BY Orit Gat in Features | 25 JUL 22
Featured in
Issue 228

How Web 2.0 Created an Internet Desert

As the Internet keeps evolving, Orit Gat reflects on what's left behind

BY Orit Gat in Features | 25 JUL 22

Web 2.0, the promise of a new way of being online, created a desert on the internet: a place where content is posted and forgotten, but never goes away. The emphasis in the late 1990s and early 2000s on participation online – users posting content rather than only consuming it – was revolutionary and short-termist at once. Mid-2000s internet users were encouraged to start blogs on platforms like Blogger and keep journals on the likes of LiveJournal. They shared holiday snaps on Picasa, posted videos to YouTube and opened Facebook accounts. Then, they saw these platforms shift: Facebook timelines became confusing and dull, optimised for advertisers rather than users; blogs became professional and theirs started to seem a bit embarrassing. No one says ‘blog’ anymore, much less considers their TikToks a form of vlogging; and no one thinks of their Instagram as a ‘photo album’ like they did on Picasa, even if these are descendants of Web 2.0.

But the internet desert does not document the genealogy of our online activity; rather, it’s a place of loss: forgotten passwords and abandoned communities, old content we can no longer access, versions of ourselves we gave up. Somewhere online is a photo of me, aged sixteen, on the day I met my first boyfriend at a concert: a friend snapped photos when we were getting ready and posted them on Picasa; I haven’t seen them since. There’s the extremely personal Tumblr my friend kept when she was a teenager that she can’t delete; the youthful artworks that other friends lost when they failed to update passwords, or after hosting services like Kodak Gallery and Photobucket changed hands. What is the status – and legacy – of that abandoned content?

Commissioned illustration by Anna Haifisch, 2022

It’s a history almost impossible to access. The recovery method for my old Yahoo! account is my university email, which I cannot remember, and a burner-phone number that I deactivated a decade ago. I wish I could access my first email account or old ICQ chat and see a glimpse of who I was online then. But, faced with ever-changing terms and conditions, many of us don’t know where our data goes, how it’s used, what is kept and what isn’t. We’re locked out of old versions of ourselves.

When we talk about the OG social web, our words are often tinged with nostalgia, but those early posts are documents of a conscious monetization of a userbase. Internet platforms, motivated by the possibilities of digital advertising, directed users to new behaviours online without thinking of what would happen to their content in time. As user-posted content accumulated, the only solution most tech companies came up with was to keep hosting what they had prompted users to post. It may be a waste of these companies’ resources – and also an environmental concern because hosting images and videos requires huge amounts of energy – but what else could they do? To delete it would be to break the trust between internet platforms and users who bought into the idea that Facebook would organize their friendships or Blogger would be an account of their lives. These are our histories: we want to have the choice whether to distance ourselves from them or forget them, not lose them. And so, the web is full of this content, even if it remains unseen, even if it’s out of mind.

These forgotten and unnoticed regions of the web and our memories of living online represent the foregone conclusion of a simple story: how we were convinced by these platforms that this is how we should participate in the world, and how we took up their offer – in fact, how we continue to do so. And so, for as long as the social web has existed, we’ve left parts of ourselves behind in this arid new place, now full of dust balls.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 228 with the headline ‘What We Left Behind’.

Main image: Commissioned illustration by Anna Haifisch, 2022

Orit Gat is a writer and art critic. She is a contributing editor of The White Review and Art Papers.