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Reddit Dangles A Ticking Timer In An Online Experiment





Time for some number crunching from our data expert Mona Chalabi from fivethirtyeight.com. She has given us this number of the week.


MARTIN: That's the number of days it took for a group social experiment to play out on Reddit. The discussion site presented users with a 60-second timer known as the button. Press the button, and the timer would stop counting down from 60 seconds. Every time someone clicked the button, the timer reset and began the countdown again. More than one million people pressed the button before the timer reached zero. Why would anyone want to do this, and what in the world did this experiment mean? Here to explain is Mona Chalabi. Hey, Mona.


MARTIN: OK, so this whole thing began on April 1. Reddit explained the whole thing to its users. The only rule was that people could only click once. But what was interesting about this was that people chose to click at different intervals within the 60 seconds, right?

CHALABI: So users also got assigned a little circle next to their usernames. And the color of that circle indicates how long they had managed to wait before pressing the button. Now, let's say you only let the timer get down to 52 seconds before you pressed, then you'd get a purple circle. And the thing that's interesting from my perspective is Reddit was collecting and sharing data on what hundreds of thousands of users were doing. So we know that 58 percent of users had purple circles. And the people who waited less than 11 seconds were given a red circle. And they were only six percent of all users. Anyway this whole thing went on for a while as you said. And on June 5, 65 days after the experiment started, the timer finally managed to make it all the way down to zero with no one pressing the button to stop it.

MARTIN: OK, so a reminder, every time someone clicked, it reset. You're saying it finally ran out, no one clicked. Then did the world as we know it end? Like, what happened?

CHALABI: Nothing, absolutely nothing. The experiment just ended.

MARTIN: So why does this matter? What did we learn from this?

CHALABI: It's incredibly bizarre, but Reddit users cared a lot about this button. During the experiment, they quickly split up into dozens of factions based on those color-coded circles that I mentioned.

MARTIN: Right.

CHALABI: And they gave those groups meanings. They almost became mini clans; some even referred to as religions. So those that had purple circles - and again, they're the one's that didn't make it past 52 seconds - were a part of the violent hand. And then there were the illuminati, the emerald council, the orange revolution. And finally, those who had waited until the final 10 seconds were part of the red guard.

MARTIN: Wait, so the people who were participating in this experiment, they were so attached to this that they created their own world with social relationships? This is bizarre.

CHALABI: Completely, spontaneously with no direction from Reddit, the site that kind of created this. And they even kind of contributed characters to those different groups as well. So those who abstain and don't press the button, they kind of grayed out. They have a motto saying remain pure. Those who are labeled as purple are considered as kind of inpatient because, as I said, they didn't make it down to 52 seconds. And the red who old off for ages and only succumb to pressing the button in those last 10 seconds think of themselves as a little heroic.

MARTIN: What is the takeaway from this? I mean, what did Reddit learn from this experiment, and - dare I ask - are there larger applications for what this means?

CHALABI: Well, some people think so. Researchers at the Brookings Institution, they outlined in an article some reasons why the button is of interest to policymakers. One, they noted that the button pressers don't actually share any clear common interest with each other. And two, they had no strong incentive to participate, financial or otherwise, and yet they did. Against all the odds, the Reddit button people really got engaged. So the researchers think that public projects could take a lesson away from Reddit in getting people to engage more and participate.

MARTIN: I have so many more questions, Mona, but we're going to have to leave it there. Mona Chalabi of fivethirtyeight.com. Thanks so much, Mona.

CHALABI: Thanks, Rachel.


CYNDI LAUPER: (Singing) And I see your true colors shining through. I see your true colors, and that's why I love you so don't be afraid to let it show. Your true colors, true colors. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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