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TechTank

Have you pressed the button?

Joshua Bleiberg and Darrell M. West

The button started as a simple April Fools’ Day prank on Reddit. The button’s page has a clock that counts down from 60. If someone presses the button then the clock resets. As of the publication of this post over 800,000 people have pressed the button and in a little under a month the clock has never reach zero. The wild success of the button holds interesting lessons for how to develop public policies in the Internet age.

Redditors (Reddit users) who had account prior to April 1 may press the button once. Pressing the button awards the users account a piece of flair. The color of the flair corresponds to how much time was left on the clock when the user clicked. There is a perceived level of prestige for colors that indicate the user clicked with less time on the clock. At any given time there are a few thousand people watching the button clock. The graph below shows the distribution of button presses.

3D histogram of button presses

button_reddit

Z Axis: Multiplicity of press (Number of people that pressed at the same time)

Source: Data is Beautiful: vir_innominatus

Lessons for public policy

The button is interesting as an unintended social experiment. The continued clicking of the button has some important implications for how Internet users could participate in crowd-sourced governance. From a policy perspective the button is interesting for a few reasons.

  1. The button pressers have no clear common interest
  2. They are not organized
  3. The process of watching and pressing the button is mundane
  4. There is not a strong incentive to press the button

Despite these facts, redditors have studiously pressed the button for over three weeks without allowing the clock to hit zero.

Currently there are a few analogous situations in the public sphere. The Texas Virtual Border Watch is a pilot program that allows anyone to watch border cameras and report potential illegal activity. There are also citizen science project like Penguin watch where users tag video stills of the animals for use in research.

The button teaches us two specific ways to improve on these programs. The first is that Internet users will take advantage of open data and develop fantastic applications. Redditors have developed over a dozen apps and browser extensions involving the button. These tools allow people to see button stats in real time, set alerts when the timer is low, in addition to many other purposes. Allowing citizens to interact with public data will yield valuable results.

People on the Internet are also willing and able to engage in boring tasks for rewards that have little value. The pieces of flair in part motivate redditors to continue pressing the buttons. Organizations seeking to do a public service could easily provide a similar digital badge for little or no cost.

There is something truly compelling about the button. People will engage in activities that create the illusion of control freely and willingly. This aspect of human nature could be a prank or used to take advantage of regular people. Alternatively public officials could harness this force to serve the greater good.

Authors

J

Joshua Bleiberg

Ph.D. student - Vanderbilt University

Former Research Analyst - The Brookings Institution

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