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Missing the Point? The Reddit 'Button' and Public Policy

The Brookings Institution meets internet culture.
Image: Adikos/Flickr

Have you pressed the Reddit button?

It's just a button and also a timer that counts down from 60.00 seconds every time the button is clicked. In the six or so weeks since the button's appearance, it has yet to count all the way down to zero. People keep pushing it and, so far, about 900,000 have pushed the button. The button is megaviral.

The button has a wiki page, numerous button-related browser plugins and apps, and it offers a wealth of button datasets and data tools.


I won't pretend to be interested in the button or the point of the button, but I am interested in the interest of the Brookings Institution's Joshua Bleiberg and Darrell West, both top serious researchers at the think tank, who together wrote an article about the button and the button's implications for public policy.

These are the reasons they think the button is interesting:

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

Please note that none of these things are actually interesting, at least within the context of "people on internet messageboards." I'm also not sure any of those things are actually true.

The Brookings thinkers see two interesting "analogous situations in the public sphere." One is the Texas Virtual Border Watch, in which an entirely predictable subset of internet users watch security cameras for illegal activity on the US border. The other is Penguin Watch, which is kind of the same thing but for people that enjoy penguins and other wildlife instead of people that are way concerned about illegal activity on the US border (read: nonwhite people crossing it).

"The button teaches us two specific ways to improve on these programs," the Brookings analysts write. "The first is that Internet users will take advantage of open data and develop fantastic applications."

"People on the Internet are also willing and able to engage in boring tasks for rewards that have little value," they add, adorably. "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." (Read up on button flair here, or don't.)

I don't know which is more odd: that the Brookings dudes are completely oblivious to the crowdsourcing movement at-large—and/or the open-data movement—or that they're oblivious to the fact that people are often encouraged to do things that many other people are doing or have done, particularly if those things are novel or amusing or align with messageboard culture.

I am utterly perplexed by this Brookings Institution analysis.

Finally, I hate having to say it out loud, but … people aren't doing a boring thing, they're doing a "boring" thing (ironically, I guess) and having a really good time at it, and they're doing it on a messageboard where they talk about the button and make button jokes etc etc etc, button button button. Welcome to the internet.