It started as an April Fool's joke with a simple premise: there's a button on the page with a 60-second timer that appears to be constantly resetting. Click the button if you want, but you can only do it once per account. Once you do, the timer will reset and everyone has to wait. Depending on when you press it, you'll be assigned "user flair," showing the second you pressed it and a color depending on how far the timer went down. But this got in the way of answering a bigger question: what happens when you let the timer reach zero?
The experiment lived on in earnest for a good two months while the community took it and ran with it as far as it could. And for Reddit, that meant two months of spawning a panoply of in-jokes, starting religions, suggesting theories as to what would happen when the timer ran out, and creating factions based on flair colors (the biggest conflict being between the "gray" non-pressers and colored pressers). Those who did press segmented further into color-based camps. Self-parodying is common on Reddit, but this community took it to another level.
But that ended as users let the countdown run to zero. Then nothing happened. No fanfare. The button was replaced with a message stating that "the experiment was over." The moderators put up a post thanking users for participating and announced that the subreddit would be archived effective Friday, June 5. Just over a million people pressed the button as of June 3, and for all that, it was just an experiment. Or maybe it could be more. Reddit administrators are keeping mum.
While the button was alive, the community built up a trove of tools and graphs based on button press data. There was even a death clock (and just a week ago, it predicted that the button would have been alive for around two months if even a tenth of non-pressers decided to participate). A full 1,250 users pressed the button below a second. On the last day, people either clicked early or late, making graphs look like a reverse bell curve. There's enough work out there to make professional statisticians jealous.
This isn't the first time people consciously bought into a self-parodying experiment. Cow Clicker, a Facebook game developed by video game researcher Ian Bogost, made its start as half-satire, half-example of the banality of social media games like Farmville. It became successful, perhaps for being too good at employing the money-leeching strategies it aimed to satirize.
Reddit's button stirred the exact sort of behavior it was designed for. It simple enough that you could explain it to a five-year-old. But it was also designed to keep people from getting the answer to the big question: "What happens if we just let it end?"
It just took a quick second and a moment of collective apathy to get that answer.