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Reddit Explains the Mystery Behind ‘The Button’

The People's History of The Button: Social Experiment or Reddit Prank? 6:23

Reddit is a strange and often beautiful place. Part content-sharing board, part meme factory, part social community, the site has an outsize effect on mainstream Internet news and culture.

So large and passionate is the Reddit community that what began as a simple April Fool's project became a massive sociological experiment, with users dividing themselves into groups, weaving together rumor and theory in an attempt to solve a mystery, and literally debating the meaning of life ... all because of a simple countdown clock.

On April 1, an announcement appeared on Reddit's front page: a button and timer appeared on a Reddit-created "subreddit," or site subsection, called The Button. The timer would count down from 60 seconds, Reddit explained, and it would reset itself each time someone in the world clicked. Each user could click only once, and when The Button reached zero, the experiment would end.

"We can't tell you what to do from here on out," Reddit warned. "The choice is yours."

And so Redditors were divided. Some immediately chose never to press the button, pledging their allegiance to the "non-presser" group. The "pressers" were split into even smaller groups based on the timer's count at the time they chose to click: Some received red circles next to their usernames for their clicks at 0-11 seconds, while others got purple "flair" for clicking closer to the 60-second mark.

Users in each color group formed themselves into vibrant communities that some media outlets have compared to religions or cults, each with their own ethos -- and their own theories about what would happen when The Button hit zero. Meanwhile, Redditors of all flairs debated what the experiment meant: Was it an art project? Reddit's way of showing advertisers how engaged its userbase can be? The NSA? What does it all mean?

NBC News asked Reddit to explain when The Button ended on Friday, after more than two months and more than 1 million clicks. Watch the video above to hear The Button creator's answer, as well as a slate of Redditors explaining what made a simple timer so compelling.