Meet the creators of r/place Atlas, the Internet’s living wall

When time ran out for Reddit’s collaborative Internet wall mural, r/place, people could still place pixels, but only white. Beginning on April Fools’ Day, groups of Redditors spent four days cooperating and competing for space on the wall. By the last day, it had become a crowded and beautiful collection of flags, fan references, and inside jokes. But too quickly it began to fade back into a pristine canvas.

Fortunately, the same community spirit that was used on the r/place canvas was also used to preserve it. Even before Reddit released the official end catch, ordinary users had been collecting their own screenshots and timelapses and sharing them on the platform. this included funny recreations and experiments, for example, what if every placed black pixel ever had been permanent – which became popular on the subreddit, where users still hung out, even without a canvas to work on.

These preservation efforts include the 2022 r/place Atlas, an ambitious attempt to fully document this year’s canvas. The site hosts the full canvas and displays descriptions of whatever area you’re hovering over. It is also possible to search for entries by keywords and find the associated areas of the mural that way.

A screenshot of r/place atlas, focusing on Silksong's Hornet

Image: 2022 r/place Atlas

Creating it has been a collaborative experience. Users can submit information about any image within the wall, its background, and the group that created it. The Atlas is popular because groups had formed to work together on r/place in the first place, said lead developer Stefano Haagmans. “R/place is such a big project for some people that they just created literal communities for it,” Haagmans said. “And because of that, people enjoy it when it’s categorized, when it’s archived.”

AN similar document exists for 2017’s r/place, but 2022’s r/place attracted many more contributors, helping Atlas quickly take off in a way Haagmans didn’t expect. He had created the basics of the Atlas and posted them on Reddit, before going to sleep and then attending an exam. “When I was done with my exam, I looked at my Reddit, Discord, and GitHub notifications,” he said. “They were being flooded.”

The Atlas is powered by Netlify, and the archive project exceeded the bandwidth available on Netlify’s free plan almost immediately, thanks to the sheer number of visitors. Ultimately, the team working on Atlas had to contact the Netlify team, who moved them to the open source version of the service, saving them from incurring huge costs.

As the project grew, Haagmans recruited others to help him, including Alex Tsernoh, who was the first to provide the images for the Atlas. “Originally, I was the first person to start downloading all the site data as it happened, and while I was doing it, hundreds of people wrote to me about using that for their own projects,” Tsernoh said. One of them was Atlas, and he agreed to provide more development help along with the data he had mined.

For example, Tsernoh recently implemented Timeline, a feature that allows visitors to the Atlas to see how the r/place canvas developed over its four-day history. This is significant for certain fan communities, as the factions had been competing for space and messages. A large number of artworks were destroyed during that process, and the original static version of the Atlas had only captured the final canvas.

That happened to Vicky, a developer at Whitepot Studios, who collaborated as part of a Discord team to create a column of allied artwork that was deleted just before the final capture. “The canvas story that is live now is great as we at least get to see the first rally of our column alliance against the void and then the subsequent consumption,” she said.

Contributors are currently unable to make entries on older versions of the canvas, so mentions of Whitepot Studios currently pertain to the “empty” spot that destroyed the original artwork. But Haagmans hopes that eventually Whitepot and other groups with similar experiences will be able to put their label on works of art during the time period they existed. But it can take some time, with so many entries to sort through and only a team of volunteers to work on development.

Each of the volunteers has a different amount of free time, but Haagmans and Tsernoh are currently studying. Haagmans is in the middle of his exams, and Tsernoh told me that his master’s thesis was due three hours after we were talking. “This is a really interesting time for an interview,” he laughed.

A screenshot of the 2022 r/place atlas originally designed to represent

Image: 2022 r/place Atlas

The team is also working on putting together a Wiki, run by a volunteer who goes by the name of Aeywoo, documenting more of the comings and goings between the groups. “We are planning to have pages like this faction that built the French flag and this streamer’s community fought back and the result was that this artwork was removed or the streamer was destroyed after a few hours,” Aeywoo described.

Including such disputes, even though one side may have been generally unpopular in the r/place community, is a deliberate choice on the part of the Atlas team. “We intend to archive it yet, because our job is not to make it how we want it to be, but [preserve] as it is,” Haagmans said. When there are conflicting user submissions, for example from the streamer’s community and others whose artwork was destroyed, the development team describes the events that occurred, rather than anyone’s personal feelings about them.

Only deliberate dueling is completely removed, although the developers said there hasn’t been much of it. “We get the occasional, ‘hey, the French, they screwed this up. We don’t want them here, they are complete leftists, that kind of thing,” Haagmans said. Aeywoo, who had dealt with this type of grief while working on a Wiki dedicated to deceased YouTubers, said that the memorial artwork pages on the r/place Wiki will have protections to reduce the likelihood of it happening.

However, for the most part, contributors only want to consolidate their share in the event that it was r/place. “The appeal of r/place is to make your mark in history for some people. For other communities, it’s just the fun they had with the people they created with. And that’s also one of the reasons why we created the [Atlas]. R/place always has a good memory in people’s hearts. Personally, I wanted to make sure it was preserved for anyone who wanted to look back,” Haagmans said.

Or, summed up more simply by Aeywoo: “Being a part of history in the internet landscape is great.”

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