How will we remember spaces on the internet? How will we study them, learn from them, and respect them as part of history?
When a physical place - a home, business, institution, or a community space shuts down, it leaves behind some trace. There are photos and products and artifacts from its life. Whatever entity moves into that space, no matter how much they renovate, are still operating within the physical walls; the spaces that preceded it still speak, like a ghost.
Books that are no longer printed still exist. They are hard to find and buried in attics and storage facilities, but they exist. I have a small fear that my digital life will end, and I haven’t printed enough photos or emails for posterity. It can be erased because it doesn’t physically exist.
The internet is old enough that it has history; they can archive pages, but we will never show our children photos of when we hung out at Gawker. At some point, will a history class discuss the effect of Twitter and its history? Of Facebook? What about sites that are gone? What about the first message boards, the first social media, the first news sites? Does the New York Times have a framed and printed photo of their first online edition?
I studied architecture. Then I moved to New Orleans where most of the buildings I worked on were old and getting renovated or repaired. Along with the ghosts of Katrina, I felt the presence of ghosts from further back than that. I became less dazzled with something fancy and new and more intrigued by what it means to manipulate and adapt a space with history, with a soul, with ghosts. Even now, when I am in a building, I study it to learn its story; what were the additions and when were they made? Who lived here? Who worked here? This book discusses the lives of buildings and how they evolve over time to adapt to humans. I love it.
We don’t get that with websites, but we are as much “in” an internet community as we are a building. Websites are part of history; when I was growing up you looked at periodicals in the library to do research. Will kids soon look at archived internet articles? What form will that take? Who is curating it? Where are they? Who will decide what’s fake and what’s real?
Will designers study the different iterations of iconic websites? Will they become part of art history? Will coders be able to visit old and forgotten sites to learn and respect their own history?
No one will occupy the space that Splinter once occupied. If Deadspin’s entire ethos totally changes, its old form will be lost to time - quickly. If the overlords choose and the archivists cooperate, or if a powerful hacker or foreign government wants, they can erase it from the face of the earth without a trace more easily than if it was a coffee shop that we were all hanging out in. They can wipe out my identity as Hello, America (which started as Hello_My_Lover). Every word I’ve written, the social interaction I’ve had, the personal stories I’ve exchanged - all of it, gone.
When Gawker ended, I remember just thinking: “That’s it. It’s over.” It felt like a death - not that I was grieving, but just the same finality. You can no longer comment. Its articles are dead, as if they are printed and framed and hung on the wall. No more discussion.