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The Case for an Amnesiac Internet
This is the summer to leave Twitter, let go of your old Imgur posts, and fight to preserve the entirety of human knowledge online.
“Something Awful is racing to save the best and worst of web history: A long-running web community enlisted its goons to stop an Imgur extinction event.”
As a headline/subhead combo, you really can’t beat that. It’s one that makes you stop after every idea.
Something Awful: That still exists? Racing to do something ostensibly good: Them? And they’re saving Imgur from extinction: Why?
The article, in The Verge, explained how the proto-4chan message board had enlisted its band of internet curmudgeons and perverts in a race against time to salvage and catalog all the smut, porn, and antiquated material that photo-hosting site Imgur had planned on deleting.
For a brief moment online, such a mission was the noble cause du jour. It was as if humankind had been given a second chance to save the Library of Alexandria, and this time we would not fail. Except, this time, the library is full of reaction GIFs and hentai.
When I first saw the news that Imgur planned to nuke much of its NSFW and graying material, I was disappointed. I am, as I hope this newsletter is testament, a weird little magpie: Constantly searching for bits and pieces from the vast expanse of the internet to fashion an ugly-beautiful nest. When police release the name of a domestic terrorist, I immediately get to work compiling every iota of information to triangulate a sense of identity: A decade-old list of government scholarship recipients, uploaded to the backend of some bureaucratic portal; an Instagram picture from a school trip in 2011; a long-forgotten Youtube account dedicated to their love of Call of Duty 2; an Angelfire page, listing all their best friends.
This kind of artefact-hunting is increasingly an integral part of modern journalism. Old databases, forgotten websites, little pieces of orphaned metadata: Investigators like Bellingcat thrive on piecing them together until they reveal certain clues.
But the more I stared at this coming Imgur D-day, the more I tried to think of non-selfish reasons to care. And I had a hard time.
Deleting old pornography — given just how much of it can follow people around long after they want to leave it behind, and how much ends up on shady pirated tube platforms anyway — is almost certainly a good thing.
And, apart from the one-in-one-million image on the platform that may one day come in handy for a particular investigation, how many of those images can I say I truly care about? (Billy Eichner voice: name an image! NAME AN IMAGE!)
Does burning a trove of old memes really imperil our collective history?
It’s a strange question that we should start asking ourselves. We are, in real time, seeing a pretty substantial reorganization of the internet. Between the growth of algorithmically-generated images and text, based on large language models; the ideological splintering of social media platforms; growing concerns over privacy; the bills for venture capital-funded money-losing enterprises coming due; and the dawn of real social media regulation: Things are changing. (Dispatch #46)
With that chaos, things are going to get lost. Defunct news websites will, eventually, go offline entirely. (See: Gawker) Archaic social media services will flicker into darkness. (See: Google+) Even email services will eventually flip the switch. (See: Lycos. It’s still, technically, active, but, c’mon, for how much longer?) So we ought to ask ourselves: Should we be rushing to save every article? Every tweet? Every email?
Or is it ok to forget?
This week, on Bug-eyed and Shameless, an appeal to let some things go: So that we can fight to preserve what really matters.
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The Internet Is Hungry For Content, and Hates Forgetting
In 2013, Dong Nguyen — a 20-something living with his parents in Hanoi — unveiled Flappy Bird.
We all remember Flappy Bird, right? Click to flap the little misshapen character through a series of Mario-style green tubes. It was notoriously hard, and absurdly addictive.
It took nearly a year for the game to go mega-viral. When it did, Nguyen was earning more per-day than Mark Zuckerberg. Flappy Bird made people mad. Like, really mad. They were mad that Nguyen had plagiarized Nintendo. They were mad he was making so much money. They were mad that their weird little bird didn’t go through the weird little tubes.
“22 hours from now, I will take ‘Flappy Bird’ down,” Nguyen tweeted in 2014, at the height of Flappymania. “I cannot take this anymore.” Sure enough, less than a day later, it was gone.
Well, not gone gone. Nobody could download the game, but those who owned it still owned it. Nguyen, while he was still profiting on the ads from those legacy phones, wasn’t trying to gin up more business. He was wrestling with the impact his stupid little game had visited upon the world. Sitting down with Rolling Stone, he pointed to a deluge of messages from people who had been, apparently, damaged by the game. Parents whose kids had lost focus; students whose classmates had broken their phone; workers who felt like the game consumed their waking life.
It was all very dramatic. But Nguyen was zen about it. If he were ever to make another Flappy Bird, he said, it would come with a warning: “Please take a break.” (He released Flappy Bird Family later that year.)
But if Nguyen really believed he could just delete Flappy Bird, he was mistaken.
A secondary market popped up for those Flappy Bird-augmented phones: Prices ranged from $300 to $90,000. At its height, Flappy Bird was being cloned in the various app stores 60 times per day. Coding classes used Flappy Bird as a lesson in coding. Today, nearly a decade on, the internet is littered with copies of the original Flappy Bird and a litany of spin-offs, tributes, and parodies.
Why, though, was Nguyen not allowed to kill his own creation?
The simple answer is, of course, that the internet is a self-replicating mass. Either automatically or manually, it xeroxes itself over and over again. Nguyen could no more stop his game from being copied and pirated than Dril could stop his funny candles tweet from being endlessly stolen by unfunny sods on Twitter.
NFTs, ostensibly a solution to the question of digital ownership, but were no match for the almighty screenshot.
Sure, Nguyen could have sued. He could have filed noticed to the major app stores, and filed a DMCA notice to Google. But that’s not what he wanted: He wanted to walk away.
I wrote about this phenomenon for Input Magazine a couple of years ago. Simone Veil, author of Pictures for Sad Children, had run afoul of her own internet fandom and opted to — metaphorically and literally — set fire to her online identity in 2014, just as Flappy Bird was taking the world by storm. As fans uploaded copies of her comics, she reached out and pleaded: Stop. Let me forget.
Deleting her past, for Veil, meant being able to start anew. It was creative destruction.
Veil was partly successful. But her biting webcomic was not exactly an uber-viral international craze, and you can still find plenty of pirated copies of her comics online. But she was trying to leave behind all the discourse just as much as she was trying to escape her own work: All the blogs, and tweets, and nasty comments. How could she outrun the unwanted opinions of others? The best she could do was try and delete the thing that invited their criticism. (Today she runs a small art subscription that is worth signing up for.)
That desire to delete is becoming increasingly popular.
In recent years, politicians, celebrities, and laypeople alike have been taken down, by a peg or more, by their own old, ignorant, and ill-informed social media posts. This trend has cowed many into becoming inauthentic, two-dimensional versions of themselves online, out of fear that anything they say could survive for decades into the future and be weaponized against them.
The unbelievably trove of identifying information about you also enables a creepy degree of surveillance, profiling, and cyberstalking by the government, corporations, and/or evildoers. The most effective and terrifying cyberstalkers are the ones who scrape real information on their targets and create dummy accounts and webpages to spread malicious lies: The internet’s collective memory becomes the weapon.
And then there’s the scammers and spammers. Whether it’s troll farms in Russia or click factories in China, there is a sizeable chunk of the internet that is entirely astroturfed for an end that has little to do with what we, the users, want. It is a digital Potemkin Village which hopes to steal our Bitcoin or to manipulate analytics to convince advertisers that real people had seen their ads when they, in fact, had not.
The idea that we need to have greater power over our information online, and particularly that we should be able to be free of bad information directed at us, is slowly taking hold. The European Union’s GDPR regime holds that EU citizens do have the right to be forgotten. That is, that we should be able to request that information about us be removed from search engines and other websites, under certain conditions. (Other countries, like China, have expressly rejected the concept.)
Google has added some functionality allowing people to de-list information about them — links that are false, defamatory, old, irrelevant, and so on. But it is largely limited to European users.
It’s a good idea, but it is a tool that may become obsolete very quickly. Large language models like ChatGPT are trained on troves of information and do not much care about one’s desire to be forgotten. In fact, these AI systems and their tenuous relationship with the truth threaten to pump a significant amount of bad information about us into the collective consciousness, worsening the problem that the right to be forgotten is trying to solve.
So there’s a tension, here. The internet loves to copy itself, perpetuating derivatives. It is full of people who are pumping junk into the tubes for their own ends, and distorting the real metrics of who’s-seeing-what. And this system does not really care about the wishes or desires of the people who use it.
The internet is programmed to collect and regurgitate.
The Internet Is Breaking
In 2021, law professor Jonathan Zittrain penned an essay for The Atlantic called “the rotting internet.”
Zittrain’s research into how information gets preserved online found that the majority of hyperlinks in Supreme Court decisions since 1996 were broken.
It’s an endemic problem. Websites remove or change their file paths, archive old content, or go offline entirely. Social media users die and their profiles get archived, Youtube accounts go private, governments change hands and official websites replace the old with the new. None of this is deletion per se, but it amounts to a collective forgetting. The rickety network of paths and alleyways that connect one piece of the internet to the other get broken, or lead to dead ends.
People tend to overlook the decay of the modern web, when in fact these numbers are extraordinary—they represent a comprehensive breakdown in the chain of custody for facts. Libraries exist, and they still have books in them, but they aren’t stewarding a huge percentage of the information that people are linking to, including within formal, legal documents. No one is. The flexibility of the web—the very feature that makes it work, that had it eclipse CompuServe and other centrally organized networks—diffuses responsibility for this core societal function.
Two decades-ish into the mass internet, things we once saw as permanent and ubiquitous are going offline and going away. The cost of hosting, ongoing maintenance, and the need to renew domain registrations mean that things can’t simply be let to live online without the need for at least occasional human intervention.
Twitter’s brainworm-addled leadership has prompted scores of users to up and delete their accounts entirely, and more are likely to follow suit — its corporate strategy seems to be encouraging it, even going so far as to axe their brand, replacing it with a letter associated with closing your browser. A litany of start-up social media sites have roared onto the scene, yet most fizzled: Some, like Parler, have gone away entirely. Waves of blogging platforms, from the struggling Medium to the currently-thriving Substack, collect a huge amount of information when they are popular and sit mothballed when they fall out of fashion. Someday, those platforms will just flicker offline. (Rumors that Google is a step away from shutting down its Blogger platform have abounded for years.) Even news websites, swirling through the boom-bust-acquisition vortex, have been at risk of falling into the chasm: Gawker is a prime example.
Deleting those billions of Imgur images will, yes, make this problem worse. Sites where those images were embedded will show up as empty spaces, and hyperlinks will lead to their quirky 404 page. But at least this mass deletion was planned, orderly, and targeted.
Elon Musk’s Twitter is also helping to break the internet. His constant attempts to seek rent from third-party apps is breaking the very integrations that make the sharing economy work. His bonkers verification process is privileging those who can pay more on a platform that is, ostensibly, about experience and expertise more than clout and bribery. He’s also made the site functionally unusable for people without accounts. He is pioneering an internet that is less open, less accessible, less public.
It’s easy to look at all of this as exclusively a problem. And maybe it is. But it is also, increasingly, an inevitability. So let’s lean into it.
We should, for example, leave Twitter. Hit the X, as it were.
It is run by a gullible chud who is profiting off neo-Nazis and protecting those who share child sexual abuse material. The platform is likely beyond repair, and our continued enabling of it is unconscionable.
But so many reasonable people are still there — journalists, politicians, government agencies, sex workers, Succession meme accounts — because it remains our public ledger. It’s where we had talked about all the things before, so it’s where we’ve got to talk about things now.
Twitter is also where many of us spent years building up a network. Leaving that behind feels like moving to a new town and leaving your friends behind. Nobody wants to forget their old friends.
I stopped using Twitter regularly in April. I confess that deleting it outright feels like a step too far. But, when I was still hooked up to the birdsite, I would occasionally make a point to purge my old tweets. After a certain number of years, they were more of an albatross than an asset.
Today, we should start imagining an internet where Twitter is simply gone. Poof. The odds seem pretty even, given the financial calamity it finds itself in now, that the site simply goes away in the next five years. If it continues to exist, it will likely be a new kind of unusable — stuffed with shady Bitcoin deals and microtransactions.
So even if you opt not to delete your Twitter content yourself, someone else may make that decision for you. In the interim, should we keep using it and hope it will fix itself? Or do we cut our losses, download our archives, and move on?
The League of Extraordinary Archivists
Content online should, eventually, go offline.
I accept that so much of this argument just feels wrong.
We like having access to the things we remember. We like understanding where things come from. We just like history. It makes us feel grounded. We are an Antiques Roadshow society. And so the idea that we would delete any of our historical record feels sacrilegious.
But that freedom to forget is exactly why Snapchat, Instagram Stories, and BeReal are so popular with youth: They are craving an online experience where they control what gets remembered. And the rest gets deleted. (Or, at least, saved to a personal archive.)
The fact is that pack rat mentality actually runs contrary to how archives are supposed to work. Archiving was never about preserving everything. T. R. Schellenberg, a renowned American archivist, explained the balance that archives ought to try and strike in his seminal book Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques.
The objectives in managing public records are to make the records serve the purposes for which they were created as cheaply and effectively as possible, and to make a proper disposition of them after they have served those purposes. Records are efficiently managed if they can be found quickly and without fuss or bother when they are needed, if they are kept at a minimum charge for space and maintenance while they are needed for current business, and if none are kept longer than they are needed for such business unless they have a continuing value for purposes of research or for other purposes. The objectives of efficient record management can be achieved only if attention is paid to the handling of records from the time they are created until the time when they are released to an archival institution or disposed of.
Schellenberg was writing in the 1950s. Since then, our capacity to store information may have expanded out in hitherto unimaginable ways, but our inability to catalogue or order that information has begun to break down. Internet indexers like Google were supposed to be the Dewey Decimal System of the internet, but it is becoming increasingly clear that they are no longer up to that job.
Which brings me back to Imgur.
When these nerds protested the mass deletion, one Reddit user bemoaned: “Its like burning one of the largest libraries to ashes.”
It’s not, though, is it? Libraries are purposeful collections, meticulously organized. Imgur was an easy dumping ground for every transitory meme, sexy selfie, and Big Bang Theory gif.
But rather than just whining about the loss of human memory, they opted to save the information themselves. On r/DataHorder and Something Awful, the vigilante archivists raced to preserve all the deleted content. They have already archived 1.8 billion images, and are on track to save 200 million more.
But their plan is not to create an Imgur clone, stuffed with all the images the corporation had tried to delete. No, they worked to cram all the deleted images into a series of terabyte-big banker’s boxes. The content would be accessible for someone hunting for a particular image or clip, but otherwise offline. Maybe someday, we’ll discover that aliens had tried to contact us through an anonymously-uploaded porn GIF on Imgur in 2012 — and their archive is the only remaining proof of life. (More practically, some Imgur had been a great host for guides and how-tos that will someday be useful to somebody.)
While I think these nerds may be a bit indiscriminate in their preservation tactics, it is nevertheless a pretty good compromise. Imgur gets to do some forestry management, and these radical archivists get to save this jumble mass of human memory.
This tug-of-war is happening all over the internet. The moderators on Wikipedia are constantly wrestling with which articles and categories to delete outright. Pages rife with opinion or malicious intent are set on fire and forgotten about. Deletionpedia, for a time, tried to preserve the articles that Wikipedia had obliterated, but even it has fallen into disrepair. People aren’t hankering for the deleted pages.
The Internet Archive is the shining city on a hill of historical preservation. Not only is it a mind-bendingly massive repository of nearly every website to ever exist, it also hosts a dizzying area of books, music, film, radio shows, magazines, newspapers, and so on.
You may have noticed that this newsletter makes liberal use of a weird collection of books — on Soviet cinema, from conspiracy theories, and, yes, even detailing archival practises. In most cases, I borrow those books from The Internet Archive’s lending library, which partnered with local libraries to digitize and upload these books, many of which are incredibly hard to find. It has been one of the most extraordinary uploading of thought in the internet’s history.
But there is a problem brewing. And it is a much more serious threat to our collective history than mass-deleting some gifs., Nintendo — but it has consistently managed to find a nice balance between respecting rights holders and national law, while also protecting and making-available its massive trove of information.
The biggest challenge yet, however, was a 2020 lawsuit launched by publishing industry giants against the Archive’s book lending program. (Including, full disclosure, my publisher’s parent company.) In March, a district judge in New York delivered a scathing ruling against the Archive, ruling that it cannot be protected by fair use. We are awaiting the court’s decision on remedies, and there will almost-certainly be appeals. But things don’t look good.
The Freedom of the Press Foundation raced to preserve content from a spate of alt-weeklies and Gawker that threatened to go offline entirely. But as lawfare becomes a more common tactic to knock offline critical news outlets, that sort of preservation could invite legal actions as well.
The cost of this work is also mounting. And the Internet Archive’s budget has long been insufficient for the job that lays ahead of it.
When Google or Meta archives your data, they do so to exploit it. When The Internet Archive saves knowledge, it is to make accessible in a sensible way to people who want to learn from it. The former generates revenue, the latter does not. As the publishers’ lawsuit shows, it actually comes with financial liabilities.
The old internet is dying and the new one is struggling to be born. In the inbetween, we need to come to grips with what we’re ok leaving behind and what we desperately want to save.
And we need to get a lot better at protecting the things we want to save.
That’s it for this week!
I’ll finally be dropping my lengthy report on the state of polarization in Canada, with the Public Policy Forum, next week. So stay tuned for that.
Anime pornography. I hope I saved at least one of you an uncomfortable Googleing.