What That Stupid Button on Reddit Can Teach Us About Storytelling

By  · Published on April 7th, 2015

On April 1st, a post went live on Reddit with a diabolically simple purpose. It’s a button. There’s also a timer counting down to zero. As you can probably guess, when someone presses the button, the timer resets. To date, the timer has never made it below 35 seconds. It hardly ever gets below 50. That’s thanks to well over half a million participants who discovered The Button this week and quickly created dozens of subgroups, religious-like factions, songs, a short mockumentary, a program that charts its progress, and countless strategies to keep the timer from reaching its end (or to ensure it runs out).

If this all sounds silly, that’s because it is.

It’s a frivolous internet prank, a loose social experiment that organically creates clans. It also has a few things to teach us about storytelling, but to understand them, we have to dig a bit further into what The Button really is.

First of all, it’s pure mystery. This is J.J. Abrams’ erotic daytime fantasy. It out-Mystery Boxes the Mystery Box. The Button has unknown origins that are (no surprise) in dispute, and it is presented without any real explanation.

The rules that do exist are pared down to the absolute minimum:

  1. You can only press the button once.
  2. Only user names created before 4/1/2015 can press it.
  3. You get a colored badge next to your name to show if you’ve pushed.
  4. That’s it.

The other thing you have to know is that The Button has one other trick up its sleeve. Rather than divide people into pushers and non-pushers (which is already a powerful demarcation), The Button also color coordinates people based on when they pushed the button during the timer’s cycle. Hold out for the 30s? You get green. Let it drop into the 40s? Blue. Excited as a virgin on prom night? You get purple (which is, by far, the most popular badge color). We’re now in Brave New World territory complete with stereotyping and shit talk that’s given gravitas by those who plead desperately with other participants to wait as long as possible to press the button so that the timer stays active as long as possible.

If this all sounds serious, that’s because it is.

At this point, I think it’s important to highlight the only two things The Button – this grand and epic internet mystery – has to reveal (and how they’re important to storytelling):

  1. What happens when the timer makes it to zero.
  2. That you get different colors for waiting longer (which has been revealed)

Viewed in terms of storytelling, the first element is raw plot: an unknown that needs to be known. Who killed Laura Palmer? Who shot J.R.? Or, to put it into Abramsian language, what happens if the Swan crew doesn’t push the button?

Yes, there’s that other button to consider. On Lost, the characters were faced with the conundrum of painstakingly maintaining a button-schedule that visibly achieved nothing. They took it on faith that something terrible would happen if they didn’t continue plugging in a sequence and pressing “Execute.” Then they stopped.

What happened, in a way, was inconsequential.

On the show, failing to push the button caused the Swan station to blow up and the final season to sink into a new mystery no one cared about, but it’s not hard to imagine a completely different (equally or more satisfying) result. Maybe refusing to push the button sent them back in time or killed the Smoke Monster or dragged another plane down to the island or caused absolutely nothing to happen at all. Maybe it was a social experiment to see how long one idiot would continue pushing a button he didn’t really have to push.

Regardless of what happened, the mystery of the button itself entranced viewers. It became an object of obsession, which is what’s happening to Reddit’s button, too. Arguments and philosophies and rivalries fly on The Button’s subreddit message board with as much liminal seriousness as Lost fans had. The idea that it’s all pretend can be conveniently pushed aside so that Button fans can play their individual roles. Pushers, non-pushers, the zen-like waiters.

The second element (time-based color badges) is the small bit of new information that thickens the plot. Or at least seems to. It raises the stakes by manufacturing prestige beyond a single division line. (I imagine the first person to click the button at the 1-second mark will be made queen or something.) This also keeps participants invested by asking them to stay glued to The Button in case it reaches a record low. Wait patiently enough, and you could be rewarded with a truly elite badge color. Go do something else (work, school, bathroom break) and another participant could steal the glory.

Again, if this sounds silly, consider how obsessive Breaking Bad fans got about their colors.

Ultimately, the Button may not be able to tell us anything about crafting character or building structure, but it does tell us a lot about the power of mystery – especially a binary mystery. It’s about threshold crossing. Do you press the button or not? It’s as simple as that, and sometimes in storytelling it can be that simple for a character facing a dilemma. Do I venture out into the water not knowing what the shark is capable of? Do I take the case? Do I swallow the red pill or the blue pill?

But, again, when it comes to providing a giant floating question mark for an audience, this experiment proves that the ultimate answer to that question isn’t necessary in attracting or maintaining interest. Entire communities have sprung up solely and specifically because someone put a button next to a timer on the internet.

What happens when the timer ticks down to zero may matter a great deal to paying off what you’re asking an audience to pay attention to, but as far as getting eyeballs, it’s shockingly simple. Dismiss The Button as frivolous or absurd or a waste of time, but the one thing that’s indisputable is its popularity.

Show us a briefcase, and we’re going to wonder what the hell is in it.

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