For a while now I was fascinated by Reddit's r/place experiment and wondered how a project like this could work at a much smaller community—a college campus. As the COVID-19 pandemic caused our community to go virtual, I thought this weekend project could be an interesting way to try to keep friends and strangers during these anxious times.
Creating a virtual canvas where everyone can draw what they want comes with an array of design challenges.
First, there's the issue of scale: Reddit had more than a million users on r/place, whereas on campus there are only around a couple of thousands students, only some portion of which would end up engaging with this platform. I thought giving everyone the ability to only draw a single pixel could limit on the possibilities of artistic collaboration. On the other hand, I was worried that if people could draw a pixel every few hours or even days then we would have only a couple of active users shaping most of the art on the canvas. So, how does one make sure every interested student is able to get their own place while also not limiting their creative input?
Second, there's the issue of preservation. I thought of this canvas as a place where every student has their own little space for creativity. With r/place, other could overwrite existing creations. This was a fun feature, but I assumed many busy students would just enter the platform once, draw, and then leave and wait until its conclusion. It would not be a good experience for less active users to see their creations disappear.
Third, there's the issue of encouraging collaboration while also allowing individual contributions. A big goal of the platform is to encourage community building, yet not every student might be comfortable or want to collaborate. This is why the platform must insure that even one person can creatively express themselves efficiently.
Fourth, there's the issue of keeping interest. While I made the assumption that many students are busy and will check the platform once, it would be great for them to have reasons to come back later, whether that means in a week or a few days. On another hand, again, very active users should not dominate the canvas.
With these challenges in mind, I started quickly creating the platform in a couple of days, as with the term coming to the end, there would less and less interest. When deciding on the rules and the features of the platform, I did my best to address the issues and the assumptions I made.
Scale: instead of each person drawing on a pixel, all students are given a 3 pixel by 3 pixel block. This ensures that one has the opportunity to express themselves whether they are a single user or a group. It also makes it easier for our much smaller community to express themselves.
Claiming: each student can claim a single block once. Once claimed, it can be moved but it cannot be replaced by another student, so it is protected from being altered. This helps solve the issue of preservation.
Keeping interest: originally, I intended to give the users the ability to claim multiple blocks every few days. In the rush to get this finished before the exam period, I decided to scrap this idea and instead just see what would happen if each person could claim a single block.
Other features of the platform included:
Tutorial: if it is the first time the user is loading the platform, they would be presented with a brief tutorial on how to use it. This helped minimize any confusion one might have about the navigation on the platform.
Descriptions: to add an extra bit of a personal touch, students could add a short text to their build.
I would say the biggest mistake I made was not to consider the end goal properly. I thought I would wait and see how people react to the platform and from there decide how to conclude the "experiment". My plan was to generate a gif of the platform over time as well as a final product. I did not implement any of those features before releasing it onto the public in hopes that it would make sense to do it in the end.
The platform ran actively for about a week, getting about 400+ students to claim their blocks and draw on the canvas. There were a couple of interesting use patterns.
Often people would first claim their block where other blocks were present.
In a similar manner, students started using the description field to put a URL to an image of the planned final product. This allowed strangers to join in on group builds.
People would often replicate another student's individual design with a different color scheme or minor alterations and place their block next to them. This would result in some interesting group pieces.
Many international students used their country flag to represent their block.
Grey blocks: An unfortunate outcome was that there existed many "gray" blocks. Those are the blocks which the student has claimed but then has not modified in any way. In other words, this shows they might have interacted with the platform but left mid-way. After reaching out to a couple of users that left gray blocks, it seemed that some had issues with interacting with the platform (it especially seemed prominent on mobile) while others just deliberately did not want to paint their own block but rather were curious to see what it was all about.
As a platform which ran during a very stressful period on campus, whether because of the global pandemic or important social movements like #BlackLivesMatter, there was value in seeing people interact with one another in this virtual space.
While this initial run may had difficulties in accomplishing its goal, with the feedback we received, a new and improved version of UniCanvas is going to be available in Fall 2020. This time, this will be ran through our newly-founded hoagie.io digital experience club. If you want to learn more or contribute to the club's or platform's development, be sure to contact me!