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Culture & Religion

The Knights of the Button

What happened when a team of researchers slapped a button and a countdown timer on Reddit? A community formed.

Mona Chalabi had a number to report: 65. It represents the amount of “days it took for a group social experiment known as ‘the button’ to play out on the website Reddit,” she wrote for FiveThirtyEight.

It all started on April 1st. Users were presented with a 60-second countdown timer that ticked down the seconds until someone pressed a button. Then it would reset until another user pressed it, and on and on it went for the next 65 days. Until, on June 5th, no one pressed it. In that time, more than 1 million people pressed “the button.” One possible reason for the end of “the button” may have been that users could only press it once. But in the time that the button did exist, a lot of interesting groups began emerging.

Chalabi explained in an interview with NPR that a social hierarchy began to form from this button, all depending on when users pressed it. Each user “got assigned a little circle next to their usernames. And the color of that circle indicates how long they had managed to wait before pressing the button.”

“During the experiment, they quickly split up into dozens of factions based on those color-coded circles that I mentioned.”

Users assigned fun names to each color group, such as the “violent hand,” the “illemonati,” the “emerald council,” the “red guard,” and the “orange revolution.” Redditors also gave each group meaning. “Those who are labeled as purple are considered as kind of inpatient because, as I said, they didn’t make it down to 52 seconds. And the red who hold off for ages and only succumb to pressing the button in those last 10 seconds think of themselves as a little heroic.” From the start of the button project, researchers from the Brookings Institute observed four things of interest:    

1. The button pressers have no clear common interest.

2. They are not organized.

3. The process of watching and pressing the button is mundane.

4. There is not a strong incentive to press the button.

Yet, even without a financial incentive or a clear common interest driving them, users still created these sub communities, rallying around this one button — creating something from a button. There was even one group solely dedicated to keeping the timer from reaching zero — they dubbed themselves “Knights of the Button.”

Researchers believe that the insights from this social experiment could help engage Internet users in programs that matter. Indeed, crowdsourcing on sites like Reddit has the potential for powerful results, but that power should be used wisely.

Biographer Walter Isaacson, author of the new book The Innovators, explains how innovations such as chat rooms, blogs, and social media all serve the purpose of engendering community. From the earliest internet message board to today’s highly watched speedruns on Twitch, digital technology has satiated the human need to connect, collaborate, and form communities.

Read more at FiveThirtyEight.

Photo Credit: Noam Galai/Getty Images


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