This week, Lachlan Mitchell laments for an age of the internet that is increasingly being deleted out of memory.
The definitive closure & content wipe of Yahoo Groups at the beginning of the year was a bigger moment than you might realise. Rather than merely shuttering a broken-down content hub from a bygone era, it was like watching the felling of the final colossi from Shadow of the Colossus; it existed for so long, wandered about in an increasingly isolated and depopulated landscape, it served to be a pillar of a forgotten time, and yet it fell victim to the callous advancement of an internet that seems ever so smaller nowadays. It got me thinking about where the internet is heading, and I have not really been able to forget about it.
The internet, as something we cannot physically observe, unlike Munchy Mart or Peaches & Cream or your local pandemic profiteers AKA Countdown, has the illusion of being static and slow to change, even when we’re fully aware of how frenetic and ever-changing it actually is. We are aware of the pace of digital content – the turnover period for a meme in 2020 is now days if not hours, compared to the seemingly ageless pre-2010 era of rage comics and the troll face. We’re aware of how far we’ve come – within the last decade, we finally dropped the act of referring to the internet with a capital I, the last grammatical relic of the days of the Information Superhighway and Bill Clinton voice clips on Limewire. Despite our obvious acknowledgement of now living under the power of the social media shogunate, and all the changes that has brought to our once lawless lands, we still subscribe to the illusion of perpetuity for content of Internet Past. We still tend to believe that once something exists on the landscape, it exists forever – in part because that’s the lesson driven into our heads each time someone’s nudes are leaked, or there’s a political scandal, or someone’s tweets of them calling Beyoncé racial slurs in 2014 pops up on the Twitter Shadowlands. It is important to remember that many things are still logged. But the illusion comes from the belief of the internet’s omnipotence, its ability to remember everything and all that existed under its sun, entirely separate from human hands.
The other big thing to note before I get into my main point is how the increased participation of humanity on the internet’s content hubs is focused onto an ever-dwindling number of sources, bolstered by their Smaug-level capital bases, able to flex their muscles and pick up the world’s media in a single grasp of their hands. Google/Alphabet as lumbering Behemoth, chained to the perpetually loathed YouTube; Facebook (FB/WhatsApp/Instagram) as untouchable Leviathan, one that periodically enables genocide in South Asian countries when it returns from its trawl across the ocean’s depths for intellectual property krill to swallow up and add to its gelatinous mass; Twitter as Ziz, sitting in the Jurassic Park aviary, screeching and pecking at all who dare to venture into its realm; the wrinkled, bearded LinkedIn quietly demanding the blood and compliance of all who hope to labour under his realm; the mad god TikTok and that diminished, desiccated former deity Snapchat snapping up what’s left of the youth demographic, and so on. And we are more and more aware of how exiled members from these big platforms are increasingly picked up by the far-right conversion machines that exist elsewhere.
While we are indeed more interconnected than ever before, it comes at a loss of variety in what you can interact on; unless you are willing to get on your knees and lather Google AdSense and Facebook’s lying algorithm with your saliva, your venture will die. Unless you are willing to be injected with the mercury cash infusion of a venture capitalist firm, you cannot hope to maintain any notable presence for long. I should be clear that while I am critical, I am not saying ‘social media bad.’ I personally love the nightmarescape of Twitter, but I am very much aware of the paradox facing us. With mass online participation has come a mass corporatisation of the internet and the exodus of previously viable platforms, and their closure and subsequent content deletion has the effect of rewriting internet history to make it seem like this was the only way it ever was. With practically everyone from 12 year olds to war criminals on TikTok, for example, this level of mass participation makes the social media era of the internet seem like its first true incarnation, like that fucking ugly ass drawing of the tiktaalik leaving the water, with its arrow-shaped shit-skull leading evolution towards a terrestrial future. But what of the years in the water? What remains of the time before?
Rather than seeing a physical storefront close, like United Video being turned into a pharmacy or whatever, the content tends to simply disappear; unless there is a movement dedicated towards archiving content, it is unlikely that it will remain. The Ozymandias statue of the internet, the Space Jam website from 1996, is an outlier; for whatever reason, Warner decided that site would leap out of the sands and be one of the final extant examples of an era long since out of the memory for the average internet user today. And while it is a perpetually heavenly anomaly, the Space Jam website has a purpose beyond letting the reader know about all the beautiful Space Jam content one could ever desire; it is an example of the dangers of not archiving what came before. It is one of the few survivors of the Geocities era, that primordial goop of DNA and tar from which all manner of Lovecraftian website design crawled out of. Does the Space Jam website experience survivor’s guilt? Does it feel shame for having lived when so much else of its kind died? Oh, if only those planetary basketballs could talk; I’d bring in Amy Adams to try to communicate with this unknowable being.
In the time before social media as an extension of propaganda departments, if you had a hobby or a question relating to that hobby, you joined a hyper-specialised forum board made with mybb or Proboards software, and exclusively interacted with others in that realm, like Hank Hill talking about his dark love for propane and propane accessories. If you had a question that would be lost to anyone outside of that particular field, one that needed the steady hand of a figure with probable decades of love towards their craft, these areas were where you went. While the average user was thicker than the walls of the Hoover Dam, you were guaranteed to be amongst the companies of professionals and well-learned individuals within that particular field, no matter what. Gamers know this well; Neoseeker has been the answer to every specialised gaming problem for almost two decades, with it being a day for the ages if you are unable to find a discussion thread from 2004 about the exact mission for the exact game you are playing. These boards, ranging from autism discussion boards to highly niche fishing communities or some mystical boomer shit, remain an invaluable resource – both because of the fact of their existence and the seeming lack of interest in ensuring or replicating their existence in the future.
You will note that many of these sites seem to lose prominence after 2010, some becoming total wastelands or kept from collapsing by the fervent dedication of bored housewives. Much of the forum creation technology, and associated communities, were bought up by the gangly, multi-armed monstrosity known as Tapatalk; uniting hundreds of thousands of these boards under one owner may prove to save them for the meanwhile, but Tapatalk is renowned for not being user friendly, and it is subject to the same pressures of survival as everyone else. If it falls, it will drag much more with it than an independent forum creation software would. These boards are old, they are totally reliant on the minuscule income from Google AdSense or the benevolence of a long-time owner that cannot bear to let the site fall; but as individual Libraries of Alexandria, these forum boards have yet to be replaced. Social media as an information archive is ill-suited to the purpose, despite the reality that this is where many of these users went – well, to social media, or the physical grave. Social media is not meant to hold on to information, it is meant to aggregate, and to then disseminate and sell for profit. They are designed to foster communication for the sake of it – and while that is not explicitly a bad thing, they are ill-equipped as the supposed successors of the internet, especially when you factor in just how easy it is for a user to delete their past entirely, or for the owners to consider entire realms unprofitable and therefore designated for deletion. Furthermore, the style of discussion exemplified by these boards of old is unprofitable by nature; there is no interest in replicating them, and so when they die, it is unlikely they will be revived.
Perhaps the most dramatic loss of history in recent years was the collapse of Photobucket – while it is still alive, yes, its pivot towards charging exorbitant prices in order to so much as see or link the photos hosted on them quite literally obliterated countless memories. Family album books were paywalled. The hobby boards, naively assuming that these photos would last forever, found themselves in a position where they had to pay thousands of dollars, across many many members, to get access to what only existed there and nowhere else. Many didn’t even bother – if you take a glance at various ‘yummy mummy’ communities, you’ll see decades of photos replaced with the Photobucket watermark and little more. Photobucket’s decision to claw back the unsalvageable $$$ left entire landscapes of the internet with little vegetation.
I suppose my overall point is to not take anything on the internet for granted – well-funded archival efforts are saving the essentials, but there is so much to be lost that we simply don’t yet appreciate. Film historians lament the destruction of nitrate-based silent film reels, and while some Stephen King or BDSM discussion board – or Stephen King BDSM fantasies – may be entirely worthless to you, to some fascinating individual out there, their information treasure troves are equivalent to Metropolis, or the ageless comedy of a Buster Keaton film.
Most of you will miss Neoseeker when it goes. I guarantee you that.