Ghosts in the MachineHave We Entrusted Too Much to the Internet?

Photo by Lina Yatsen on Unsplash

Adwoa Afful is Bitch Media’s 2019 Writing Fellow in Techology

Author’s note: When I began my quarter as a Bitch Media fellow, I did not think that I would write so much about the past, but over the course of my fellowship, I learned quickly that you cannot engage with the paradoxes of modern tech and the internet without engaging with its past. Learning that has been eye-opening for me. While this post carries on this theme in some ways, it is also one of my most forward-thinking pieces. And so it feels fitting that my last post as 2019’s Technology Fellow is about posterity and the digital artifacts we may want to leave behind for our future selves and others to find.

Last month it was reported that MySpace, the massively popular social network music founded by Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolf in 2003, had a server-migration snafu that resulted in the loss of all music, video, and photos uploaded to the site between 2003 and 2015.The news had former users across Reddit and Twitter lamenting the loss, but also cracking jokes  about being secretly grateful that evidence of their highly embarrassing emo phase was lost to the past.

The MySpace news was especially relevant for people who had used it to upload and share music, but it also got me thinking about the content that we are quick to share but are too lazy, busy, or forgetful to think about once it’s up. The internet is awash in digital detritus from the past two decades, and this incident highlights the extent to which we have come to rely on the internet to preserve our memories, even the awkward ones; it may also tell us a lot about how our relationships to the internet and cultural memory are evolving.

 

By now, we’re well aware that old blog posts and tweets can easily return to haunt us in ways we failed to anticipate. We’ve given less thought, however, to how that content is saved, and by whom—a more complicated reality than we might assume. MySpace is the most recent and perhaps most egregious example, but loss of content is an issue that cuts across most platforms. The sale or closure of sites like Google+, GeoCities, and Flickr has prompted concern among users and digital archivists of losing the communities and artifacts they made possible. Speculation about the future of music-sharing site Soundcloud, for instance, has persisted for years as users witness the company’s struggle for profitability. Meanwhile, the site has spawned an entire genre of R&B and rap whose reach is directly linked to the rise of artists like Rico Nasty and Abra.

Soundcloud’s ongoing precarity presents users with a high-risk proposition: Posting their music on a platform with considerable reach can build their fanbase and offer an entrée to high-profile, career-building communities—but if the site goes under, they might well lose access to all of it. Each closure or sale of an underperforming platform underscores the limitations of relying on private companies to conserve our digital histories and memories, and the question of what to do with all their abandoned content becomes more pressing.

The fact that we have entrusted our collective memories to companies with no profit motive to safeguard them leaves online culture in a precarious state that further impacts those of us whose online identities were vulnerable even before big tech claimed them.

Nostalgia is an extension of embodied memory, and the modern impulse to archive our lives online is the externalization of that memory: the internet as backup drive for our brains. And the amount of information we entrust to it has multiplied many times over since the heyday of MySpace: We rely on apps to plan our days and weekends, to make us look better in photos, to preserve memories, to remember birthdays and anniversaries, to keep track of budgets and expenses, to water our plants, to remind us who and where our friends are. We take for granted that the internet will always remember what we might otherwise forget.

Despite my own my own reservations about Facebook, for instance, I am an avid Instagrammer. I mostly upload innocuous content (like photos of my plants), but I also post the occasional photo of family, friends, and myself. These photos trigger a wave of happy memories when I see them, and I know losing them would sting. But I still haven’t gotten around to backing them up—mostly because Instagram has given me a false sense of permanence. Despite knowing better, I take for granted that I’ll be able to pull up those photos whenever I want.

This is partly by design, as I find out in a conversation with Emory University archivist John Bence. “There is something insidious about how good those platforms are at what they do,” Bence notes. “They lull us into thinking that that’s how things should be. They developed a system that works well for their ends and not ours.” Apps like Instagram are designed to be easy to use, which compels us to use them frequently and to quickly develop a trust that they will preserve our personal, meaningful content. Instagram even appropriates the language of documentation, giving users the option to “archive” rather than delete photos when we want to hide them from public view. Whether consciously or not, the personal content we upload to apps gets us invested in ways we might have never predicted.

The sense of loss expressed across social media by the MySpace new was the biggest since 2016, when the microvlogging app Vine shut down. Initially a Twitter side project that allowed users to post six-second videos on loop, Vine was swiftly embraced by young Black and Brown teens in particular—some of whom, like Kayla Newman (aka Peaches Monroe) and Jay Versace, catapulted from Vine popularity to even greater internet fame, as well as some mainstream success. Vine’s popularity among this demographic was unexpected, and for four years led amateur and often unintentional singers, comedians, and others to become influential culture producers in their own right. Vine users and stars contributed to the communities it cultivated, and though the app never became profitable, there’s no question that it was a potent cultural force.

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Vine’s untimely demise underscores the challenge, for digital archivists, of not replicating existing gender, regional, linguistic, and racial content gaps. We tend to think of digital content as invulnerable, but Bence points out that data degrades over time, becoming much more susceptible to corruption during large or frequent transfers from one server to another; files uploaded by amateurs lacking the knowledge or resources to upload durable, high-quality files are particularly vulnerable. The content most likely to be primed for archiving, on the other hand, is that produced by government institutions and media companies and reflects the more privileged demographics of those entities.

Take Wikiproject: Women in Red, an effort founded in 2015 by volunteer editors Rosie Stephenson-Goodknight and Roger Bamkin to increase the number of Wikipedia pages dedicated to women. WIR’s creators were responding in part to the fact that Wikipedia’s English-language site is the fifth-most-visited in the world, but between 84 and 91 percent of its editors are men, and only 17.7 percent of its pages focus on women. Because Wikipedia is one of the largest digital archives currently in existence, the implications of its gender imbalance are huge and cut across other demographics, including people of color and LGBTQ communities.

Over the past decade, groups like the Archive Team have formed to take on the task of archiving as much content as possible. But a handful of radical digital archivists can only do so much, especially given the even bigger challenge of determining how much out there is worth preserving, and what criteria should determine that. As Bence notes “[Archivists] trying to do the work of digital preservation don’t have the money tech [companies] have to do it.” The internet is rife with paradoxes, and this one might be its most monumental: In order to mitigate a problem that exists in the present, we must look simultaneously to the past and the future for possible solutions.

We know that human memory is highly fallible, and so we rely on apps to make up for those weaknesses, which may be another reason why we panic when they and the tech companies that own them let us down. The fact that we have entrusted our collective memories to companies with no profit motive to safeguard them leaves online culture and communities in a precarious state that further impacts those of us whose online identities, communities, and efforts were vulnerable even before big tech claimed them.

The limits of social media to remember and preserve what may be important to us in the future, reminds us, sometimes in heartbreaking ways, how much our relationship with the internet has evolved. During the halcyon days of MySpace, we expected and craved the impermanence that the internet seemed to offer. Now that desire is much more ambivalent, forcing us to rethink what we really want from it, .  

 

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by Adwoa Afful
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