I’ve never been so torn about whether or not to push a button.
Like many websites, Reddit loves a good April Fools’ Day prank, but this year it’s taken a turn for the surreal. On Wednesday morning, the site announced a mysterious timer and accompanying button. Registered users can push The Button exactly once while logged into their accounts, though they’re under no obligation to do so. While the clock relentlessly counts down from sixty, pressing The Button immediately resets it. When it reaches zero, something will presumably happen—even if Reddit’s administrators have promised nothing of the kind.
Because The Button is accessible only to those users who registered before April 1, 2015, the timer will eventually run out. For now, however, users keep clicking it, relentless in their determination to keep the count going. In fact, so many of them are pressing so quickly that I’ve never seen it drop below 54 seconds.
Not everyone is quite so eager: As Carl Franzen writes on Motherboard, “The Button has divided Reddit into the pressers… and non-pressers.” It’s probably a little much to suggest, as Franzen’s headline does, that “The Button is Tearing Reddit Apart.” As a group, Reddit’s users are too amused with themselves to take something like this all that seriously. More importantly, though, they are alike in their shared engagement with the idea of The Button, both sides turning it into a cause célèbre, an occasion to spend even more time on the site than they would otherwise.
And that’s crux of the matter. Far more interesting than the timer’s inevitably interrupted descent is a smaller set of numbers just above it, a ticker that counts each of the “participants” in the exercise. As I write this, that metric hovers just below half a million, an astonishing number of engagements for a single page in little more than a day. It will have surpassed that threshold by the time you read these words.
Ultimately the real winner here won’t be the pressers or the nonpressers, but Reddit’s owners. Reddit invites the kind of Internet users who pride themselves on their ability to avoid ads, so much so that the site sometimes runs notices in its ad space thanking visitors for not employing Adblock. Even on other sites, it is notoriously difficult to convince users to actively engage with ads on a webpage. With The Button, Reddit’s administrators have objective data that they can show to advertisers, data that proves just how comically easy it is to get their users to click on things.
As I’ve suggested before, Reddit works by convincing its users that they’re exceptional and cool. The more they express their ostensible individuality, the easier it is for Reddit to monetize them. Here, engaging with The Button—whether by actually pressing it or enumerating the reasons that you shouldn’t—allows Reddit to do just that. If this is an April Fools’ joke, the joke is on the users who think their decisions constitute anything more than a data point.
And me? I pushed The Button. I was the 501,390th user to do so.