The first time I met Josh Wardle, four years before he invented the simple game that would make his last name, or a skewed rhyme of it, unexpectedly famous: he was at Reddit headquarters in San Francisco, in a state of near panic, wondering if one of his online experiments was about to descend into chaos. . It was March 31, 2017. Wardle’s experiment was called Place: a blank canvas, a thousand white pixels by a thousand white pixels, that Reddit users could digitally deface in any way they wanted. I was on assignment for this magazine, reporting a story on reddit, where Wardle later worked as a product manager. The central question of my story was also the central question of Wardle’s work, if not of the Internet itself: Can online spaces be designed so that the benefits of frictionless mass participation outweigh the costs?
Wardle had done such experiments before and had learned a few lessons, the simplest of which was to “keep things simple”. He had designed Place with a time constraint (each participant could change the color of a pixel every five minutes, no more), which he hoped would encourage collaboration. Other than that, there were essentially no rules. When such unlimited experiments go well, we tend to describe them using words like “democracy” and “freedom”; when they don’t, we invoke “entropy” or “chaos” more often. Wardle, urgently updating the tabs on his laptop, was clearly nervous, but stuck to his talking points: The Internet is full of creativity and teamwork; Give people more tools to interact, and they’ll generally use those tools wisely. “I’m pretty confident,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I’m 100 percent sure.” Already, one of the top comments on Place read: “I’ll give it an hour until the swastikas.”
If Place sounds like a minimalist concept art project, that may be because Wardle trained as a minimalist concept artist. She grew up in South Wales and moved to Oregon in 2008 to pursue an MFA in digital art. One of the few non-digital pieces of hers, an installation in a physical gallery, was called “This Button.” People who entered the gallery saw a red button on a pedestal and a timer showing how long it had been since the button was pressed. “Imagine you walk in, alone, and the stopwatch has been running for two days and counting,” Wardle said recently. “You are faced with a choice: you may have the momentary satisfaction of pressing the button, but you will be wasting that streak, erasing all control from all the strangers who came before you. I found that to be an interesting tension.” Her classmates didn’t. “They just came up one by one, hit the button and said, ‘I don’t get it.’ ”
He moved to San Francisco in 2011, fell asleep on a friend’s couch, and got a job on Reddit. “An extremely basic job,” he said. “But I spent many hours in the office, because they served free breakfast Y free lunch.” He worked his way up to become a product manager, then taught himself to code and returned as an engineer. By tradition, tech companies release prank videos or interactive jokes on April Fools’ Day. On Reddit, this responsibility fell to Wardle, who used it as an opportunity for social experiments. One year, his April Fools experiment was an online version of “This Button,” now renamed “The Button.” This time, the timer started at sixty seconds and began the countdown. Each time someone pressed the button, the timer was reset; the experiment would end when the timer reached zero. “People went a little crazy,” Wardle told me. Several participants created Chrome extensions that sent an alert if the timer went below a certain threshold; for some, pressing the button as late as possible became a sign of pride. I’m sorry In total, the button was pressed more than a million times, at least once a minute, throughout the day, for more than two months.
In 2013, Wardle helped create a game that was like a combination of a summer camp color war and social psychology. study of outgroup antagonism. Reddit users were randomly assigned to one of two groups, Team Periwinkle or Team Orangered, and the teams went to battle, downvoting each other’s comments and inventing group bonding rituals. Each team was “united across difference,” as Wardle put it, but there were also flame wars and other forms of dislike. “Reddit, like most technology companies, has been very focused on user growth,” Wardle said. “But growth isn’t always aligned with other values, like safety and community and giving your 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, extracting their data, sapping their attention, exposing them to interactions that are exciting in the short term but ultimately destructive? And, if an employee of one of these companies wants to mitigate these dilemmas, is it more useful to stay and goad the company into reforming from within, or to leave and do something better?
For April Fools’ Day 2016, Wardle created Robin, another Reddit game with a pop psychology premise. (It was named for Robin Dunbar, the Oxford anthropologist best known for Dunbar’s Number, which is intended to quantify “the number of people with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.”) Two strangers were paired up in a small room. and then given three options: stay in the small room, merge with others to form a larger room, or leave the chat. The moral of the game was that bigger is not always better, and people seemed to understand that. “Like Reddit, it starts small and you can talk to people, then it gets bigger and louder and louder,” read the top-voted comment. “I can confirm,” read the next comment. “It started with 2 people, it was jokes. At 16, it’s a noise chamber.” Wardle told me, “Very quickly, when eight turns into sixteen and turns into thirty-two, you start seeing spam, insults, all the classic terrible internet stuff.” Still, he added, most people chose to continue merging: “There seems to be something compelling about the competition to become the biggest room, even if you know it’s going to be painful.”
On the morning before April Fools’ Day 2017, at the start of Place, there were still no swastikas. However, there was an even more elemental form of digital graffiti: a bright red cartoon phallus, right in the middle of the square. Wardle approached this as a design problem; in other words, he blamed himself. “Our default was to start everyone in the middle,” he told me. “When we leave you there and the first thing you see is this huge red dick, it’s a very strong signal: welcome to the Place, we’re drawing a dick, would you like to contribute a pixel?” Instead of deleting or censoring the graffiti, he tried to make a push: Instead of starting in the middle, new users would be randomly dropped. This encouraged people to make new drawings on different sectors of the canvas, giving successive visitors a wider variety of projects to choose from. Eventually the dick-doodlers got bored and moved on. The center of the square was surmounted by a blue line, a Finnish flag, an apple tree, and finally an American flag, which was constantly blown out by digital vandals and then came back to life. I thought it was such a striking allegory that I used it as the final scene of my book. But it was not an allegory with a clear conclusion. Place, like any of Wardle’s experiments, did not yield a single, unequivocal conclusion: that the Internet is just about collaboration, for example, or just about mutually assured destruction. Like any good art project, it raised more questions than he answered.
Wardle had become adept at using Reddit to criticize Reddit, but he wasn’t sure how much good he was doing. In contrast to the mainstream culture of Silicon Valley, where the standard personal narrative includes an episode or two of failure on the way to inevitable achievement, Wardle is unusually prone to ambivalence and self-reproach. “I thought I was helping people understand and work with the trade-offs between growth and sustainability,” he says. “It was probably just creating really unsafe spaces for horrible things to happen.” He left Reddit last year. “I will always want to do creative things on the Internet, and I will always be fascinated by how complex humans are and how strange our emergent behavior is,” he said. “I think I’ll always be concerned about how easy it is to start out thinking you’re going to do something that will bring out the best in people and then, even with good intentions, fall into doing the opposite.”