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Free Market Economy

How a Reddit April Fools’ joke can explain spontaneous order

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Most corporate April Fools’ Day jokes might be cringeworthy, but not Reddit’s. For the second time, Reddit created an open, collaborative canvas where anyone — and I mean anyone — can paint. But there is a catch: each person can only edit one pixel every five minutes. The only way to render a cohesive image is through the collaboration of thousands of anonymous people through spontaneous order. 

Spontaneous orders are, to put it simply, undesigned orders. Contrary to what many people believe, Hayek didn’t quite coin the phrase, but he did popularize it, and there is a lot we can learn from him in terms of the meaning of this concept. 

Hayek differentiated orders between “made” and “spontaneous.” “Made orders” have a singular purpose (like organizations and their mission statements). On the other hand, spontaneous orders have no purpose, and individuals can seek their particular goals within it.

Reddit’s place has no singular purpose for itself, but rather, it allows individuals and communities to seek their own, one pixel at a time. As the late Prof. Steve Horwitz would put it: “Spontaneous orders have no concrete purpose other than to be a process by which the multiple purposes of those who participate can be fulfilled. Spontaneous orders are rule-based…made orders tend to be hierarchical.”

To apply this concept to r/Place, let’s take a look at the last time Reddit ran this experiment, in 2017:

In the top middle section, you can see a rather larger piece of text. That is the Tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise, or (Star Wars prequels spoiler alert) the tale that Emperor Palpatine told Anakin Skywalker to convince him to come to the dark side. 

To explain why this was a meme in 2017 is besides the point. But what you need to understand here is that during the 2017 run of r/Place, the r/PrequelMemes community on Reddit had a singular goal: to write this tale on the canvas. In the video below, you can see a time-lapse of how they did it.

It started disorganized, with hard-to-read messy text, but the community defined how they wanted to make it look with time. Someone created a spreadsheet, and each individual in the community would, pixel by pixel, edit the canvas to achieve their goal. Not only that, but the community needed to fend off any people attacking its real state as pixels are scarce in the Place. 

The 2022 run of r/Place has just finished, and you can see the resulting work of many more communities. r/Brasil presumptuously added a World Cup trophy to its corner, r/PlaceUkraine added trucks pulling tanks to their flag, and the infamous r/WallStreetBets added its iconic mascot to the canvas. 

Spontaneous orders are systems for the use of knowledge, and a result of human action, not human design. Once you understand how order can be unplanned, you can see examples everywhere, from internet art projects to markets and languages. 

That’s why economists have been studying them for hundreds of years. Adam Smith described it as the invisible hand of the market, while later thinkers, such as Hayek, further developed the understanding of the concept.

Hayek, in fact, went further, and was able to use this concept to explain why central planning doesn’t work. It’s the failure to distinguish between made and spontaneous orders that made people believe that they could organize societies like factories, and why liberty is so important. 

Whether in Reddit art projects or in a free society, no single person is in charge of the design, but everyone can take part in it.

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