All Our Bases Belonged To Us, Once
Love letters to the old web
jakec / 10012019
If you read Reddit for any amount of time, you’ll find someone telling you that porn decides the future of media. It chose VHS over Betamax. It chose Blu-Ray over HD-DVD. There are all kinds of numbers re: how much internet traffic is porn, but everyone agrees it’s a fuckload. You could also say porn chose the internet over print. Which would mean The Porn Dude is responsible for the shuttering of SPIN magazine. Increasingly, though, the finger-waving parental figures of the internet are not choosing porn.
Last year I had, by total coincidence, a lot of frank conversations with friends about porn. Maybe it’s that everybody is turning 30. Maybe it’s that Millennials just don’t give a shit about propriety any more. There’s a lot to talk about here that we’re denying ourselves.
Here’s one of them: PornHub is an incredible case study in how people use the internet, and also, how they live. Is this too broad a bow to draw? Its annual reports of data are just as interesting as the dev blogs written by the operators of Netflix and the New York Times. “More than 141 million people took the time to vote for their favorite videos, which incidentally is more people than voted in the last U.S. presidential election,” PornHub says. “In April when Fortnite’s servers crashed, searches for Fortnite increased by as much as 60% over a 24 hour period.” More people searched for “Tinder” than “Threesome”, suggesting people more eagerly crave the fantasy of a successful date. My heart hurts.
But one of the things absent from its report last year was the proliferation of something unusual on PornHub: memes.
PornHub’s SFW tag is a library of wonderful relics. Most, as the tag suggests, are safe for work. It’s a pretty loose definition though: you’re still gonna get eyeblasted by titles like “STEPMOM TITTYFUCKS SLEEPING SON” in the sidebar while you watch Solid Snake sing an anime theme song. The framing makes it impossible to actually watch this stuff at work. But in December, I was looking for a small but interesting dev project I could work on while procrastinating another thing, so I spent a couple of days making a more safe for work version of PornHub’s SFW category. It’s called SFW Hub.
I was fixated by the way PornHub’s SFW tag reminded me of the strange, contextless video and Flash galleries that dotted the web in the early 2000s. With barebones layouts (usually just a header and a table to organise the hundreds of thumbnails) and no identity attached, the emphasis was on content. Sometimes you’d find something hideous, sometimes something funny, sometimes something banal, but made sort of funny by its new context. The meaninglessness of it all predicted a period where “E” and Big Chungus would become generational touchstones.
So, I made SFW Hub as an homage.
At birth, I conducted the same sacrament as every Millennial: when one has made something, one must share something. I don’t mean in the Young People Just Can’t Live In The Now way (although, yeah) but the mechanics of our social lives incentivise the most spectacular public performance available, at all times. More stuff shared, more engagement driven, more authority rewarded by The Algorithm, therefore more stuff shared more prominently, therefore more engagement driven, etc. The mantra du jour is I Have Never Felt More Seen — constant shuffling of The Algorithm has instilled in all Millennials a perpetual paranoia of invisibility as well as the exclusive solution to it. I first read the word “gamification” re: Yelp etc., turning consumption into an attractive game. It’s not novel any more to say now our communities have been gamified also.
Games have rules and referees. The referees didn’t like the fact that my thing was porn adjacent (even though it was, in some sense, diametrically opposite.) Facebook deleted my post about my project almost immediately. Facebook deleted a post about the post afterwards almost immediately. I thought I was operating under the fundamental principles of Web 2.0 (collaboration, content creation, sharing, openness) but I guess not, and I have no way of knowing in which ways I wasn’t. Those principles were naturally sublimated by the winners and they have given themselves license to redefine them. Despite the fact that everyone on my friends list is over 18, Facebook’s robots determined that a project riffing on PornHub violated their community guidelines.
Well, this is how the web is now.
The Algorithm has rewarded us rich bounties, like rock bands that sound like rock bands we already listen to, video game streamers who play similar games we already play. This approximation of intelligence was good enough for the startup babies-turned-media dictators of the world to apply them to content moderation. If they want literally every human being alive (and plenty who aren’t, or never existed in the first place) to generate content for their platforms, they needed a way to filter it. Unfortunately but predictably, queer bloggers were defunded and flagged as NSFW content and female journalists deplatformed for calling out their harassers. The Algorithm errs on what’s ostensibly the side of least controversy, which mostly means enforcing a sensitivity that feels about 20 years behind public discourse on gender, sexuality, and etiquette. It’s permissive in the wrong ways, strict in the wrong ways, and (let’s generously say incidentally) enforces an extremely conservative attitude towards social behaviour. By affording total authority over what we see to inscrutable and unaccountable corporations, we’ve sacrificed our capacity to make those decisions for ourselves.
Let's agree to terms: when I say “we” I’m referring to content creators, by which I mean, human beings. The totality of these companies’ crusades to hoover everyone into their dubiously policed silos makes this a pervasive concern. If we’re all connected, let us connect over a shared loss. The web has gotten away from us.
I’ve been sitting on some disparate thoughts about all of this for months, but this week The Baffler published an essay by the brilliant Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell that totally scooped my brain out. Wagner’s dissection of the messy but personal expression of the old web is so perfect and almost perfectly aligned with my experiences. I want to expand and respond to some of it, because it’s so intimately familiar.
Before we get to where we’re identical, let’s start with where we differ: the kitschy, electronic subgenre vaporwave.
Vaporwave is a microcosm of how deeply perverse the incentives of web publishing are. I take a more cynical stance than Wagner: the longing for vaporwave to Mean Something resulted in overwrought thinkpieces that even the authors seem to know are ridiculous. The broadest proposition is that vaporwave is critical of anything, least of all capitalism or consumerism. Its repurposing of 90s boom iconography languished as representation, never escalating to commentary. And as much as I loved listening to SAINT PEPSI (and even more, Skylar Spence) that representation became chilling after a conversation I had with a friend last year.
The friend works at a large distributor of vaporwave, and he told me that, internally, they know the prevailing ideology among vaporwave artists is alt-right. It makes sense! An internet-y subculture that inherently distances itself from debate, is marked by irony, and insists on decontextualising the familiar is also how you might describe early 4chan and other formative hellmouths of The Meme. In that context, assumptions about vaporwave’s liberatory ideals seem less true than that the retromanticism of the genre has more in common with neo-con yearning for traditional values. As aesthetic experiments, there was plenty to extract from vaporwave, but politically it amounted to less than an image of Sonic saying “There’s no such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism.”
Wagner cites Esquire’s piece on vaporwave which joins it to Marxist thought. It’s almost worth it for the incredible kicker it sets up in Wagner’s piece, but Esquire’s reaching (which comes from an essay by Adam Harper, not anyone actually involved in vaporwave’s production) is emblematic of the unrealised hopes critics pinned on vaporwave. Esquire’s piece in general is a minefield of absurdity, its most egregious trap getting the history flat out wrong by suggesting Chuck Person’s Eccojams Vol 1 is a play on the word “echo” instead of the video game dolphin. The visual and sonic dimensions of 90s SEGA games are integral to understanding vaporwave and its attendant microgenres. Chris Ott did the definitive document on this.
That video contains two ideas relevant to what we’re talking about. The first is Ott’s unpacking of Night Bus, the framework he and other boarders on Hipinion developed to delineate music across genre by a type of mood and place. Cherie Hu gave a talk in Melbourne last year that described how the future of music streaming is in similar exercises, marrying taste to experiences and settings rather than their sonic dimensions. But as Ott makes clear, nobody had to wait for the dawn of Alexa to reframe their thinking about music.
“What if you just go back and take all the music that's ever existed before and you have this concept in mind? In America, if you've ever gotten on an overnight bus, you're usually going home from college. It's a very strange thing -- you're leaving a place you know where you're independent and on your own, and in a lot of cases you're going to your house, where you grew up with your parents or your friends. There's this transition, mentally, that's occurring, where you're going from one place toward another, but you're not there yet. While you're travelling, you're in this cocoon that's dark and weird and surrounded by strangers and you most often have your headphones on, and you're trying to shut all that out, but usually have trouble sleeping, so you're up, but you're tired. There's an emotional character to that. There's an emotional character to going and getting a cheeseburger at 2:30 in the morning and the way the lights are and if it's been raining. Night Bus has a completely different connotation in England and Europe, because there it's about shit-faced people piling onto the night bus to get home at the end of a night of heavy drinking.
...I was interested in the idea of archivally re-tagging music as being evocative of or appropriate for this kind of scenario.”
Without preservation, this kind of reframing of a shared history is completely hosed. As Wagner states in her essay, it’s the “deeply and irrevocably personal” that was lost with the homogenisation of web interfaces and the behaviour they prescribe. In other words, the “emotional character” of a distinct and shared experience of the web that was. Beyond an instinctive impulse to save the past, the good of this endeavour is in elevating that shared experience from a collection of descriptors (“the old web was static text and hyperlinks described and designed in HTML”) to a reflection of community. If the internet aims to connect, its participants have to connect to each other not just via networking protocols, but history and values. What does the web mean? is ultimately more important than What is the web? With the Night Bus exercise, Ott et al. discerned an authentically novel and appropriate lens for connecting art and experience. Genre striations, design patterns, programming paradigms, and brand names are all inadequate in marrying the art and experience of the web’s users. New dialects and attitudes - frameworks - are needed and they have to come from the users.
This might seem like a trivial example, but it parallels with the future dankness of memes, both in the traditional sense as viral ideas and as internet ephemera. Memes flourished since their dark ages where their only genesis was on 4chan and SomethingAwful, but it’s easy to envision a future where they reach their limit in the monolithic structure of present social media. The recent explosion of brain-busting absurdism is a product of this limit; with strictly finite parameters enforced on play, they had to divorce themselves from conventional symbolism.
This was a grassroots, subconscious, collective effort, where radical ideas grew freely in small spaces until they reached a critical mass. Which means, yeah, even your grandma knows about Big Chungus by now. Lack of imagination leads observers to believe memes have almost reached their limit, although it's true the lifespan of each new meme is shorter than the last. There are only finite formats (a square image, a photo with a caption, etc) allowed by the monolithic presentation of the web as it exists today. Not that long ago, memes were only static images. Now that bandwidth has caught up to gifs and videos, new meme formats were created to occupy the new dimensions. But what medium is richer even than video? The canvas of the web itself. “Web design declined from its creative, more variegated heights to become flat, highly minimalistic, and multi-platform, and the results are, frankly, fucking boring,” Wagner says. Image and video memes are only constrained because they’re forced into presentation in a poster/viewer relationship. It’s ultimately confined by the web page around it. The real loss of the old web is that users have ceded control of that page to outside parties totally disinterested in the users’ input. Taking ownership of the entire page, the complete presentation, is what’s next.
The second relevant part of Ott’s video is The Goldfish Bowl Effect:
“The important thing to me is not the way in which we re-embrace the past. It’s the way in which we get the past wrong. And that distortion is why I call it the Goldfish Bowl. If you’re at one point in the Goldfish Bowl - now - and you try to look over across at a point in the past, there’s a lot of distortion because of all the water between you. And all the people that’re watching these videos, these retrotastic videos mashing up old computer graphics and whatever, each person is having a different memory of what their childhood - or their years spent using that software - were like.”
The shared memory of the old web is enshrined in a similar distortion field. Geocities and AngelFire are common touchstones, but for me it was Lycos and AngelFire. I played a lot of Neopets, but Newgrounds and Stick Death were equally formative. Someone a few years older will cite Usenet and BBSes. Someone elsewhere in the world will cite Xanga. Beyond those artefacts, there is also the tone: one’s experience of the old web as biting wit and irreverence is meanness and cruelty in another’s. Maybe you had your first crush on AIM. Maybe you had your first heartbreak on ICQ. Wagner gets at something similar and explains why that makes preservation so important:
“The internet is perhaps the most potent and active delivery system in history for the thesis “capitalism will obliterate everything you know and love”—online it happens in real time. Considering the average website is less than ten years old, that old warning from your parents that says to “be careful what you post online because it’ll be there forever” is like the story your dad told you about chocolate milk coming from brown cows, a well-meant farce. On the contrary, librarians and archivists have implored us for years to be wary of the impermanence of digital media; when a website, especially one that invites mass participation, goes offline or executes a huge dump of its data and resources, it’s as if a smallish Library of Alexandria has been burned to the ground. Except unlike the burning of such a library, when a website folds, the ensuing commentary from tech blogs asks only why the company folded, or why a startup wasn’t profitable. Ignored is the scope and species of the lost material, or what it might have meant to the scant few who are left to salvage the digital wreck.”
According to Astra Taylor in The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, “we lose an estimated quarter of all working links every seven years.” With archival duties relegated to companies who will only preserve our culture-making for as long as it’s profitable, the loss of even one of these services would be a significant blow. The loss of cloud storage services provided by Google, Microsoft or Amazon, which backbone massive chunks of the web, would even be catastrophic.
The People’s Platform, published a million years ago (2014), makes Astra Taylor look like a prophet. She struck a moment where new media consolidation had already begun and the attitudes towards how they would govern the quasi-public spaces they’d created had been entrenched. The systemic problems have only worsened. The solutions proposed have only become more pressing to implement. Much of the conflict is between rhetoric and reality: the insistence on the part of the platform owners that the new web should be “open” vs their increasing control over the degree of that openness. Taylor dismantles each manifestation of this hypocrisy in detail. In the opening chapters, Taylor cites WIRED founder Kevin Kelly foreseeing a socialist readjustment to the production of culture, but Taylor sees arch-capitalism. The current situation accepts both (the former present but sublimated by the latter) but beyond the participation of the commons, there’s another element of Marxist thought that’s relevant here which Wagner implies: refamiliarising oneself with the product of one’s labour. Kenny saw Web 2.0 users taking back the production. We need to move towards taking back the means.
I can only see this becoming more common with coding becoming more prevalent in schools. The next generation is equipped with the tools to create their own web leveraging most of the same technologies that enabled the ruthless fencing off of the web we know. Did you know it’s possible to create your own internet right now? If you’re my age, probably not. But open source projects like TOR, I2P and mesh services like LibreMesh make it possible to create a clean slate on existing public infrastructure. You’re going to want something to look at on that internet, so for less than $100 you can get all the hardware you’ll need to build a web server.
There are thousands of online tutorials that will walk you through coding your own version of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (minus the hellscape of user tracking, natch.) Same for setting up your own email provider for anyone on your internet to use. There are open source versions of software like Google Docs that you can self-host as well. Are your users worried that they’re trading Google’s ownership of their data for yours? That’s fair: it’s easy enough to set up their own versions too. By “easy enough” I really mean: not that easy. It isn’t completely impenetrable, but it does require learning some things which, to most peopole, are probably arcane. The thing is, all of this knowledge is available to anyone with free time (and I don’t mean to diminish how precious and rare that can be.) In future, the time required to learn it will diminish, because more and more people going through schooling will have more and more of that prerequisite learning.
In that very spirit, grassroots communities of “data hoarders” are on the rise. These willful copyright violators are stacking hard drives (or, hopefully, SSDs) with petabytes of rare and obscure media, trading with each other on messageboards and subreddits. Unlike a conventional trade, where one gift returns a different but equivalent gift, these data exchanges result in both parties returning more than what they started with. With almost our entire lives sublimated by streaming platforms now, which carry no guarantee that they’ll be there to reflect our art back at us tomorrow, these data hoarders theoretically perform a service the market stole from libraries long ago. They aren't a solution (they have no obligation to distribute their wares freely, as a library would) but they do suggest that taking personal responsibility for preserving the web is possible. And encouraged.
Ultimately, new media brands pulled the public into an escape room of their own devising. Presented as recreation, these rooms obscured users from the real game played by inheritors of excruciating wealth, who goaded the users into building their entire lives here and dictated new terms when it was in their self-interest. The result is exacerbating generational instability: Millennials enticed to depend their income on YouTube are now routinely robbed by YouTube’s kowtowing to its fellow copyright hoarders. Tumblr is alienating and erasing queer communities out of fear of offending its true stakeholders, the wealthy conservative hegemony. Steam allowed its first uncensored game last year but still holds developers hostage with outrageous distribution fees and demotion. Apple’s App Store is the same. By promising to enable users - especially ones from a generation vulnerable to record job insecurity - to profit from their own careers, the web’s platform owners have swallowed the distribution channels and apparently locked the public into a strictly commercialised and sanitised form of expression.
I have to figure there’s a constructive middle ground. It’s present in the brief window of the web where messageboards thrived and more currently in spaces like Hacker News. The latter hasn’t resolved many of the problems the former faced: it’s largely still dominated by regressive politics and an overwhelmingly male presence. This is clearly not the panacea, but I think it’s a step in the right direction as long as those walking confront the issues from the jump off. But Hacker News has its virtues, like a culture of promoting good faith arguing and essentially deplatforming ad hominem and bad faith propositions. These are community efforts that have to act in tandem with the technology. The implication is that if you can’t find anything with which to rebut but sneers and insults, maybe you’re better just logging off (this is almost always the answer, everywhere, anyway.) This is how the web ought to proceed.
To distort a classic Saganism, not everyone wants to create the universe for the sake of eating some apple pie. Platform hosts and curators aren’t intrinsically evil and, like all machines gone rampant and awry, were born with the intention of making lives easier. Breaking out of the content silos and inscrutable authorities of major social media networks and taking back the right to be messy is a vital imperative, but not the only one. There needs to be some idea of how one could be a caretaker of others’ products.
If discussion and art - aka “user generated content” - is going to continue to flourish on the web, it needs to exist on platforms that are more than nominally community driven. This means the platform needs to exist somewhat separate to the culture. Technologists have attempted to codify this literally with solutions like blockchain; the rules of a site could be mutable if enough of the community (51%) agree. But as we recently saw with Ethereum Classic, these systems are vulnerable to malicious actors. I believe there’s still immense value in a human host making the calls, but they need to have the benefit of the community in mind exclusive to business concerns. Too much of the web has become about facilitating a community that will result in commercial benefit; the business should be run to grow the community, not the other way around.
Community guidelines need to be clearly defined, presented, and where necessary, strictly enforced. Moderators likewise have to check their ego or risk becoming authoritarian. For the most part, the participants should regulate each other. These aren’t novel suggestions at all and they’ve been tried and tested to varying degrees of success — Wikipedia is notorious for its draconian editors, and sure, some of them get it wrong in pursuit of their egos. But Wikipedia has also become more reliable since the days of the web this essay mostly concerns. The web is always experimenting with this formula but its failures aren’t a reason to write it off; its results have still been promising. On smaller scales, this social infrastructure is working every day. Discord channels and Mastodon networks successfully organise themselves like this, and while Discord is closed source, there’s always IRC. Hell, why not bring back the BBS after all?
Managing these platforms for no reward other than their continued existence can be an incredible stress. When they reach a certain mass, the job becomes a job. It’s hard enough doing the job that pays the rent, let alone one that doesn’t and also involves resolving fights between entitled internet brats. It’s this trickness that drove so many technologists to devise technological answers. Outsourcing decision-making to an uncompromising and limitlessly patient external force meant not having to deal with a simple fact: this is a people problem that requires a people solution. Building and maintaining a community, as well as a team that will continue to foster it healthily, is an immense task. But it’s inevitable. Wrestling with it will set the web free from the restrictive oligarchy to which the public has given custody of culture. I can’t put this better than Kate Wagner.
“It’s about time for a little revenge from the old internet.”