Late last month, Photobucket changed its policy so that if you want to host your photos there and post them to another website — your eBay seller page, or perhaps your blog or website — it’s going to cost you $400. People are pissed, saying it’s tantamount to holding their photos for ransom, a form of extortion.
If you're unfamiliar, the photo hosting site was popular in the early and mid aughts, and was the service of choice for Myspace users. Since that site's decline, Photobucket has become infinitely less important to most people on the internet, who no longer have the need for web-based photo storage. Because, you know, we have phones and Instagram and the cloud now. But a lot of people still use Photobucket! For one, it's crucial to Amazon and eBay sellers, who did need to host web images cheaply and easily.
It's also important to anyone who was an active Photobucket customer and is being faced with the prospect of losing their photos or having to cough up a ton of cash.
But this change has also done something terrible for all of us, even people who never even had a Photobucket account: It’s completely broken the internet. Vast swaths of blogs and personal websites from the mid-00s are now full of missing images, replaced with a hideous error message.
This is a crushing loss of internet archaeology. Photobucket's heyday coincides with the height of personal blogging: Free and easy software like Blogger and WordPress made it finally accessible for people with virtually zero technical skills, and reading tools like Google Reader and De.lic.ious made it easy to follow and read blogs. Message boards and Yahoo Groups still thrived, Reddit and 4chan were just picking up steam. People needed a place to host the budding memes like lolcats or Blingees! This was a brief moment of internet history, maybe only 2005–2009, before Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr homogenized the look and feel of the internet and eliminated the need for normal people to have a photo hosting site like Photobucket. The internet felt more spread out, with more random treasures to find — there were tons of different sites to go to, to find, to create. If the GeoCities stage was the awkward teen years of the internet, and today is the mature adult version, that brief Photobucket-heavy phase was the college period where it spread its wings, smoked Parliament Lights while talking endlessly about Tarantino, and tried to pull off a fedora. The internet was big enough to be interesting but small enough to still feel intimate. It was really fun, and now it's disappearing.
In a lot of ways, 2007 feels forever ago, but it’s close enough to today that a blog or message board from that time would still be mostly functional and recognizable, not as clunky and weird as the old Space Jam site or a true antique. But now with Photobucket deleting those images, those old-but-still-working sites will become totally boned, lost to the sands of time.
“When a given service changes their mind about what they serve up, it can have a catastrophic impact on huge swaths of the web,” said Zachary Kaplan, the executive director of the digital art organization Rhizome. Rhizome has developed a tool called Webrecorder that saves and preserves web pages as part of its mission as a group of digital archivists.
“What's particularly sad is that it's the everyday user, the 'vernacular' user – the plane spotter, the deadhead, the young net artist, the rando – who is most impacted by performance changes like this,” Kaplan told BuzzFeed News. “Pros can compose their own super-special custom page, but if that's all the web is, it'd be a very boring place.”
The great Photobucket collapse of 2017 is similar to the death of GeoCities in 2009. When Yahoo announced it was shutting the service down, a team of volunteers called Archive Team set out to download and preserve as much of GeoCities as possible. Archivists/artists Dragan Espenschied and Olia Lialina sifted through that downloaded GeoCities on a site called One Terabyte of Kilobyte, making sense of what the early days of accessible personal websites looked like. Lialina points out that before GeoCities finally died, there was a similar period where pages with hot-linked images hosted on Angelfire or Tripod (also dead) lost their images while the page itself still existed.
Lialina sees this is as an example of how delicate our internet infrastructure is. “Hopefully we’ll lose the illusion that we have any control over anything hosted anywhere,” she told BuzzFeed. “Requiem for an early internet dream that online everything can be distributed around the world and still work!”
Paul Ford, a programmer and early '00s blogging enthusiast, also sees this as a warning. "What people need to know is that the web is both strangely permanent and deeply impermanent, often in exactly the way you don’t like,” he said. “Screenshots of your terrible tweets can survive forever. Pictures of your kids that you embedded in your Angelfire page can be turned off unless you pay money to preserve them.”
In 2008, I started a Blogspot blog with photos hosted on Photobucket. Although the Blogger software let you upload images directly, I preferred the way the hot-linked images looked (Blogger forced default sizing on the images). Now, the blog I lovingly updated almost daily with images for years is pretty much completely nuked. I care, but I don’t care enough to pay $400, or to take the time to download and reupload all the photos to Google.
And who knows, maybe Blogger will be the next thing to go and all my words will be gone, too. Maybe it’ll be LiveJournal. Flickr seems pretty vulnerable in the Yahoo-Verizon merger, and hey, maybe Tumblr, too. BuzzFeed was started in 2006 and lots of those older posts are completely unreadable now, all the links and images gone.
One day, when we’re all getting our content beamed directly into our contact lenses, this article will be gone too.
See you all in the dystopia; please don't forget to sign my guestbook.