Are You a Checker or an Unchecker?

Last week, Nolen Royalty unleashed upon the world a website with a million empty check boxes.

Mr. Royalty, 32, a game developer in Brooklyn, created the site in a fit of inspiration and shared it on X last Wednesday with low expectations. “Basically anyone I described it to chuckled, at most,” he said.

Rows of unchecked squares sat tantalizingly against a pale gray background, an unexplored Minesweeper field. A visitor to the page checked one box. Then another. Each time a person checked a box, it was instantly filled in on everybody else’s screens, like a kind of collaborative grocery list accessible to anyone with a phone or computer.

Seven days later, more than 700,000 boxes have been filled in. The free website, called One Million Checkboxes, has become an unlikely hit and elicited oddly strong reactions: Users on X describe the project as “strangely compelling” and “torture for people with OCD.” A Washington Post newsletter called it “the most pointless website on the planet” — which it seemed to mean as a compliment.

Mr. Royalty has been frantically renting additional server space for about $60 a day to keep up with the site’s check-happy fans. He estimated that there have been at least 400,000 unique visitors, although that data is imperfect because the page has crashed several times under the weight of their enthusiasm.

By providing a blank slate to users, One Million Checkboxes has also cycled rapidly through the stages of internet maturity, serving as something of a microcosm of the joys and horrors of digital life.

First there was a period of exploration, in which users worked together to check as many boxes as they could. Next came creativity, as some began filling in boxes to illustrate hearts or, in more cases, crude drawings of male genitalia.

Then things devolved, as they often do online, into all-out war.

Steven Piziks, 57, a science fiction author in Ann Arbor, Mich., began checking boxes on Tuesday because he thought it might be soothing. He soon noticed someone else working behind him and unchecking every single one. He started checking even faster, and about half an hour later, the site’s built-in tally said he had checked more than 1,000 boxes.

It was not soothing at all. It felt “like a metaphor for all of social media,” Mr. Piziks said. “We go into it thinking it’s going to be wonderful and collaborative and interesting, and it kind of turns into a fight.”

Some bad actors on the site are human mischief-makers who take a perverse joy in undoing other people’s work. Others are simply bots that have been programmed to uncheck boxes en masse, Mr. Royalty said. (He has been working to contain them, with mixed success.)

Those bots have been particularly infuriating to Frank Elavsky, 34, a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University who has checked more than 20,000 boxes in his “fight for the cause.” He got in a spat on X with someone he suspected of tinkering with the site’s code in the name of unchecking. “It became kind of personal,” he said. “I’m like, ‘You foul, foul demon. How could you?’”

The website’s creator has been watching this all play out at a kind of omnipotent remove.

The idea for One Million Checkboxes came out of a conversation Mr. Royalty had with a friend last month about the internet of the early 2000s, which felt smaller, weirder and more personalized. He bought the domain for $10 and built the site using the coding language Python in about two days.

“I did not make the site to demonstrate to people some interesting point about human collaboration,” he insisted. “I just wanted to make a website that is fun and silly and useless.”

Mr. Royalty randomly scattered a few colorful boxes throughout to see if people would check them more frequently. (They do.) He created a counter for the upper right-hand corner of the page, so that users could see how many boxes they had checked and how many had been checked in total.

At the time of our phone conversation on Tuesday afternoon, the counter indicated that close to 900,000 out of a million boxes were checked. By the time we hung up, that number had dropped to 780,000. The uncheckers were winning.

The freedom that the site gives users also comes with risks. In addition to lewd drawings, users have checked boxes in order to spell out profanities and at least one racial slur.

Perhaps those incidents represent the next stage of the website’s development: the inevitable tug of war over how much moderation is required to prevent a digital space from becoming an uninhabitable cesspool.

For now, Mr. Royalty said the site was too vast to moderate. He designed its layout to shift based on the size of a user’s browser window, making messages hidden among the checks less visible.

Mr. Royalty does not intend for the website to be around forever. He said he was not yet sure what would happen when all 1,000,000 boxes were checked, if the uncheckers were ever to let that happen. “It’s not going to stay interesting to people forever,” he said.

It was arguably not that interesting to begin with, said Adam Rosenblum, 19, a student at the University of California, Berkeley, who heard about One Million Checkboxes this week. “I was like, this is such a boring site, but people love it,” he said.

He gave it a click anyway, and five minutes later, he had checked 100 boxes.

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