Three years ago, data engineer Tyler Wood was in a chat with his coworkers that was dedicated to reminding themselves to water their plants. At some point, he wondered: Why am I doing this myself?
Around that same time, the popular TwitchPlaysPokemon channel on Twitch had successfully captured all 151 Pokemon. The game gave the channel’s chat room control of the game, letting comments act as a sort of controller for a massive multiplayer game.
“I wondered if this same collective, chaotic approach could keep an actual organism alive,” Wood said. “I think a plant is the only organism I could morally and ethically allow the internet to take care of.”
And so the subreddit r/takecareofmyplant was born.
Wood is a self-taught programmer, and had a Raspberry Pi (a small, $25 computer) sitting around for a couple years without any use for it. He saw r/takecareofmyplant as the perfect project, an opportunity to learn new skills. He hooked his Raspberry Pi up to the power supply, and had it turn the water pump on and off.
The starring figure was a Zebra Plant that the internet named Jeff. Every day, the bot /u/takecareofmyplant posts a “Daily Water” post on the subreddit. People vote on whether or not to water it, the bot tallies it, and then waters according to popular opinion. If the majority voted yes, Jeff got watered. If they voted no, he didn’t. Wood set up a livestream of the plant, so people could check in on how it was doing.
Over time, he’s added sensors that measure moisture, sunlight, temperature, and humidity. All the information is displayed on his website, takecareofmyplant.com, but he set up no rules or guidelines. He barely posted in the subreddit, only intervening to add new features or occasionally repot the plant.
With all we know about the radicalizing, hateful potential of the internet, it can be hard to imagine it as a nurturing place. But that’s exactly what r/takecareofmyplant became. The engaged users of the subreddit kept Jeff alive for well over two years, Wood said, until he didn’t survive Wood’s move to a different state. He resurrected the project with a new plant, which the subreddit named Freyja after the Norse goddess of fertility.
“This kind of random project has led to some sort of real connection,” Wood said. “It just kind of flies in the face of a lot of the perceptions of the internet as miscreants and ne'er-do-wells.”
There are the occasional saboteurs, those who try to overwater the plant. One user even impersonated Wood in a thread once, spreading false information. For the most part, Wood sat back and watched. His hands-off style has allowed the community to self-organize, and he watched as they united against a common enemy.
The project represents a sort of utopian vision of the internet, one where a disparate group of people form a community focused on a common goal. Without any direction, they took it upon themselves to name the plant and have data-driven discussions about when to water it. One user even creates a GIF of the plant every day. When Wood goes on vacation or isn’t active for long stretches of time, subreddit users will check in to see if he’s okay.
The largely positive nature of this experiment may have something to do with the fact that it revolves around taking care of the living thing. Over 20 years ago, artist and UC Berkeley engineering professor Ken Goldberg launched a similar project, which he dubbed the Telegarden. He set up a robot and a garden and let the internet run wild, planting and watering whatever they wanted. Like Wood, he set up no rules, allowing the possibility of malicious behavior.
But the Telegarden, too, attracted an intensely engaged, mostly positive crowd. People were generally respectful, taking care of the plants rather than killing them.
Some may bristle at the idea of automating gardening, letting the internet infringe on human’s connection with the natural world. But again and again, from games like Farmville to movies like Wall-E, the importance of plants persist in a technology-centered world.
“It was the last thing I thought people would want to do over the internet,” Goldberg said. “But people love the idea of gardening, even if it’s not physical. It’s a deeply human instinct to grow, nurture, connect with nature.”