It started as an April Fool's Day lark, but a digital button placed on Reddit just one month ago has spurred a complex, sprawling online community, with offshoots that consider themselves spiritual orders.
I know. A month-old internet stunt is odd fodder for galvanising spirituality. But this is the world we live in, babies! And people are using "The Button" as an existential barometer.
Wait what's happening what is this
"The Button" is a box beneath a clock ticking down from 60 seconds to zero that you'll see if you go to its official subreddit. It appeared on April Fools' Day.
Anyone who joined Reddit before April 1 has one opportunity to press the button. If someone presses the button, it restarts the clock. No one knows what happens if the clock runs down to zero.
So far, there have been over 860,000 button pressers. Social psychologists have been quick to link the experiment to the psychology of delayed gratification. Since people are trying to keep the timer running, it's an exercise in group stewardship, sort of like keeping a fire burning when each person standing around it only has one piece of wood.
It's seen as better to wait until as close to zero as possible to click, since that extends the amount of time between one press and another. It gives people within the community bragging rights to have a lower number, which establishes a hierarchy. If you push on second 55, you ain't shit.
With a communal aspect built in, it's not that surprising that a community of diehard fans has cropped up. The internet has communities of diehard fans for things much weirder than this! And the mystery of what the fuck happens if no one presses the button is tantalising. But what is strange and fascinating is how the diehard fans are styling themselves — they're explicitly calling themselves religious orders.
A framework for seeing the world, all contained in a button
Like many religious communities, the members of "The Button" have divided into denominations and orders. "The Followers of the Shade" who deliberately won't press the button because they want to see what happens when the timer runs out. The "Redguard" are intent on only clicking when the clock is about to run out. "The Hitchhikers" tried to press the button at 42 seconds as a tribute to Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.
Most religions help people try to make sense of what happens when they die, the religions of the button have all kinds of theories about what happens when the button runs out. Some say everyone will get Reddit Gold when it runs out, and welcome the clock winding down. (These people call themselves the "Grey Hopeful".)
Much of the language used in self-descriptions of the denominations is baroque, but it's important to note that much of this religious organisation is happening with a tongue-in-cheek approach. I'm sure that some of the members see it as an online parody religion more akin to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster than an actual system of beliefs.
Here, for instance, is "The Prayer of the Followers of the Shade":
Non-pressers we shall be, For Thee, my Shade, for Thee. The Grey hath descended forth from Thy hand, That our flair shall be testament of Thy command So we shall flow a river forth to Thee, And teeming with violet shall it ever be. In nomine Patris, et umbra, et sanctum cinereo.
And what is any new spiritual organisation without overwrought YouTube videos about denomination infighting?
But is this really a religion?
In a recent article on new pop-culture based minority religions, Jamie Bartlett argues that online fandom communities like "Bronies" (followers of My Little Pony) and "Snapewives" (people who believe themselves to be spiritually wedded to a Harry Potter character) have veered from fandom into religion, using the internet to connect with other believers.
It's a broad interpretation of the term "religion" that basically sees any community that shares beliefs as falling into the category. In Bartlett's view, this would be a religion. Of course, it'd take much more than that to apply for tax-exempt status from the government, and the experiment is too new to tell if this is just a brief fad or something else.
Interest in "The Button" has already waned substantially since the first two weeks of its existence. The spiritual communities it has created may end up being very short-lived, a strange blip in Reddit history.
Or they may surprise us with longevity, just as the ferocity of devotion that Bronies have shown has been shockingly long-lived and serious.
Either way, the spiritually-focused hubbub around the button is a fascinating chapter in the new history of online micro-religions.
Reddit has been a hub for dialog about spirituality and religion for years, although it's most notorious for fostering the self-congratulatory swamp of "Reddit atheists", an oddly zealous community of Christopher Hitchens devotees. This is a different bag of chips altogether.
The emergence of self-styled religious orders around "The Button" might seem strange considering the popularity of atheism on Reddit, but hostility towards traditional organised religion doesn't preclude an interest in pop culture religions, which is what we're seeing here. If anything, this bizarrely passionate response to Reddit's social experiment underlines that the internet's appetite for fanaticism is unbounded.