Meet the creators of the r/place Atlas, the internet’s living mural

Meet the creators of the r/place Atlas, the internet's living mural

When time ran out for Reddit’s collaborative internet mural, r/place, people could still place pixels — but only white ones. Kicking off on April Fools’ Day, groups of Redditors spent four days cooperating and competing for space on the mural. By the final day, it had become a crowded and beautiful collection of flags, fandom references, and inside jokes. But all too quickly it began to disappear back into a pristine canvas.

Luckily, the same community spirit that went into the r/place canvas also went into preserving it. Even before Reddit released the official final catch, ordinary users had been collecting their own screenshots and timelapses, and sharing them on the platform. This included fun recreation and experiments — for example, what if every black pixel ever placed had 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 is being hovered over. It’s also possible to search entries for keywords and find the associated areas of the mural that way.

Picture: 2022 r/place Atlas

Creating it has been a collaborative experience. Users can submit information about any image within the mural, 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, lead developer Stefano Haagmans said. “R/place is such a big project for some people that they just created literal communities for it,” said Haagmans. “And because of it, people enjoy it when it’s categorized, when it’s archived.”

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

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

As the project grew, Haagmans recruited others to help, including Alex Tsernoh, who first provided the imagery for the Atlas. “I was originally the first person to start downloading all the data from place as it was happening, and while doing that I got hundreds of people writing to me about using that for their own projects,” Tsernoh said. One of these was the Atlas, and he agreed to provide further development help along with the data he had pulled.

For instance, Tsernoh recently implemented the timeline, a feature that allows visitors to the Atlas to see how the r/place canvas developed over its four day history. This is meaningful for certain fan communities, as factions had competed over space and messages. A lot of artwork was 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 artworks that were erased just before the final capture. “The canvas history being live now is great as we can at least watch our column alliance’s first rally against the void, and then subsequent consumption,” she said.

Contributors can’t currently make entries on earlier versions of the canvas, so the mentions of Whitepot Studios currently correspond to the “void” spot that destroyed the original artwork. But Haagmans hopes that eventually Whitepot and other groups with similar experiences will be able to attach their label to the artworks during the time period that they existed. But it may 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 both currently studying. Haagmans is in the middle of his exams, and Tsernoh told me that his Masters’ dissertation was due three hours from when we were speaking. “This is a really interesting time for an interview,” he laughed.

A screenshot from 2022 r/place atlas originally designed to depict “Revenge of the Sith”

Picture: 2022 r/place Atlas

The team is also working on putting together a Wiki, led by a volunteer who goes by Aeywoo, documenting more of the back and forth between groups. “We’re planning on having pages like, this faction that built the French flag and this streamer’s community fought and the outcome was either this artwork got deleted or the streamer got destroyed after a few hours,” Aeywoo described.

Including those kinds of disputes, despite the fact that 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 still archive it, because our job is not to make it how we want it to be, but [preserve] it how it is,” Haagmans said. Where conflicting user submissions exist, for example, from the streamer’s community and from others whose artwork was destroyed, the development team describes the events that transpired, rather than anyone’s personal feelings on them.

Only deliberate griefing is fully removed, although the developers said there hasn’t been too much of it. “We do get the occasional, ‘hey, the French, they botted this. We don’t want them here, they are complete leftists,’ that kind of stuff,” Haagmans said. Aeywoo, who had dealt with this kind of griefing while working on a Wiki dedicated to YouTubers who have passed away, said that pages for memorial artwork on the r/place Wiki will have protections to reduce the likelihood of it happening.

For the most part, though, contributors just want to cement their part in the event that was r/place. “The appeal of r/place is putting your mark on 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 the hearts of people. I personally wanted to make sure that was preserved for anyone who wanted to look back onto it,” Haagmans said.

Or, summarized more simply by Aeywoo: “Being part of history in the internetscape is pretty cool.”

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