On April 1, users of Reddit awoke to an innocuous button and timer counting down from 60 seconds—and life in one of the Web’s largest communities hasn’t been the same since. As you can probably gather, when someone gives in and presses The Button, the timer resets.
In the eight days since, Reddit’s community hasn’t let the countdown drop below 34 seconds. In fact, it rarely dips below 40. So, what will happen when it inevitably hits zero? Despite rampant speculation, no one really knows.
Of course, this hasn’t prevented more than 660,000 people from pushing The Button. Dozens of communities, pledges, songs, tributes and lobby groups have grown up around it. If this all sounds absurd, that’s because it is. It’s an April Fool’s joke, after all.
Because it’s there
Our desire to leave home and travel to other places is an impulse deeply rooted in our species; in fact, it’s the same impulse that makes The Button an itch we have to scratch.
In advance of the climb that would eventually take his life, British mountaineer George Mallory was asked why he persisted in his attempts to summit the world’s highest mountain. His now famous reply was, “Because it’s there.” Mallory wasn’t being entirely flippant. He went on to explain: “[Everest’s] existence is a challenge. The answer is instinctive, a part, I suppose, of man’s desire to conquer the universe.”
It’s no surprise that Reddit’s April Fools’ prank—a loose social experiment rooted in curiosity and community—shares more than a few parallels with travelling.
Into the unknown
Presented without any real explanation, The Button is a map to an unknown destination just sixty seconds away. Getting there is deceptively simple—resist the urge to push and trust that thousands of others will, as well.
If you do give up your press, however, you’ll be rewarded with one of seven badges that record the time you pressed it. This raises the stakes. As the clock ticks inevitably lower, badges are harder to come by. It also ensures Reddit’s users stay glued to the countdown timer in case it reaches a record low. It’s a relentless game of one-upmanship.
Again, if this sounds silly, consider how obsessive some travellers become about the number of stamps in their passport. For some people, it’s all about the bragging rights. You probably know what that feels like—especially if you’ve ever tried to untangle yourself from a late-night been-there-done-that conversation.
Curiosity and community
But what happens when the timer makes it to zero? Nobody knows—and it’s as tantalizing to Reddit as Everest was to Mallory. The traveller within compels us to wait The Button out, watching it count down with the same narcotic tingle of possibility we feel when looking at a map. But the tourist urges us to push the button, allowing us to lay claim to proof that we were part of something_._ Whether it’s a button or a backpack—our obsession becomes our identifier. It’s a shared experience, a sense of kinship, a binding of like-minded people together.
Of course, if you’re a genuine seeker of the road less travelled, The Button may be nothing more than a distraction. Regardless, it does reveal a lot about the power of curiosity and community. Dismiss The Button as frivolous or a waste of time; it is indeed those things. One thing that can’t be denied, however, is its popularity.
And there’s no mistaking why. Show us a map and we’re going to dream about what lies over the horizon.