The Internet Is Not Your Friend: MySpace and the Loss of MemoriesRolling Stone — EJ Dickson
On Monday, reports surfaced indicating what many MySpace users had long suspected: that MySpace had deleted a great deal of the content uploaded to the platform between 2003 and 2015. Over the weekend, the social networking platform put up a banner announcing that “as a result of a server migration project, any photos, videos, and audio files you uploaded more than three years ago, may no longer be available on or from MySpace.” When it comes to providing an explanation why, MySpace has been fairly tight-lipped, though some have hinted that the loss had less to do with a server migration “glitch” in the system and more to do with MySpace’s new owner Meredith not wanting to pay to keep the files up. (The social media site did not respond to a request for comment.)
One could be forgiven for hearing this news and thinking, “Wait, MySpace is still around?” Despite efforts to reboot the platform in 2011, before it was sold to Time, Inc. in 2016, it has basically floundered in the ether for some time now. (In fact, the platform reportedly started deleting music last year, without attracting much notice). Many, however, were hit hard by the news, particularly musicians, who initially gravitated toward the platform to share and promote their own music. Although many artists had migrated to platforms like Soundcloud long ago, Reddit is full of outraged, often heartbreaking testimonials from musicians who have been unable to access years’ worth of work on the platform. According to one estimate, up to 50 million files from 14 million artists may have been been lost.
But the loss was also deeply felt by nostalgia-happy millennials who came of age on MySpace, of which there are many: at its peak in 2006, MySpace had about 100 million users, many of whom were adolescents at the time. For those who were in their teens during those heady post-Friendster, pre-Facebook years, MySpace was nothing less than an introductory course in the fledgling field of How to Be Extremely Online — for better or, more likely than not, for worse.
To be clear, many, if not most of us, seem pretty happy about this news. Looking back at my own MySpace photos, I found myself cringing at the remnants of my 17-year-old self, or at least the brand I was attempting to build for her — the preponderance of pouty black-and-white Nokia camera photos, the Jimi Hendrix reference in my username a flagrantly transparent attempt to telegraph a hippie-dippie, DGAF persona. (Reader, I most certainly did GAF). The fact that my hair was objectively absolutely incredible during that period is the only counterargument I can offer to the overwhelming sentiment expressed on the internet, which is that we are glad to have this content wiped from the digital record, never to be summoned up in an employer’s or crush’s Google search ever again.
But whether we would prefer to have our MySpace content readily available online is, ultimately, a different question than whether or not it should be. The dirty mirror selfies, the constant internal struggle over whether to place Kayla M. or Maya P. in your top 8, the Sublime-lyric laden status updates — all of these things, however embarrassing they may be to us in retrospect, are testaments to young lives being lived increasingly online, and are thus just as valuable to the historical record as the diary entries of a midwife in a 17th century shtetl or the sandwich John Lennon ordered when he wrote the riff for “Day Tripper.” It doesn’t really matter whether or not we want that content out there; now that it’s disappearing into the ether it’s hard not to feel extremely Big Yellow Taxi about it.
For its part, MySpace doesn’t seem all that contrite about the losses, issuing a weak mea culpa apologizing “for the inconvenience” of wiping millions of people’s content seemingly overnight. But to be fair, it’s not the only platform that is guilty of having done this. Geocities, which was a major hub for bloggers in the early 2000s, similarly deleted its archives, as did Google’s failed social networking venture Google Plus. In both instances, however, as the Guardian pointed out, those sites gave users warning before they deleted the archives, and an opportunity to preserve their content.
In the wake of the MySpace news, some have aired the grim prediction that the same fate could one day befall far more established social media platforms, like Facebook and YouTube, effectively wiping out content creators’ careers. This doesn’t seem particularly likely to happen now. But given how much unchecked power platforms like Facebook and YouTube have accumulated, and how much content has already been summarily yanked from the platform based on decisions made by machine-learning algorithms, in the long run, a mass disappearance of content on such platforms seems near inevitable.
“There’s no way to recover the information we entrust to third parties,” Sarah Ditum wrote last week in a prophetic op-ed for the New Statesman. “We use Facebook, Gmail and Dropbox in the expectation that whatever we put there today will still exist tomorrow, but that can be a misplaced faith.” And that faith can come with some seriously devastating consequences, as evidenced by the posts from distraught posters on Reddit, one of whom is a father whose son passed away at 20, who now no longer is able to access a guitar demo he recorded at the age of seven. While we may refer to the disappearance of our embarrassing post-sex selfies and Taking Back Sunday-lyric-laden status updates as a “blessing,” it certainly doesn’t feel that way to those of with lost loved ones, whose connections to their online lives, however tenuous they may be, are some of the only connections they still have.
This should be unnerving for those of us who came of age in the MySpace era, during that transitional period when the belief that every word and deed merited documentation went from being an undesirable character trait to a prerequisite for being a functioning member of society. But it should be near-terrifying for the generations that came after us. For members of Gen Z who have spent every waking moment of their lives online, who are so steeped in digital culture that they would overwhelmingly prefer to become a YouTuber when they grow up than a doctor or a human rights lawyer, there is no backup system; there is no WayBack Machine for social media; there is no archive. Their digital lives and actual lives are essentially one and the same, and the preservation of the former is entirely contingent on the whims of large corporations.
As a reminder for kids to practice good internet hygiene (re: not post racist Halloween costume photos on Instagram, or send their friends pictures of their junk on Snapchat), Internet safety experts like to say that the internet is forever. The MySpace fracas proves that it is not; or, at the very least, that you can’t pick and choose which parts of the internet will linger on in the cultural memory. Whether you like it or not, the internet remembers just what it wants to remember, because the internet is not your friend; it will not delete your embarrassing black-and-white mirror selfies or save your high school band demos just because you want it to. The internet is just the internet: unthinking, unfeeling, churning and gurgling and surviving on a diet of corporate ad dollars and very little else. And when it no longer becomes of use to the internet to continue to host your memories, whether they be good or bad, then it will simply cease to do so.