On the other side are those who wish to keep the timer alive for as long as possible, the Knights Of The Button, some of whom have even gone so far as to create Chrome extensions to help organise allies in shifting time zones across the globe.

The conversation came to a head when the titular user, /u/thebutton, emerged as a kind of prophet, spouting off incredible platitudes like “I die and am born anew everytime I am pressed.” For a full rundown of the button and its ideologies, you can head over to user /u/Merdoctor’s article, “A Brief History of The Button” in the “Encyclopaedia Buttonica”, or trawl through the ever-faithful Button Wiki. One user has even created a gorgeous series of artworks detailing the myriad factions that have come into being.

Never underestimate the talents of redditors, and their willingness to waste them on completely inconsequential causes.

It’s All Psychological

In wider society, Button conversation isn’t any less involved. A tidbit gathering steam in the last few days is social psychologist Tom Pyszcynski’s ‘Terror Management Theory’, which attributes redditors’ innate need to push the button to an avoidance of the ever-present fear of death. According to psychologist and author John Suler in The Washington Post (yes, THE The Washington Post), “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…Otherwise, the game and the illusive group of people playing it will vanish.”

In backing this theory, mainstream news sources have drawn attention to the moment a user logged into his deceased wife’s account and posted a touching tribute to keeping the button alive. Or not.

reddit

Perhaps the Realm of The Button can be ascribed to the innate human need to find patterns in chaos. Michael Shermer, in a piece for The Scientific American, calls this tendency “patternicity”: a habit of “finding meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.” Out of the miasma of confusion and mystery, redditors have attached meaning to arbitrary colours, categorising themselves into allegiances based on nothing but perceived status. Shermer argues this trend can explain why “UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building,” and even why “Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration.”

The end of the button is coming — presumably not to fanfare or the second coming, but simply to nothing. According to user /u/ezeeetm’s webpage, theButtonCountDown, the timer has at most just over 100 days left in existence.

The real genius of the button is that it could represent just about anything: The futility of relevancy in the age of the internet. A means of bringing the internet together in a common cause. Or perhaps it’s just the most torturous April Fool’s Joke ever perpetrated on the internet. There are no answers,and that’s okay. The internet provides an endless abundance of ambiguity, of mystery, of pointlessness and lies and yet, it facilitates a kind of unhinged creativity. The button may be a needlessly mysterious exercise, but it’s been the driving force in the creation of religions, ideologies, and art, and it’s brought over 740,000 people to engage in the arbitrary click of a mouse. Most importantly, it’s a genuine reminder of just how much we can bring to the table each and every time we log into our computers.

Sean is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. He tweets from @ssebast90.