The first time I met Josh Wardle—four years before he invented the simple game that would make his last name, or italic rhyme for it, unexpectedly famous—he was at Reddit’s San Francisco headquarters, almost in a panic, wondering what If one of his internet experiences is about to slip into chaos. It was March 31, 2017. Wardel’s experiment was named for the place: a blank canvas, a thousand white pixels by a thousand white pixels, which Reddit users can digitally distort in any way they like. I was on assignment for this magazine, reporting a story on Reddit, where Wardle served as product manager. The central question in my story was also the central question of Wardle’s work, if not about the Internet itself: Can online spaces be designed so that the benefits of frictionless group participation outweigh the costs?
Wardle had done such experiments before, and learned a few lessons, the simplest of which was “keep things simple”. He designed the Place with time constraints — each participant could change the color of one pixel every five minutes, no more — which he hoped would encourage collaboration. Other than that, there were no ground rules. When such unlimited experiences go well, we tend to describe them using words like “democracy” and “freedom”; When they don’t, we often invoke ‘entropy’ or ‘chaos’. Wardle, who was refreshing tabs on his laptop, was visibly nervous, but he stuck to his talking points: The Internet is brimming with creativity and teamwork; Give people more tools to interact and they will use those tools wisely in a balanced manner. He said, “I’m absolutely confident.” “I would be lying if I said I was one hundred percent confident.” Already, one of the top comments on Place read, “I give this watch up to the swastika.”
If the Place seems like a simple conceptual art project, it may be because Wardle was trained as a simple concept artist. He grew up in South Wales and moved to Oregon in 2008 to obtain an MA in Digital Arts. One of his few non-digital pieces, an installation in a physical gallery, was called “This Button”. People who entered the gallery saw a red button on the pedestal, and a timer showing how long it had been since the button was pressed. “Imagine you’re walking in alone, and the timer has been running for two days, and it keeps counting,” Wardle said recently. “You have a choice—you can feel the momentary satisfaction of pressing the button, but you will cast that sin away, wiping out all the limitations of the many strangers who have come before you. I find this to be an interesting tension.” His colleagues did not. They walked one by one, pressed the button, and went, ‘I didn’t get it. “”
He moved to San Francisco in 2011, crashed on a friend’s couch, and landed a job on Reddit. “It’s a very entry-level job,” he said. “But I spent many hours in the office, because they serve free breakfast And the Free lunch.” He made his way up, became a product manager, then taught himself programming and returned as an engineer. By tradition, tech companies release prank videos or interactive gags on April Fools’ Day. On Reddit, that responsibility falls to Wardle, who used it as an opportunity to make Social experiments. One year, his April Fools’ Day experiment was an online version of “that button,” now renamed “the button.” This time, the timer starts at sixty seconds and counts down. Every time he presses Someone on the button, the timer resets; the experiment will end when the timer reaches zero. “They went a little crazy,” Wardle told me. Several participants have built Chrome extensions that will send an alert if the timer is below a certain threshold; for For some, pressing the button as late as possible has become a mark of pride.Altogether, the button has been pressed more than a million times—at least once a minute, on the hour, for more than two months.
In 2013, Wardle helped create a game that looked like a combination of a summer camp color war and a social psychology study about out-of-group hostility. Reddit users were randomly assigned to one of two groups, Team Periwinkle or Team Orangered, and the teams went into battle, dropping votes to each other’s comments and inventing a group bonding ritual. Each team was “united by difference,” Wardle said, but there were also raging wars and other forms of hate. “Reddit, like most tech companies, has been very focused on user growth,” Wardle said. “But growth is not always aligned with other values, such as safety, community and giving users a healthy and sustainable experience.” Exploring this tension became the main focus of his career. Can a social media company remain competitive without exploiting its users—mining their data, extracting their attention, and exposing them to exciting short-term but ultimately devastating interactions? And if an employee of one of these companies wants to alleviate these dilemmas, is it better to stay and urge the company to reform from within, or to leave and do something better?
On April Fools’ Day in 2016, Wardle made Robin, another Reddit game based on pop psychology. (It is named for Robin Dunbar, the Oxford anthropologist known for Dunbar’s number, which aims to determine “the number of individuals with whom a person can maintain stable relationships.”) Two strangers are paired up in a small chat room and then given three options: stay in Small room, or merge with others to form a larger room, or give up chatting. The moral of the game was that bigger isn’t always better, and people seem to understand it. “It’s a lot like reddit, it starts small and you can talk to people, then it gets bigger and louder and more noisy,” the top-voted comment read. The following comment read “can confirm”. “I started with two people, they were compliments. With 16 noise rooms.” “Very quickly, when he turns eighteen and turns thirty-two,” Wardle told me, “you start seeing spam, defamation—all the classic terrible internet stuff.” He added, however, that most people chose to continue. On the merger: “There seems to be something compelling about the competition to become the biggest hall, even if you know it’s going to be painful.”
On the morning before April Fools’ Day 2017, at the beginning of the place, there was no swastika yet. However, there was a more racist form of digital graffiti – a bright red cardboard rod, located in the middle of the field. Wardle treated this as a design problem; In other words, he blamed himself. “It was our default to start everyone in the center,” he told me. “When we put you in there and the first thing you see is this huge red penis, that’s a very strong signal: Welcome to Place, we’re drawing a rooster, would you like to contribute a pixel?” Instead of erasing or censoring graffiti, try alerting: instead of starting in the center, new users will be dropped at random. This encouraged people to make new drawings in different sectors of the painting, giving successive visitors a variety of projects to choose from. Eventually, the Vandals got tired of it and kept moving forward. The center of the square is crossed by a blue line, a Finnish flag, an apple tree, and finally an American flag, which continues to be wiped out by digital vandals and then comes back to life. It felt like such a striking allegory that I used it as the closing scene of my book. But it wasn’t an allegory with the obvious takeaway. Place, like any of Wardle’s experiments, did not yield one unambiguous conclusion – that the Internet is only about cooperation, for example, or only about mutually assured destruction. Like any good art project, it raised more questions than it answered.
Wardle got pretty good at using Reddit to critique Reddit, but he wasn’t sure how well it would work. In contrast to the culture in Silicon Valley, where the standard personal narrative includes an episode or two of failure on the road to inevitable achievement, Wardle is extraordinarily prone to contradiction and self-reproach. “I thought I was helping people understand and work through the inherent trade-offs between growth and sustainability,” he says. “Maybe I was just creating really unsafe spaces for horrible things to happen.” He left Reddit last year. “I will always want to make creative things on the Internet, and I will always be fascinated by how complex humans are and how strange our emerging behavior can be,” he said. “I think I’ll always be annoyed at how easy it is to start thinking that you’re going to make something that will bring out the best in people and then, even with good intentions, slip into doing the opposite.”