Strange Experiment with Single Button

A few days ago (on april fools to be exact) admins of Reddit had posted a blog describing a “button”. Rules were pretty simple, there will be a button next to a timer. Timer would count down from 60 seconds, only to be reset globally when a user presses it. Each user has one chance to click, and new users are not allowed. What would happen when timer reaches zero was not revealed, making it even more attractive. So how long do you think it took for timer to reach 0? Answer: It still did not reach 0, and it’s day 5. Around 600k accounts, which is almost the population for a small-sized country, had clicked the button. What’s so appealing about it, and how “the button” survives? The answer, I believe, lies between cooperation and gamification.

Going for 600k participants..

Most of us remember the old flash animation with a single big red button. The button which talks to you all the time, trying to convince you to not to press it. It was even changing shapes and colours from time to time. I have no idea whether the above mentioned the-button was inspired by this, but they’re quite similar to each other. You wouldn’t expect an application as simple as a button and a text to be so entertaining, but it turns out it’s quite possible. A very similar approach is employed in Reddit’s take on button as well. There’s only a button with a timer, hence you don’t see the point.. But given the community of Reddit is as populated as 150M, and there are a ton of creative people uploading content to the platform all the time, you can actually see why it exploded.

Spoiler alert: It's lying, it actually cares

When I saw the blog post, at first I thought this is an experiment to see how long would it take for timer to be reset, hence the title. In other words, I was expecting half of users to wait patiently for timer to run off, and other half trolling them by clicking. I had the image of people who are trying to convince clickers to stop in my mind, as a call for cooperation. I would have guessed that it wouldn’t reach zero at least not for the first 24 hours, but I couldn’t imagine it being alive so long. And that’s mostly because I didn’t read the rules before clicking the button.

As mentioned above, rules were pretty simple. You have one click, and that’s all. Once you click, you can only watch what’s going on. And there’s more: Reddit users can gain “flairs” for each sub-community (sub reddit) through some ways. You guessed it, the flair for the-button sub community is the remaining time on the timer when you click. Even more: There were 6 flair colours predefined. For example, you would be purple if you click when the timer is between 60-52s. Next is blue, for which you have to click at 51-42s. Then comes the green with 41-32s. It’s followed by yellow, orange and lastly red. As of today, there are few people with green flairs, and more with blue. Most people are purples, as they just click right away with an instinct. Non-pressers are grey, but they tend do call it ‘shade’. Assigning people to groups through an algorithm has caused something we all know pretty well: Grouping. Accounts with same coloured flairs began cooperating, and it ended up with more conflict than I expected. (It’s not an actual conflict, but a funny one, I have to note.)

A purple was surprised because the poster was "hiding his/her flair", when a grey came and things went bad. I don't even know such discussions were expected by creators of the application.

The grouping went so mad, users invented what they want to call “religions”. And there are more than 20 major groups already. (Remember all of these had happened in just five days.) “The followers of the shade”, for example is a group where followers are decided to “stay grey” until the very end. Opposing them, “Knights of the button (aka. Redguards)” have a goal of not letting button reach zero. There are also some groups who like to take a philosophical approach at the whole thing. Motto of “The Free” is “a button is nothing without someone to press it”. You won’t expect a simple button to be taken that seriously, but somehow we ended up right here.

Note the grey flairs next to usernames. They're just some circles with colours, but they mean more than you can guess to some participants.

The button and the story of it somehow went popular around the globe in just a few hours. People made t-shirts, coats of arms, comics, and even songs! It’s amazing how people can come up with such things in a blink of an eye.

A proud early-presser

There are a few third party applications developed just for the button as well. As one interesting result will obviously be the data collected during the play-time, one user has come up with this page to show a summary of statistics for the button. You can also watch the button in a very different way on this page. Another thing you can do is to follow this Twitter account which tweets automatically whenever a new record is broken. There’s even a catalogue for all “rare and exotic” button pushers.

No one knows what will happen once it’s 0, although there are theories: This is countdown to a long-expected Half Life 3 game, last person to press gets a special treat, all non-pressers would get something special, and so on. Currently it’s a mystery, and seemingly it will stay as a mystery for a few more days. All people who are spending too much time on the button (which might include me) should recall what the old button says: