The Old Internet Died And We Watched And Did Nothing
It’s 2020 — do you know where your content is?
Quick: Can you think of a picture of yourself on the internet from before 2010, other than your old Facebook photos? How about something you’ve written? Maybe some old sent emails in Gmail or old Gchats?
But what about anything NOT on Facebook or Google?
Most likely, you have some photos that are lost somewhere, some old posts to a message board or something you wrote on a friend’s wall, some bits of yourself that you put out there on the internet during the previous decade that is simply gone forever.
The internet of the 2010s will be defined by social media’s role in the 2016 election, the rise of extremism, and the fallout from privacy scandals like Cambridge Analytica. But there’s another, more minor theme to the decade: the gradual dismantling and dissolution of an older internet culture.
This purge comes in two forms: sites or services shutting down or transforming their business models. Despite the constant flurries of social startups (Vine! Snapchat! TikTok! Ello! Meerkat! Peach! Path! Yo!), when the dust was blown off the chisel, the 2010s revealed that the content you made — your photos, your writing, your texts, emails, and DMs — is almost exclusively in the hands of the biggest tech companies: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, or Apple.
The rest? Who knows? I hate to tell you, but there’s a good chance it’s gone forever.
Here’s some of what we lost during the 2010s:
Were you on Friendster? Maybe not, but I was. In fact, my weirdest claim to internet fame is that I was Friendster user number 227 (one of the founders was a friend of a friend so I was invited early in 2002). Although the social network fell out of favor pretty quickly, it wasn’t until 2011 that it finally transformed completely into a gaming company, wiping out all vestiges of its old user profiles.
Myspace suffered a longer, more painful death. By 2013, it became completely music-focused, although you could still log in to your old account, and your photos and data were still there. But in 2019, due to an ill-fated server migration, all pre-2015 profile content — hundreds of thousands of photos of scene hair taken with a Nikon Coolpix in a bathroom mirror — are gone forever.
Yes, Flickr still exists. But in late 2018, Flickr was sold off by its then-owner, OATH, the AOL/Yahoo conglomerate that was bought by Verizon. The buyer was SmugMug, a photo-hosting and printing site mainly used by professional photographers. In the transition, Flickr users were given a few months to download their archives, upgrade to a paid SmugMug account, or lose all their photos except for their most recent 1,000. It’s unclear how many Flickr users had over 1,000 photos on there to begin with (with nearly unlimited free storage, it marketed itself as a good way to back up your phone’s photos), and of those, how many paid for the upgraded service and kept their collections online. It’s certainly likely that a massive amount of photos were deleted completely — some of those from people who never bothered or knew to download them.
Webshots was founded in the mid-’90s but hit its stride in the early ’00s when digital cameras became more affordable and it was bought by CNET, then bought by American Greetings. It was sold back to its original owners, who in 2012 relaunched it as Smile by Webshots, turning it into a site for desktop wallpapers. Users were given just two months’ notice that their photos could be downloaded, migrated over to a new paid Smile account, or would be deleted permanently.
In 2017, Photobucket announced that “hotlinking” (hosting the photo there to display on a different website) would only be allowed for paid accounts — and the new price was $400 a year. Hotlinking feels archaic now, but hotlinking with Photobucket hosting was used for posting to message boards, blogs, or even Amazon listings, leaving the old internet pockmarked with missing photos.
Sure, blogs still exist, but the promise of a scrappy new form of communication, open to anyone has been chewed up and spit out by social media. Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and even Medium have all made the idea of a personal, updated website seem less useful to someone who just wants to post stuff about their life. The midrange of professional blogs, people who made money blogging, often in food or fashion, still thrives, but many have shifted to Instagram (one professional travel blogger told me that sponsors still prefer her blog posts to an Instagram ad). The 2013 sunsetting of Google Reader — something I used to keep track of my “blogroll” — was both a symptom and the pulling of a final plug on the heyday of personal blogs.
For the pro tier of blogs, sites like Gawker, Videogum, or the Awl, this decade was not kind either. Former Gawker writer Alex Pareene best described the changing economics of the media business plus freakish bad luck as the “death of the rude press.” We are entering the next decade without outlets for the sort of voices that defined the last one.
One strange point is that, unlike photo hosting sites, personal blog hosts managed to make it through the decade without deleting massive amounts of people’s stuff. Blogger is part of Google, which is probably the only reason it lives on life support (though in 2018, even one of the cofounders of Blogger had trouble finding anyone who still actually worked there).
WordPress has managed to keep chugging and even bought Tumblr off Verizon. LiveJournal was sold to a Russian company where it thrives.
Xanga, however, deleted the old blogs of users who didn’t pay for a pro account (you could download your old 2004 emo blog) in 2013 and now still exists only for paid users.
Tumblr’s Adult Content
Last year, Tumblr banned adult content just ahead of being sold from Verizon to WordPress. It was controversial with the users, especially with a bungled rollout that censored all sorts of SFW images. In addition to stifling one of the spaces that had been so important for young people’s exploration of and learning about sex, it also meant that years and years of content was being zapped off the face of the Earth.
AOL Instant Messenger
Officially sent to the glue factory in 2017, AIM had been replaced for most people with other, more mobile-friendly messaging services for a long time. If you remembered how to log in, you could download your old chat logs. Otherwise, they’re all lost to the sands of time.
When we signed up for these services in the 2000s, we naively trusted them.
Companies don’t make internet culture; people do. People make communities; they make the inside jokes; they make their own mores and unwritten rules. But people need the web services and platforms made by companies to create this culture. We’re locked in a symbiotic relationship: We, the users, need the companies, and they need us to keep running. When they shut down or delete our precious stuff, it’s because we’ve abandoned and neglected them for years already, leaving them to starve.
We understand now that tech companies that run these services will blossom, only to shut down a few years later (of course, unless they’re Google or Facebook). By 2019, we’re used to this. We know now never to trust these companies (and definitely not Google or Facebook). We’re jaded.
But when we signed up for these services in the 2000s, we naively trusted them — we didn’t know that our photos would get deleted, or that Hotmail would deactivate our account if we didn’t log in after 30 days, or that we could never find those old messages we sent our friends.
And for the most part, we’ve become OK with it. No one put up too much of a fuss when Flickr deleted photos, not when you compare it to, say, the uproar over Snapchat tweaking its design.
The internet from 10 years ago is part of our history and has broad cultural importance. Of course, on a personal level, plenty of us are happy to see our cringeworthy old posts or old profiles disappear (just ask Kevin Durant, whose teenage BlackPlanet profile was unearthed recently). The unforced obsolescence of the old internet has given those of us who have posted things we wouldn't want a future employer to see a reprieve, a slate wiped clean. There’s a decent argument that everything you do on the internet before age 18 — photos of bad hairstyles, cryptic song lyric posts about your crush, dumb tweets — should instantly disappear as soon as you come of age, like a sealed juvenile criminal history. If you’re over 30, there’s a 100% chance that you will recoil in horror at something you posted on the internet over 10 years ago.
There is a small handful of people who do care a lot about the ongoing effect of Thanos snapping his fingers over the internet. Researchers, academics, and artists also have worked to preserve certain things, like Rhizome’s Webrecorder tool for archiving sites. These people see our online past as not just a collection of embarrassing posts from our teen years, but an important piece of our cultural history worthy of study and analysis and preservation.
The Archive Team has been working for years to preserve and archive parts of the internet for posterity, starting in 2009 when Yahoo killed Geocities — an early warning of the decade to come. Currently, it is attempting to archive as much of Yahoo Groups as possible, which Verizon shut down this fall (users have until early 2020 to download partial data from their groups). A look through its “Deathwatch” page — a list of websites and services shut down over the last 10 years — is harrowing.
I spoke to Jason Scott, the founder of Archive Team, this month when Twitter announced it would delete the accounts of people who hadn’t logged in in six months — which would include real people who happened to die (Twitter later said it is pausing this effort until it can figure out how to memorialize accounts). “This isn’t my first rodeo; these aren’t my first clowns,” he said of Twitter.
It’s one thing to realize that some smallish and mostly abandoned sites like Flickr can’t afford to keep running (Flickr recently sent an email to users asking them to spread the word to friends about signing up for paid accounts, since it’s still operating in the red). But when a big profitable company like Twitter or Verizon plans to delete accounts, well, Scott is right. That’s clown behavior. And we should feel free to be mad about it.