The first time I met Josh Wardle—four years before he invented the simple game that would make his last name, or a slant rhyme of it, unexpectedly famous—he was in Reddit’s San Francisco headquarters, in a state of near-panic, wondering whether 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, which Reddit users could digitally deface in any way they pleased. I was on assignment for this magazine, reporting a story about Reddit, where Wardle then 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 run such experiments before, and he’d learned a few lessons, the simplest of which was “keep things simple.” He had designed Place with a time constraint—each participant could change the color of one pixel every five minutes, no more—which would, he hoped, encourage collaboration. Other than that, there were essentially no rules. When such unbounded experiments go well, we tend to describe them using words like “democracy” and “freedom”; when they don’t, we more often invoke “entropy” or “mayhem.” Wardle, urgently refreshing tabs on his laptop, was clearly nervous, but he stuck to his talking points: the Internet is full of creativity and teamwork; give people more tools to interact and they will, on balance, use those tools wisely. “I’m pretty confident,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I was a hundred per cent confident.” Already, one of the top comments on Place read, “I give this an hour until swastikas.”
If Place sounds like a minimalist conceptual-art project, that may be because Wardle trained as a minimalist conceptual artist. He grew up in South Wales and moved to Oregon, in 2008, to get an M.F.A. in digital art. 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 a pedestal, and a timer showing how long it had been since the button had been pressed. “Imagine you walk in, alone, and the timer has been going for two days, and counting,” Wardle said recently. “You’re faced with a choice—you can have the momentary satisfaction of pressing the button, but you’ll be throwing that streak away, erasing all the restraint of however many strangers came before you. I found that to be an interesting tension.” His classmates didn’t. “They just walked up one by one, pressed the button, and went, ‘I don’t get it.’ ”
He moved to San Francisco in 2011, crashing on a friend’s couch, and landed a job at Reddit. “An extremely entry-level job,” he said. “But I spent a lot of hours in the office, because they served free breakfast and free lunch.” He worked his way up, becoming a product manager, then teaching himself to code and returning as an engineer. By tradition, tech companies release prank videos or interactive gags on April Fools’ Day. At Reddit, this responsibility fell to Wardle, who used it as an opportunity to conduct 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 counted down. Each time somebody pressed the button, the timer would reset; the experiment would end when the timer reached zero. “People went slightly nuts over it,” Wardle told me. Several participants built Chrome extensions that would send an alert if the timer ever got below a certain threshold; for some, pressing the button as late as possible became a mark of pride. In all, the button was pressed more than a million times—at least once a minute, around the clock, for more than two months.
In 2013, Wardle helped make a game that was like a combination of a summer-camp color war and a social-psychology study of out-group antagonism. Reddit users were randomly assigned to one of two groups, Team Periwinkle or Team Orangered, and the teams went to battle, downvoting one another’s comments and inventing group-bonding rituals. Each team was “united through difference,” as Wardle put it, but there were also flame wars and other forms of unpleasantness. “Reddit, like most tech companies, has been very focussed on user growth,” Wardle said. “But growth is not always aligned with other values, like safety and community and giving your users a healthy, sustainable experience.” Exploring this tension became the main focus of his career. Can a social-media company stay competitive without exploiting its users—extracting their data, mining their attention, exposing them to interactions that are titillating 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 prod the company to reform from within, or to leave and make something better?
For April Fools’ Day in 2016, Wardle made 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 aims to quantify “the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships.”) Two strangers were paired in a small chatroom and then given three options: stay in the small room, merge with others to form a bigger room, or abandon the chat. The moral of the game was that bigger is not always better, and people seemed to get it. “Much like reddit, it starts small and you can talk to people, then it gets bigger and shittier and noisier,” the top-voted comment read. “Can confirm,” the next comment read. “Started with 2 people, was pleasantries. With 16, its a noise chamber.” Wardle told me, “Very quickly, as eight becomes sixteen becomes thirty-two, you start to see spam, name-calling—all the classic terrible Internet stuff.” Still, he added, most people chose to keep 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, in the beginning of Place, there weren’t yet swastikas. There was, however, 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 off in the center,” he told me. “When we drop you there and the first thing you see is this huge red dick, that’s a very strong cue: welcome to Place, we’re drawing a dick, would you like to contribute a pixel?” Rather than scrubbing or censoring the graffiti, he tried a nudge: instead of starting in the center, new users would be dropped in at random. This encouraged people to make new drawings in 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 overtaken by a blue line, a Finnish flag, an apple tree, and finally an American flag, which kept being snuffed out by digital vandals and then flickering 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 a clear takeaway. Place, like any of Wardle’s experiments, didn’t yield a single, unambiguous conclusion—that the Internet is only about collaboration, say, or only about mutually assured destruction. Like any good art project, it raised more questions than it answered.
Wardle had grown adept at using Reddit to critique Reddit, but he wasn’t sure how much good it was doing. In contrast to the dominant culture of Silicon Valley, where the standard personal narrative includes one or two episodes of failure on the path to inevitable achievement, Wardle is unusually prone to ambivalence and self-reproach. “I thought I was helping people understand and work through the inherent trade-offs between growth and sustainability,” he says. “I was probably just creating really unsafe spaces for horrendous things to happen.” He left Reddit last year. “I will always want to make creative things on the Internet, and I’ll always be fascinated by how complex humans are and how weird our emergent behavior is,” he said. “I think I’ll also always be troubled by how easy it is to start out thinking you’re going to make something that will bring out the best in people and then, even with good intentions, to slip into doing the opposite.”
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