Redditors Are Counting to Infinity

One number at a time.

Matt Vogel as the voice of Count Von Count performs onstage during the 'PBS Kids Update/Sesame Street 45th Season Anniversary' panel discussion on Jan. 21, 2014 in Pasadena, California.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

This is an installment of Reading Reddit, a Slate pop-up blog about Reddit.

In the beginning, there was 1. Then, there was 2. Soon after that, there was 3, and 4, and 5, and 6. Six years later, there was 2,240,062, and 2,240,063, and 2,240,064. Soon, there will be 2,241,500, and 2,241,501, and 2,241,502, and onward and upward. Welcome to r/counting, the self-proclaimed “most productive place on reddit,” where users are counting up to infinity, one digit at a time, all day, every day.

Why are they doing this? In the words of famed mountaineer George Mallory, “29,027 feet, 29,028 feet, 29,029 feet.” (That’s counting-speak for “Because it’s there.”) More precisely, I will refer you back to Peters’ Law of Internet Subcultures: The existence of a thing implies the existence of an online group of people who are obsessed with that thing. And nowhere on earth is counting more of a thing than on r/counting.

r/counting (hereafter referred to as “Counting”) is a collaborative subreddit for the world’s counting enthusiasts. Its users strive to count up to and back from certain numbers as quickly as possible. “OH MY GOLLY THIS SURE IS FUN,” the page title blares. It is the heaven to which Sesame Street’s Count von Count prays he will go when he dies. The main page contains a list of threads with various counting challenges, and in the comment sections people strive to complete those challenges. That’s really all there is to it. The counters at Counting count for the sheer joy of counting—and, in so doing, they illustrate the very real joys of Reddit.

It is a shame that the misogynistic LARPers who gather at r/The_Donald and other,similarly toxic subreddits have come to stand for the site in the minds of many non-users, because Reddit is much more than the sum of its most odious parts. The niche subreddits like Counting are the source of Reddit’s charm and social utility. There is merit in creating a space where strangers can commit acts of whimsy together, and where this mutual commitment to a dumb joke can beget real bonds. “I count because of this great community!” wrote user boxofkangaroos in the subreddit’s FAQ.

The Counting subreddit launched on June 10, 2012, when user Z3F posted a thread titled “Let’s count to infinity by 1s.” The count hit 1,000 that same day, and 10,000 before a week had passed. This thread became the fabled “main thread” of the subreddit, in which the count has continued unabated for more than 1-2-3-4-5-6 years. The count hit 1,000,000 on March 23, 2016, and the moment was marked by intense celebration in the main thread. “Grats! IT’S A NEW ERA OF COUNTING!” wrote one user. “1,000,001,” wrote another.

As of this writing the main count is up to 2,240,255, and it will assuredly increase in the lag time between when this article is filed and when it is published. The counts are all done by hand; deploying a bot to count in Counting is akin to using steroids in Major League Baseball. Occasionally, preternatural counters will be mistaken for bots, and counters have been counseled to curb their suspicions if they don’t have hard evidence of cheating. “Many people are able to achieve reply times like 1s and don’t use any bots. Just because someone seems to count insanely fast, that doesn’t mean he should be reported for cheating,” wrote user boxofkangaroos in the FAQ. “Insanely fast” is no exaggeration. At around the 2,240,195 mark, I tried to add to the count myself—participatory journalism!—but was shut out because users Smartstocks and Katakana1 were counting so damn fast that I didn’t want to jump in and screw things up. I’m still a novice counter.

The digit-by-digit count to infinity is not the only count to be found in Counting. There is a thread where you can count up using only repeating digits (currently at 337,887, as of this writing). On another thread, you can count up using letters (currently at GYAC). There is a tug-of-war counting thread where, as far as I can tell, users just go back and forth between two numbers for a while until one side “overpowers” the other and the count proceeds either up or down. There is also a parody subreddit, r/shittycounting, in which users attempt impossible counting tasks, such as counting to one by zeroes, or counting to nine by twos. (“2 – let’s do this!” was the first post on that last count, followed three posts later by “8 – i think i see a problem guys”.)

Participating in Counting is very easy, but excelling at Counting is very hard. Counters compete to achieve gets, or to be the ones to post certain benchmark numbers that close off existing threads and send the count over to a new thread. A get is a coveted achievement in Counting, and getting one requires you to be fast and alert. (As you might expect, the counters at Counting maintain detailed statistics about their gets and other accomplishments.) “How do you guys count so fast?” is the second question in the subreddit’s FAQ. “Practice, practice, practice,” the answer begins. The Counting community is a friendly one, and the counters therein will gladly share their speed-counting secrets to help you count faster.

Regular chat threads allow counters to get to know each other on an alphabetical level and answer that all-important question: Why do you count? Answers vary, but most are incredibly sincere. “I first started counting in 2015 because of a bad breakup. We had spent so much time together that when we broke up, I had too much free time and didn’t want to be by myself,” wrote user a-username-for-me. “I’m counting to infinity because watching my counts increase is satisfying as heck, and in this existential void where nothing is certain and this Universe is doomed to spontaneously end, counting is fun,” said Helicopter_Ballsack.

That’s good enough for me. We all have to find something to help us get through the day, and that something might as well be counting. The subreddit reminds me of the YouTube elevator enthusiast subculture I wrote about back in April: I don’t understand it, but I’m glad that it exists. I find r/counting to be a calming, reassuring place to spend one, two, three, four, or even five minutes of my day. It is tempting to write off all online communities by dint of the worst exemplars of the genre. The_Donald is a place for trolls to gather in bad faith to engender chaos, Counting is a place for goal-oriented individuals to put things in order. Counting is real.
Counting exists. And I—for one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven—am very glad that it does.