The Climate Change of the Abandoned Internet

You either die forgotten or live long enough to see yourself become adtech mulch

Andrew here, guest writing on The Margins today; I previously wrote about Robinhood and the limits of innovation. Today, we talk about how the Internet is decaying, and how the new way for it to be preserved is - what else - ad targeting.

A few weeks ago, bored and online, I decided to go back and visit some of the more memorable web phenomena from elementary and middle school in the 2000s. The crowded superhighways of Twitter and Reddit faded and were replaced by the much more geographically vast (and ever-expanding) wilderness of the abandoned internet, where no one is around to disturb you, DM you, or respond to you should you leave a trace.

The page that stuck out to me the most upon revisit was a particularly stupid online video originally made in 2001 called The Demented Cartoon Movie, a half-hour “feature” (made, of course, using Flash) in which a bunch of stick figures get blown up by bombs and, among other things, a kamikaze watermelon. I remember watching it at recess in maybe fourth grade and thinking it was hilarious. Judging from the comments below the video now, I am not the only one to periodically remember it as a mark of its specific era of the internet, an earlier version of spectacularly low-budget absurdism when the peak of humor was just splicing pop culture references together and then inserting cartoonish violence. It felt like home.

This is what culture was like at the turn of the century, kids (image from albinoblacksheep)

The eternally recurring cycle of the internet is to push out cultural experiences that, though they fade almost immediately, get imprinted on whoever was there to see it. The people who were there bond over whatever it was, and you can bring it up years later to enthused responses of “oh WOW, what a throwback.” The commonly understood feeling of reverting to your old habits and verbal and physical tics when you head back to where you grew up for Christmas is available on demand online, where you can access digital memories like the first obscure online subculture you got involved with, the first fanfiction you wrote that had one supportive comment on it, or the first time you totally owned someone in an argument about atheism, at the click of a button.

An Earthquake on Memory Lane

You should visit whatever equivalent experiences you have now because there is no guarantee that anything that is online will survive. This phenomenon is known as “link rot”, where a combination of website redesigns, name changes, intentional website discontinuations, and various random other factors and errors result in some fraction of web links becoming nonviable constantly. Maciej Cegłowski, the creator of web bookmarking site Pinboard, has estimated that a full 5% of links of links go dead annually. If you assume a web page has a 5% chance of dying in each year, there is roughly only a one in three chance it will exist in 20 years. The Web is in a constant state of erosion.

The main combatant against this rot is the Internet Archive, a phenomenally useful tool that crawls the internet and saves what pages looked like on the day the crawling took place (disclosure: I have donated to it). If a link doesn’t work, simply copy and paste the URL into the Archive’s search tool and it will show you all the days the URL was captured. But there are ways to block the scraper, and the Archive doesn’t grab everything.

Death is one option, but now so is being undead. As writer John Herrman has noted, the big social network before Facebook, Myspace, still has a purpose, not in being a place that people spend time, but rather being a source of a gargantuan amount of information ripe for use by advertisers hungry for targeting. The millions of people who used Myspace in the mid-2000s but then decamped for Facebook (or maybe the great outdoors?) mostly didn’t delete their profiles when they stopped logging on, and so Myspace found itself in possession of a treasure trove of the internet’s most valuable commodity: that sweet, sweet personalized data, which can now follow its former users around forever.

Myspace also recently demonstrated a rather spectacular example of link rot by losing 12 years’ worth of users’ music uploads, apparently due to a technical glitch. But no matter, because the site is a fossil dealer now, and any remaining user interaction with it is just scattered dirt. You should expect to see more transformations like those of Myspace and Foursquare, another former social media would-be wunderkind that has used its “tremendous amount of gold” to create a “powerhouse enterprise data extraction business.

And this is what the culture was like in the 2000s (image from The Verge)

When Things Matter

This dynamic in the abandoned internet is a side effect of the sea change happening on the modern internet where people come every day. As the web continues its decade-plus haphazard professionalization (Tumblr bans nudity, Youtube hires mods, everyone gets more on edge about copyright and culture war) and the free-for-all adult playground where nothing really mattered fades, the idea of an internet-specific culture has already become an anachronism. That cool thing you saw on an obscure website? It’ll be a meme within a week and be on morning talk shows a week later.

Should we mourn this? We might get nostalgic about it, but the abandoned internet didn’t exactly always qualify as time well spent, and the great majority of things online are instantly forgettable anyways. 

I think the main thing that is being lost in this shift is the (relative) ability to experiment freely and have a culture that reflects that option. The old internet was less overtly commercial and more willing to suspend disbelief about something that was obviously dumb if there was fun to be had from it, and so you could screw around and float in a sea of people doing the same thing and it wouldn’t matter at all. It was often innocent in the sense that people didn’t much assign real meaning to it, so you could start things and abandon them in this other sphere of life without feeling like it was even really you that was doing it. 

The modernized surveillance web, where you’re constantly under the scope of corporations, peers, and total randos, will never give you that benefit of the doubt. Under the old rules, people could often shitpost constantly using their actual names and not think they needed to be protected from anything; now even anonymity may not protect you from being doxxed or harassed or just feeling pushed around and taken advantage of. (Obviously these problems have always occurred online, but the degree has shifted dramatically.)

The abandoned internet is the first publicly available repository of data showing what happens when you turn people loose and let them effectively do whatever they want in a way that got the results preserved publicly as a default setting. It’s a time capsule of human experimentation at vast scale, available for all with a web connection to access. In retrospect it is astonishingly trusting, and given today’s trends, maybe unique.

So while you still feel like it, before those web pages of times past get eliminated or strip-mined or become just plain funereal, meander through the digital spaces that meant something to you. The climate is changing.

What I’m Reading

The Adults in the Room: sometimes dying websites become adtech mulch, and sometimes living websites are set upon by predators. The media business faces a lot of structural headwinds, most of them having to do with digitization, but it sure wouldn’t hurt if many of the new managers at cheap-to-buy media companies weren’t the absolute worst kind of jargon-spouting empty suits. On her way out of Deadspin after its takeover by Great Hill Partners, Megan Greenwell refuses to go gentle into that good night:

“This man [Jim Spanfeller, the CEO of Great Hill Partners] is not the adult in the room at the former Gawker Media, just as Kendall Roy was not the adult in the room at Vaulter and Alden Global Capital executives are not the adult in the room at any of the 100 newspapers they are destroying. Sending a copied-and-pasted company handbook, issuing vague edicts about becoming sites for “enthusiasts,” and making inexplicable changes for the sake of making changes are the professional equivalent of a small boy dressing up in his father’s suit: He is role-playing, deluding himself but no one else.”

Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience: located in the Bay Area, Silicon Valley has always had a strong strain of New Age mysticism in its guiding ideologies. The Esalen Institute, a tech-heavy center where millionaires come to wonder if they are the baddies, seems to have a lot going on:

“What’s coming up for me, thinking about all these big forces we’re up against, is a sense of anxiety and helplessness, like I felt before I quit Insta,” one man said. “I came here to be encouraged and to feel whole, but this is starting to be a bit of a bummer.”

“O.K., let’s change it up,” Poswolsky said. “On the count of three, we’re all gonna shout ‘Fuck you!’ to our inner critic.” When that was done, everyone took turns standing in the middle of a circle, receiving praise from the group. (“You are fierce.” “Loyal.” “A force of nature.”) This exercise brought several people to tears.”