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How Reddit's mysterious April Fools' button inspired religions and cults

How Reddit's mysterious April Fools' button inspired religions and cults

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On April 1st, as the rest of the internet mocked up one-off joke phones and fake mailboxes, news aggregator and social network Reddit introduced a mysterious Lost-esque button. As the other gags were swiftly forgotten, the button — attached to a 60-second timer that would reset every time it was clicked — endured, inspiring devotion and obsession. Now more than two months later, the button is finally gone, leaving a complicated history, a ream of software designed to decode its meaning, and a community fractured into color-coded cults.

Reddit staff announced the appearance of the button at 9AM ET on April Fool's Day. Users could head to the dedicated subreddit — r/thebutton — and choose to press it at any point, but were warned that they only had one chance to do so. Soon after, it was realized that people who did push would receive a colored circle next to their username, the hue dependent on when you chose to push it. Push it with 60 seconds on the clock, and the circle would be purple; push it with 45 seconds and you'd get blue, and so on, through 10-second intervals. Choose to leave the button unpressed, however, and your circle would remain gray.

Those bearing circles of the same color quickly banded into factions, giving life to mock religions and complex backstories, and rivalries that oscillated between silly and serious. Of the button-pushers, the purples were the largest group at the experiment's end, people eager to see what the fuss was about and push the button seconds after the timer was reset. But they were dwarfed by no-pressers, people who chose to abstain from pushing, and characterized based on their philosophy toward the concept. The "Grey Hopeful," for example, believed that they should watch the timer tick down to zero in the hope they will receive rewards "in the after-timer" for doing so, while "The Followers of the Shade" avoided pushing the button in an attempt to ensure their Reddit flair stayed forever gray.

The Knights of the Button sacrificed themselves to keep the timer going

Other groups mobilized to ensure the button would forever be pressed before the timer ran out. One user built a browser extension that organized volunteer pushers, and when that initiative showed cracks, developed a second extension — called The Necromancer — that would use dormant "zombie" accounts to stop the timer from running down. This second scheme was undone temporarily when one of the zombie accounts roped into service proved to be disallowed from pushing the button. Only the Knights of the Button, a group dedicated to sacrificing their own flair to keep the experiment running, kept the experiment alive.

But while a cadre of helpful souls built tools to analyze the data and keep the button pressed, others built malicious software masquerading as monitoring apps. Reddit user MrFunderThuck designed a plugin that would press the button automatically when installed, forcing a previously gray-flaired user to join the ranks of the purples or the blues. When his scheme was busted, MrFunderThuck admitted it was "an effort to convert the non-pressers," but apologized to people who appeared genuinely offended by his actions. Fortunately his nefarious aims were confined to the metaverse built up around the button — the recent discovery that popular plugin Hola was selling Chrome users' bandwidth shows that we could stand to be more careful with the extensions we install.

In addition to community-led studies, Reddit did its own analysis of button-pressers. At first, 60 percent of visitors to the button clicked it. In four days that was down to 10 percent, before dropping to 5 percent after two weeks, where it stayed for the rest of its life. Most pressers were PC owners — 66 percent of the final total — with less than a third coming from Mac, 11 percent coming from Android, and only 3 percent from iPhone.

The last person to push the button did so on June 5th

It had to end some day. The collected efforts of the Knights, the zombies, and assorted other factions failed on the 5th of June when user BigGoron pushed the button for the last time. But while the button has gone, its impressive legacy remains: an encyclopedia's worth of lore, stories, and mini-memes, almost all of it produced in a short two months by a community that coalesced from nothing. The button was characterized by a total lack of information provided by its creators, yet it seems that it was precisely Reddit's silence that seemed to produce the vacuum into which thousands fed their creativity.

Pushing the button didn't technically do anything beyond perpetuate its existence, but pushing the button also built jokey religions, thousand-strong factions, detailed wikis, cod-philosophies, new relationships, and — in one case — a marriage. Compared to other April Fool's jokes forgotten the next day, Reddit's latest entry appears destined for the annals of internet history, enshrined in place by a community that jumped at the chance to create and populate a new corner of the web.