in Profiles | 04 APR 02
Featured in
Issue 66

Census sensibility

Delving into the dusty recesses of Internet archives

in Profiles | 04 APR 02

So far this year, the three biggest stories to come out of the 'online' sections of the UK newspapers have been about nostalgic databases, namely's Usenet archive, Friends Reunited and the 1901 census. You don't have to wade too deeply into cultural theory for an explanation. History is 'in' at the moment after all. The ratings for TV documentaries such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII and Elizabeth have been phenomenal. But the kind of 'history' these three sites offer is very different and says a lot about the weird relationship many of us have with the Internet.

In December 2001 Google made its archive of 700 million Usenet messages (dating back to 1981) available online. For the uninitiated, Usenet is an ancient portion of the Internet split into thousands of newsgroups, each dedicated to a different subject, be it Star Trek, Middle Eastern politics or sex in unusual public places. They're essentially discussion forums which work sort of like email, except when you send off a message everyone on the forum gets it. The fun part now is that, if you've ever,evercontributed to a Usenet group, the chances are your diatribes are now available on along with everyone else's. Just type in a search key word and start trawling through hundreds of thousands of conversations, arguments and flirtations.

There is a theory that claims this to be social history in the truest sense of the term, written not with objective hindsight, but as contemporary experience, by real people. And in that sense it's not at all flattering. You'll certainly find threads discussing the major news events (most dramatically the first murmurs of AIDS and initial gut reactions to 11 September 2001), but more prevalent are the pop culture moments that define everyday lives - at least privileged techno-centric Western lives - on an individual, palpable level. New flavour Coke, Star Wars 6, Friends, the evilness of Bill Gates: these discussions are Postmodern gold dust - shallow, ironic, aimless. The Usenet archive is a hyperreal simulacrum of history, its 'I love the Last 20 Years' filtered in real-time but without the need for a barrage of popular television pundits.

But more than this, the Usenet archive is where nostalgia and voyeurism interconnect. It's not only about exploring the recent past, it's also about listening to other people's conversations, gorging on the minutiae of unknown lives. You're not so much studying history as bursting in on it - like reading the messages on the old postcards sold at antique fairs. Of course nothing that appears in the archive can be termed 'private' because it's been broadcast across a computer network, but the content is unavoidably personal and was never intended as a historical resource. In fact, many Usenet veterans are quite embarrassed about their 15-year-old flame wars becoming public property. Imagine your own teenage tiffs hung out on the web for all to see.

The 1901 UK census went live online on 2 January 2002, allowing visitors to search under name, place or street. The idea was that when you discovered your house, or distant relative, you could order a digital image of the original census return sent in from that property/ancestor. The site was designed to cope with around a million hits a day. Seven million showed up in the first few hours and broke it. It's due back online in the spring.

The protagonists behind the 1901 census project no doubt view it as more historically 'worthy' than the Usenet archive, but I'm not so sure. There's a good chance a large percentage of the people who jammed the servers back in January weren't there in search of a broad socio-economic portrait of Victorian Britain - they just wanted to see who lived in their house 101 years ago. It's that voyeurism thing again, the irrevocable desire to peer into other people's humdrum lives. Of course many others will have logged on in an effort to 'trace the family tree'. Genealogy is now second only to porn as an Internet money-spinner, with hundreds of sites offering expensive assistance to those investigating their ancestry online. All this relates, via an unstable hyperlink, to the massively (and somewhat bizarrely) successful Friends Reunited - which is a type of social genealogy in that it involves rooting about in the past, not to learn about the era itself, but to form connections with one's own life.

Why the sudden interest in personal histories? Some would say it's a struggle to construct identity in a post-millennial Britain where traditional demarcations of class and ethnicity are blurring into meaninglessness. Indeed America has had its own Friends Reunited ( and its own historical state census sites for several years - perhaps because the need to discover some kind of family lineage is much stronger in a younger country which has never had Britain's once rigid social structures to fall back on.

Satisfyingly, this all runs contrary to the great gamut of cultural analysis which states that the Internet is about casting off identity and assuming guises. We're far too narcissistic for that; deep down, every amateur genealogist exploring the 1901 census hopes to uncover some prestigious atavistic connection. Everyone who leaves their details on Friends Reunited secretly wants to gauge how popular they were at school. Everyone who visits the Usenet archive will sooner or later, key in a search for their own name. Through these sites, the Web can offer a history that no TV programme ever could. A personal history for every surfer.

It will be abused, you can count on that. What spiteful inter-house rivalries might be sparked when the 1901 census eventually goes back online? Will those who's property was once inhabited by the 'feeble-minded' (the census takers often ear-marked returned forms with such observations) be stigmatized? Will prospective friends and lovers start running your name through the Usenet archive just to check you out? Many view surfing the web as a furtive pleasure, something to do when the kids are in bed. It is amusing to think that the greatest communications system ever invented may well become a digital lace curtain twitching with petty intrigue. I mean what were your work colleagues like at school? What was that newsgroup your housemate contributed to so regularly? Think about it. Then go online. History awaits.