Nerd Island: Could Reddit Users Create a Real-Life Oasis?
There are few places on Earth I could imagine wanting to spend time less than a remote island populated solely by hundreds of hardcore users of the social news site Reddit. So when I learned of the plan to create Reddit Island, a real-life nerd Shangri-La, I had to see how close my nightmare was to becoming a reality.
For about two years now, a group of internet nerds have been trying to move together to an uninhabited island and create a "cross between a small self-sustaining community and a tourism spot." They met and have been organizing on Reddit, the vast news website known for its rage comics, anti-SOPA activism and a vibrant Men's Rights community. Anyone can create a forum on Reddit, known as a "subreddit," and today the Reddit Island subreddit has about 4,000 subscribers.
The plan is to purchase an island using funds chipped in by hundreds of Redditors. A few dozen settlers will move to the island first, living in lightweight shelters made of shipping pallets. Then—using, like, crowdsourcing or something—they'll construct a self-sustaining libertarian technopia where download speeds are high and taxes are low. Ideas have included: Permaculture, technical school, weed farms, wind farms, on-site data center, and eco-tourism.
"Reddit Island is a dream," said a twentysomething Israeli in IT who plans to be among the first wave of settlers. "It's going to be filled by very high-tech people, with the possibility of creating a new society or a new culture." Once on the island, he'd like to experiment with aquaponics, a form of agriculture that's a cross between tending an aquarium and raising a terrarium.
But what's wrong with his life in Israel?
"It's this entire system," he said. "And plus, I can't grow or smoke weed in Israel because it's illegal."
The idea, if not the reality of Reddit Island was inevitable. Enraptured journalists have been pumping up Reddit as the future of everything from education to politics to journalism. It was only a matter of time before some Redditors would let this go to their heads and try to take on the whole project of civilization-building on some chunk of rock. In the unlikely event that Reddit Island actually happens, the most shameless Reddit boosters should chip in and send a rescue helicopter once it fails, to clean up the mess they helped create.
These Redditors didn't need much encouragement, though. The aspiring Reddit Islanders are the hardest of Reddit's hardcore, an infinitely self-confident cult of "nerd supremacy"—to use a term coined by the technologist Jaron Lanier. They believe the majority of society's problems can be traced back to the fact that most people just aren't smart enough to embrace the holy nerd trinity of logic, atheism and free-market capitalism worshiped by the true Redditor. With Reddit Island, their hermetic island playhouse, they'll be able to create the society they deserve.
"I think the biggest lure is just the chance to form a real community," said ‘Arthur,' a 43 year-old Redditor from Ohio who has been following Reddit Island for six months and who plans to settle Reddit Island with his young son. "An actual community where people are interested in each other's well-being and not lawsuits, and not whether Chick-Fil-A supports blah blah blah blah."
"A huge draw for me is to be able to raise my son in an environment in a place that is a bit more in my control," he said, safe from "all the religious persons that are trying to grab kids as they come up through the ranks."
Reddit Islanders are part of a new wave of nerd isolationists. The age of connectivity has paradoxically inspired geeks to try to separate themselves from the real world via elaborate social engineering schemes of varying degrees of improbability.
On the modest end of the spectrum is Rabbit Island. In February of 2010, Rob Gorski, a New York artist, bought an uninhabited 90-acre island in Lake Superior on Craigslist. Using Kickstarter, he and fellow artist Andrew Ranville raised over $14,000 for supplies to build a log cabin in which to host a yearly summer artist residency while preserving the beauty of the island.
The cabin is finished, the artist residency is in its third year and Rabbit Island's Tumblr is filled with jealousy-inducing images of remote island bliss from this summer.
"I'm pinching myself that this actually exists," said Gorski when we reached him on a scratchy cell phone connection. (There's no internet on the island.) "We watched a massive rainstorm come in this morning, and we went swimming this afternoon."
Gorski said the experience has inspired him to start thinking about creating "some sort of Kickstarter for land use," where local communities could pool together resources to buy and preserve natural areas in their area.
On the other end of the spectrum is Libertarian tech mogul Peter Thiel. He's wasted millions of the $1.5 billion dollars he's earned founding PayPal and other tech ventures on the "seasteading" movement, which hopes to make Waterworld a reality by creating floating city-states in international waters. Ostensibly, the seasteading movement is about pioneering new forms of technology and governance. Really, it's a bunch of rich people hoping to keep the party alive after they finish utterly pillaging all land-based civilization.
Seasteading, wrote Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, "may be the most elaborate effort ever devised by a group of computer nerds to get invited to an orgy."
The Reddit Island plan is slightly less insane than Thiel's seasteading scheme, but that still makes it completely batshit insane.
"It's dreaming," said Chris Krolow, the CEO of Private Islands Online, "the world's private island marketplace." Krolow has said his company is occasionally approached by similar groups of people looking to colonize uninhabited islands, but the projects are so far-fetched none has even reached the stage of putting down a deposit. Reddit Island seems no different.
There's the money, of course. Even a shitty chunk of ancient lava can costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many of the islands Reddit Island have been looking at cost as much as $3 million. Reddit Islanders have made meaningless "verbal pledges" of around $260,000 to the project, according to a recent estimate. That comes to $500 in real money, plus 73 bitcoins.
But the main problem, Krolow said, is the complicated land ownership restrictions and permitting issues in the far-flung countries Reddit Island is considering. (Vanuatu has emerged as a favorite, thanks to its lack of an income tax.)
"These kinds of requests are not viable unless the government agrees to it," he said. "The fact is on this scale it's going to be impossible to find an island where the country that owns it would [allow this]."
Regardless, this July brought hope to the Reddit Islanders in the form of Mark Wells, a 43-year-old senior solutions architect (aka IT guy) from Virginia.
Wells, who uses the handle Citizenpolitician, explained in a series of increasingly breathless posts on Reddit Island that he'd been scoping out a tiny tropical splotch called Current Island. Just off the coast of Bahamian island of Eluthera, Current is sparsely inhabited, and could be a possible option for their settlement. He'd cold-called members of the local government about the possibility of having a few hundred internet nerds settle Current Island. And he had been met with a very promising response.
"OMG, this is exploding right in my face!!" he wrote. "I just received an email from Mr. Theo Neilly, the North Eleuthera member of Parliament in the Bahamas and Dr. Reg Eldon, the Director of Leadership, Education and Training. They are very interested in talking to us and are very familiar with Current Island since Mr. Neilly represents the island."
Most thrilling of all, they would be in Washington, D.C. on August 1, and wanted to meet to "talk out the plans for how this could be approached with the current government."
"People," Wells wrote, "I don't know what to tell you but you might want to get your plans in order. this could happen a lot quicker than I ever imagined."
Wells explained in an interview that he'd impressed his contacts with the credentials of the Redditors who would be settling Current. "I said that we represent a large community of people from all over the world that are highly-educated, technically competent who wish to come and start a new community," Wells said. "People like [Bahamians] are very interested in those types of people coming to their country and coming to bring that talent pool to their environment." Reddit to the rescue.
Wells has recently emerged as the group's de facto leader, singlehandedly reenergizing the project after months of downtime where the most considered discussions centered on how to keep Reddit Island from becoming the Ibiza of sausage parties. (Reddit is estimated to be over 70 percent male.)
"This is like the 4th post I've seen on how much Sausage is going to be on this island," complained a user at the time. "Who the fuck cares? This island isn't meant for a place to find dates."
Wells has long harbored a dream of hitting eject on his workaday life as a government contractor and was excited by Reddit Island's potential when he discovered it earlier this year.
"I said, wow, here's a crowdsourced effort to actually purchase an island and rebuild a new community from the ground up, using sustainable engineering," he said."If successful, that's not just a personal gratification but a benefit to the world at large."
So in May, Wells spent $1,000 to register a limited liability corporation, Trinidad Island Investments, LLC, to serve as the business engine behind Reddit Island. The idea, outlined by Wells in a detailed 35-page business plan posted to the Reddit Island subreddit, is to convince hundreds, maybe thousands of Redditors buy shares in Trinidad, which will use the money to buy and develop a communally-owned island. For $250, you'll be able to buy a share entitling you to own property on the island. A board of directors elected by shareholders will eventually make decisions on behalf of the group. (Total ownership is limited to 1 percent of the company, to prevent one person from taking over.)
"The biggest hangups in the past seems to be a lot of people had ideas for how things should be without much understanding of the business aspects," Wells said. But Wells has run three businesses, he said. He's dealt with Congress and "met three Presidents" as a government contractor, he said.
To raise funds, Wells proposed Redditors contribute to an escrow fund that would be given to Trinidad LLC once they were ready to buy an island. But after Redditors raised concerns they might be scammed, he settled on a system where people would just set aside accounts on their own and show him the balances as proof.
I soon found out Redditors' skepticism was well-founded.
About five miles long and less than a mile wide, Current Island sits just to the west of the northern tip of Eluthera. It's a quiet idyll, according to Osbourne Weech, a native Bahamian who is a pastor on Current Island. He lives just across the channel from the Island, in the town of Current. A ferry that goes back and forth a few times a day is the only reliable way to reach it.
"It's pretty remote," Weech said in a phone interview. 95 percent of Current's 40 or so inhabitants have lived there all their lives, he said. "Men go out to fishing boats for three weeks at a time. There's no stores here, there's two motor vehicles on the island." The Island's roads were only paved in 2008.
But talking to Weech, things didn't look too bad for the Reddit Islanders. The south end of the island is indeed uninhabited. "Down there they have a nice beach," Weech said. "A beautiful beach, away from everything."
There's been some confusion recently about land ownership on Current. The land is technically "generation land," which means its residents should control the land by birthright. But Weech said they've lived there so long none of them actually owns a deed, which would complicate any agreement with the Redditors. But they've recently been asserting their rights, trying to work out a deal with the government to own the land straight-up and get the proper paperwork, Weech said.
Weech didn't rule out the possibility of the community accepting a deal from the Redditors to take over the south end. "It would depend on the kind of development," he said. "If it's something they feel that's going to be beneficial I don't think they would have a problem. They're really nice people."
So, all Reddit Islanders need to do was make nice with the Current Islanders, and Wells would need to blow Theo Neilly, the Bahamian member of parliament, and his colleagues out of the water during that big August 1st meeting in D.C.
Except, about that meeting.
I called Theo Neilly, who represents North Eluethera and Current Island, and who, according to Mark Wells, had told him that he was "very interested" in Reddit Island and its potential to help his constituents. Neilly was more than a little surprised when I told him this. He'd never spoken with or even received an email from Wells, he said. He had heard word of Reddit Island, but only because an acquaintance Wells had actually contacted forwarded him the email. (Who forwarded the email? Nobody would say. Despite the fact that Wells made it seem he was an election cycle away from being elected to the Bahamanian cabinet, everyone in Eluthera I spoke to was eager to distance themselves and anyone they knew from him the Reddit Island idea.)
The big August 1st meeting with Theilly in D.C. was a lie. "I'm not scheduled in D.C. until November," Neilly said.
Instead, it seems Wells' meeting was with just Dr. Reg Eldon, a Methodist minister whom he'd emailed. Wells had called Eldon the "Director of Leadership, Education and Training," in his post to the Reddit Island community, suggesting a tete-a-tete with a high-powered government official. In fact, Eldon is the dean of the Centre for Leadership, Education and Training, a Methodist training school that has nothing to do with the government.
And even Eldon was less than enthusiastic when I called to ask about Reddit Island. He said he'd received an email from Wells.
"I have to be in D.C. for another matter and told him we could have coffee," Eldon said dryly. "I'm not involved in it any way."
I would have asked Wells about this discrepancy, but after I contacted Theilly he sent my editor a wordy email warning me to stop reporting because my calls had "jeopardized our opportunity for negotiating a business relationship with the host nation politicians"
"If it is unrecoverable we will have no option but to seek what legal action we can," he wrote.
It was unrecoverable.
Soon after I called up the Bahamians, Wells broke the news to Reddit Island that Current Island was off the table. According to Wells, I had sabotaged the "delicate negotiations," between Reddit Island and the government of Bahamas by contacting the Bahamians and asking about Wells' supposed meeting with Neilly. He did not mention that there hadn't been a meeting in the first place.
"Do i need to say how pissed off the Bahamians were? It took me days of apologies just to get them to listen to me again," he wrote. "In the end, after a couple more conversations with the Bahamians it became evident that they were very incensed by Adrian and that his desire to publish an article about our project and talk to them as a part of it would endangered there political situation in the Bahamas."
Still, Reddit Island slogs on, crowdsourcing the selection of another spot. One user suggested an abandoned submarine base in Norway going for $17.5 million ("about $4500 per Reddit Island subscriber"!). But according to a new "Freedom assessment" spreadsheet calculated by Wells and company, Mauratius is leading the pack.
"I am willing to contact agencies in Mauritius to get more details on the Pros and Cons," Wells wrote, "as well as take another look at Belize to see if we can swing it."
It looks like Wells is going to keep hawking his shiny tinfoil ball of crowdsourcing juju to wistful nerds. Forget the island, dude: launch a start-up.
Image by Jim Cooke.