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The web in decay and the rise of undead content

This post is a draft, and currently being written in public (as you can see). This block of text will be removed when it is finished. (((this one is like super super super unfinished)))

I watched a city burn down before my eyes –– each video perfectly designed to twist and sicken me, felt the cries of my country over a cataclysm that covered the sky in black, and every day –– see at the sidelines new and resurfaced videos of death and destruction passing through screens and filters. A death ad infinitum, preserved forever as spectacle for the world.

The internet revolution had brought us both the gift of permanence, and an inevitable brainwashing. With the size of the internet doubling every five years and feeds favoring the most masochistic, soulcrushing content that has given us doomscrolling in our vernacular, we live in an age of despair. The worldwide internet exists only as a promise; a medium that has seemingly rendered distance negligible (a hyperlink brings you nearly anywhere) still has us contained to the closest spectacle if we aren’t gated already. Somewhere in the western world, the decision-makers dismiss the internet plight, blind, or even untouched, to the media and messages that tell these stories. When Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Shopify, and dozens of other companies followed in taking action to cease domestic terrorism in the United States, it was not only as a result to five (and counting) lost lives. In reality, it was a drawn realization of the millions of lives that have been thrown away by the internet age––many of whom existing only as numbers, names left in scanned lists to decay. Footnotes to life where the living are pummeled around to ignore their being.
The most painful part of this is the forgetting. This may be entirely paradoxical, but this is the internet I breathe in and live in––and if the internet has given me anything, it is the knowing that I am exceedingly unspecial and my experiences never come alone. The most mundane things become permanent on the world wide web: the million dollar webpage and all its decayed pixels and spam redirects, screenshots of a tweet that angered a Kaworu Nagisa profile picture left to follow OP to their next four usernames, an image shared and rehosted over and over. Yet, our links are rotting and information we treasure lost. Little web experiments I made over my high school years purged from without any foreseeable warning, text files and notes on disjointed services that toss away data, overly-cited .edu class pages and death notes.

The average life expectancy of a webpage is a hundred days. This average is likely to be far lower for materials that live on social media. Now, half of hyperlinks cited in United States Supreme Courts decisions are broken; for scientific journals, this number climbs up to 66% or so. Two decades ago, a website might have been up for two years and seven months.

The Attention Game

For years, startups have recognized this information overload and made many a revelation on the best way to catch up to their existence – a ticking bomb. This is where the “build bast and break things” mentality thrives, right next to the the “execution is everything” mantra. Indeed, we live in a complex age where the richest men are victors because of luck and timing––far more incalculable than anything else with the only consistent constant being persistence.
The idea here is that defeating the beast of link rot inevitably wins on attention and status. (You win against materials that simply no longer exist, of course.) Attention is a zero-sum game. Content has never been so abundant and impossible to dig through––we would sooner die than be able to experience a moment’s worth of media uploaded unto the net. Then, what one wins, another is denied. Humanity’s own limited cognitive capacity has naturally built up constraint and limitation against a once-seemingly infinite world where distance and proximity meant nearly nothing. Delivery of information from one point to another happening instantaneously is near impossible when we exist in digital echo chambers; you assume you could care about the Philippine drug war, the reality faced by Uyghur Muslims, or really––even the worldwide solidarity and outrage towards the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, they appear as passing materials and items that are waved in front of you (if ever) and dissipate as quickly.

It’s a shame that many of the world’s most important problems are also seemingly vapid, and that man is inherently imperfect at the act of prioritization, and absolutely terrible at judging importance.

Or, everything is important and worth fighting for––but nothing is life-changing. And accepting these two seemingly conflicting truisms is key to overcoming the inalienable beast of a web we’ve grown into. Like how prioritization demands internal value alongside urgency in time, we come to accept that even the most mundane, original pieces of content on the internet are worth saving. I don’t mean spam bots (or maybe they still do to understand their behavior?) and what’s lying around in my Akismet filter, but any item that one puts out on the internet should be ours to save. Evermore if they expect it to be. Our data alone is invaluable, far too cheap for how easy we give it away now. Our memories become priceless, and the internet’s promise is the closest thing we have.
Listen to me. I’m twenty and have known nothing before the internet, and people younger than me who grew up even more hyperdigitalized (I came when the emerging world was getting laptops as a thing, younger brother coming in when iPads were an academic expectation and thus, everywhere) have the art of everything we said existing here and now. I’m scraping together photos from senior year of high school––something that barely happened three years ago. I feel like these experiences sometimes exist no more than as a physical vestige. Yes––they happened over Skype, the shitty Facebook Messenger, Xanga, my first website’s––but my personal data on the individual level means nothing. I can’t retrieve that, and I’ve tried. Forum messages wiped, I desperately try to recover the last pieces of writing I made still available on the Wayback machine, the photos I edited and put together of my friends before I deleted it in a flash of fury, deleted accounts wiping away time. The algorithm will never know that the things I most enjoy I refuse to interact with. Human behavior is jagged and cannot be contained.

It might even be a minor gaslighting. The attention economy handpicks what survives, and no one remembers how loss comes so easy. It was a mistake when Twitter announced that inactive accounts would be wiped to make their usernames available, product managers behind completely forgetting the existence of accounts of the deceased that no one has any access to. The average user won’t be able to get the assistance needed to enter their sibling’s account, and the security implications of that are still debated anyhow. When I was a rabid teenager, I completed the radical act of clearing off my Facebook friends list because I felt alone and pissed at the world or something like that. The only person I kept on my list was my grandfather who had passed, his account barely at a few hundred friends, years before the company introduced its memorialization feature. My mom used to pass her phone to me, asking me to make some texts for her. I’d see that conversation with her dad still propped up on the list, hundreds upon hundreds of undelivered messages––even after his passing.

Everything saved will be wiped away. We overestimate the importance of our words. The things that matter most to us are likely not what’s preserved by another. Self-preservation in the age of internet decay must then become priority. The average individual like you and I will reach in, nothing coming out. This is the lie of the internet, then.

Needs More JPEG

The Rise of Undead Content

Low resolution, overcompressed images littered with artifacts are almost constant news feed items despite technological evolution begging for us to drop it. “Needs more JPEG” is entering both our standard ironic vocabulary and visual language, so much that a new realm of meta-meme (see: deep fried memes) has spawned using artifacting as another layer of commentary. Many a bored CS kid’s side project spawn tools that compete on who can shittily compress images better than the other.

The low resolution internet will continue to exist and evolve its own language while flatscreen, curved monitors become a regularity in households. This is by design. It’s harder than ever to download and save content we see online, no matter how well-crafted or beautiful it originally is. (It’s even harder to parody things nowadays. Thankfully, YouTube Poop is difficult to miss.) Instead, we resort to third-party or system tools to capture things: asymmetric screenshots, Twitter video downloaders run by bots that store things for 24 hours, Youtube2MP3 compressors passing on the same source code and CSS still identical from a decade ago until they get shut down and revive with a swapped domain name a month later, iPhone screen recordings. If reposting is an option at all, it’s harder to embed information and commentary on things: representing the content without a share changes things completely algorithmically. Sharing menus are complex and the previews look worse. The goal of all content in the internet is to directly correspond with someone. For many, this may be intuitive of a view on the feed as the first-viewer, but for others, this communication best takes effect in messaging platforms and emails––which reposting/resharing content (for networks they may not even be on) is futile. We continue to design platforms that make sharing and consuming content ridiculously difficult to supposedly pull users onto it when we know this will always be met with resistance, and may even be causing friction in the adoption process. Such a natural action becomes a frustrating hurdle by design.

Tumblr post criticizing the stereotypical portrayal of gay men in media. |  Download Scientific Diagram

When content takes the form of a repost, reupload, re[something], we’ll of course see more artifacting, and will also likely see no link to the original piece (sometimes unnecessary––unless there’s comments/replies). I’ll commonly see collections of Tumblr posts and threads on my Twitter or Facebook feeds with simple screenshots like this.
Locating the source content is impossible. hetcisphobia as a user is gone (we could potentially do a namesearch and trace their previous usernames, but that’s not likely going to work), and Tumblr search is so broken that it’s going to be impossible to find this even if we have all of the contents. Within at least 21,883 notes, we lose so many more layers of information: notes on Tumblr can mean standard likes and reblogs, but each reblog can also contain their own tags that are generally used for commentary too, and notes themselves can be comments (not threaded to the original text), or reblogs with replies added (threaded to the original text).

A graphic I made on Instagram reposted by a Facebook page, hitting 128,000+ shares

Worse instances of this happen in today’s culture of Instagram activism and social media journalism. Reputable news outlets continue to put up paywalls, and links are discouraged from sharing on platforms like Facebook and Instagram. (On Facebook, posting a link with preview makes your accompanying caption unshareable unless the intended sharer enters a specific menu; Instagram only gives you one profile link, links aren’t clickable on posts, and you need at least ten thousand followers to include swipable links in your stories.) In response, graphic designers condense information into swipable squares and story formats, trying to put all key points on the image.
In this example, I failed at adding sufficient context to this call for justice on Fabel Pineda’s case. The second accompany graphic that the Facebook page didn’t share also deals with police brutality numbers in the Philippines compared to the United States. When images are reposted, the essence of materials like this go to waste: there are no calls to justice or action items, it becomes material for anger or desensitization at worst––becoming material for sensationalism on social media at best.

During the 2020 United States Presidential Elections, Republicans began circulating claims about the fraudulence of absentee ballots that tend to lean left (since you know, sane people would rather not vote in-person in the middle of a pandemic) –– Democrats must be manipulating votes, letting dead voters cast in ballots! Screen recording videos like the above circulated Twitter. It was clearly convincing and without manipulation: there was a census record, address, obituary, and full name of a voter that should have passed long ago; inputting these details on the ballot checker however brings up that they passed something in! The screen recording must have been proof –– but of course, the claims were unsubstantiated, attributed to clerical error, and also ignorant of the fact that if manipulation was going on it would probably be more subtle than this.

We do know however that the screen recording is for now, a window of sincerity and truth in an easily editable internet. The recorded swapping between applications to go to his chat makes it look more genuine, even if you didn’t follow the same steps on the website he shared (and I’d gauge that many believers did not have to replicate the same steps to believe in it). This is the same reason why taking a photo of your computer screen when you’ve done an “Inspect Element” edit adds another realm of believability, even if there’s really no difference in the layers of manipulation done. Touches of human interaction with digital interfaces breathe life and realism into our engagement in the cyberspace: Instagram story pen markers over screenshots and collages make things more engaging, skewed croppings as if we’re slicing and presenting specific parts of content to our friends, representing material as a more intentional effort than a mere link –– and also a gesture of “you don’t have to leave our conversation / this article to see what I want you to see.”

How do digital cameras work? - Explain that Stuff

Even if something survives the internet’s decay, the loss of context may as well render it useless. We can pass down knowledge with anecdotes like it were tribal or salvage screenshots, either end putting us at odds with the constant dichotomy presented by technology. In Are We Human?, Beatriz Colomina articulates this perfectly: we face both the magnificence of technology as the most human thing as we are the only species that creates tools to make tools––reinventing ourselves with artifacts, and also the wrath and dangers of technology in its wiping of us, and perhaps, in its existence and our misjudgment. Tools will remain as tools.

This is deeply troubling for anyone not given the limited resources

Attention and public interest also isn’t enough to save content. The use of embeds as citations are common practice in news articles. Embedding a tweet allows us to witness all the changing variables in its authorship: the growing and shifting number of replies, likes, and retweets on something as its impact spreads; the author’s photograph and name; public response and thought associated with that item. Instead of potentially screengrabbing something without all its associations and full metadata, we’re able to give our audiences power to dig deeper in––a powerful thing that no other piece of media can truly replicate. (What if you could reference a movie scene and directly see the screenplay, surrounding elements, referenced materials? What if music journals had pointers to the exact moments in songs where the hook falls apart and leaves a dissatisfied pit in the critic’s stomach? What if the television was interactive and could show you all the progress updates on a report and let you swap to the weather if you need to give it a quick check? Wait…)
Twitter’s ban of Donald Trump––quite possibly the most dangerous social media user in history so far for the sheer magnitude of his reach––led to ultimate case of link rot across the internet. Even with his rhetoric, it was impossible for me to comprehend that this would have ever been an issue: he’s a public figure, his tweets are safeguarded and archived, and he’s likely one of the if not the most quoted and known figures in the waking world. A single statement impacts hundreds of nations.

My biggest frustration with today’s internet is that its design and structure innately awards sensationalism. The movement towards curation over present-day’s influencer domination reflects a necessary need to both free us a bit from information overload to a long-proven (though constantly workable) model of putting the work of the digest into the hands of individuals, or the community.

  • Many review websites aggregate the tastes of individuals into larger lists, letting you traverse collections to individual taste. A Letterboxd account serves as a user’s complete diary and review collection, be it casual watcher or Indiewire writer. On the homepage and
  • Superorganizers writes of Robert Cottrell, the world’s “most read” person who writes a newsletter that seeks out the five best articles of the day. To accomplish this, Cottrell readies his iPad and pulls in hundreds of publications in his personal RSS feed (a practice that in itself is dying), article strippers, and the usual front page readers like Reddit and Hacker News.
  • The model

Like any curative act, there will always be extremes, and averages are called that for a reason––they’re not very interesting. Ideally, a balance should be stricken somewhere between the individual voice and the collective’s want; we must live in a world of no idols, and also grasp the entire spectrum.

Headlines accompanied with pretty illustrative pieces offer us little about what truly matters: the links and networks intertwined with our content. Social media feeds are even worse: before Twitter introduced its quote tweets panel (which we were still suggesting as late as 2019) — the only option to investigate any ensuing conversation from a tweet was to copy its URL, manually strip the UTM code tacked on, and paste it into the Twitter search bar. It took years for Twitter to implement this functional move when billions of tweets had long been making use of this feature. Today, we see the company experimenting with people to forcibly encounter the Quote Tweet panel (where the original source is viewable and highlighted) before retweeting any item, and any option to disable replies (such as the most constricting: only letting mentioned users reply, usually done on tweets with no @s) still allows for the quote tweets.

  • focuses on helping scholars, journals, courts, and others create permanent records of the web sources they cite. It’s

These aren’t intuitive actions, though. Community platforms on Reddit implement these in different ways.

  • When will there be a guide to best practices for archiving the web?
  • Will the giants responsible for the platformization of the web make the act of digital archival any easier for us?
  • Should the web exist as something organic, malleable, and destructible –– or as an eternal timekeeper?

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