Live in life, die in death. Hu Tao is a young lady who constantly walks the line between life and death. She has seen the realm of the spirits, the plague of mortality and the consequences of class and strife along Liyue’s streets, and the work of gods and the eternal. She knows her consultant is potentially an adeptus or archon, is incredibly perceptive and ingenious, and one of the richest characters we have that more closely connect the underlying themes of human mortality under a world ruled by warring divinity.
March 1, 2021: We’re a day away from the Hu Tao banner! I’m so, so grateful to anyone reading this analysis (or the version on Khaenri’ah). Being able to spread the word on Hu Tao and help people fall in love with her a bit more has been insanely gratifying.
With her demo, she mentions “order of duality… impermanence of fate… I raise this butterfly to guide thee…” in the moment where she lets her more solemn, regimented side come clear. This makes a lot of the assumptions and straw-grabbing in the analysis come clearer: Hu Tao is clearly aware of how karmic order is something manipulable, fragile, and impermanent, while still recognizing the importance of ritual. Just wanted to point that tidbit out in the meantime!
Initial Message: This analysis was written before the official Genshin Impact 1.3 announcement (and as of writing, I’m unsure if she’ll definitely be in 1.3) (looks like she’s more than likely to be released on March 3rd), and before any of Hu Tao’s animations, story quests, or visibility in any official media (aside from character mentions). Additionally, it’s based on a reading of the English translation in story, ability text, and voicelines. Localizations can change characterizations heavily, so please keep this in mind with the interpretations used. Biggest thanks is to Honey Impact: Analysis is based off datamined voicelines and stories from Honey Impact. This wouldn’t be possible without Honey’s work.
To quickly preface this: the bulk of this was written before January 21st and is completely concentrated on interpretations of Hu Tao’s unconfirmed, datamined voicelines and story details. Moreso than other characters we currently have, any interpretations we have of Hu Tao are stretched and incredibly subjective. She may even change entirely upon release, especially now that we know she’s likely not going to be present in the 1.3 patch. Of official content, we only have a few “About Hu Tao…” lines and some bulletin board messages that are confirmed. Links and mirrors to texts and materials will be located in the appendix at the very bottom.
As an author’s note, I’m writing a character analysis for this Genshin Impact character because I didn’t expect to see such a profound, interesting unit in the game. Alternatively, you can read this as me projecting onto her. Hu Tao was written with such an immense amount of love and sincerity that made me fall in love with a piece of media all over again. Hu Tao’s stories and voicelines (mostly listened to with Brianna Knickerbocker’s English acting) cemented this level of complexity that warrants further understanding, especially with many reductive takes on her (e.g. “I hate her because she wants to bury Qiqi”) that miss the mark on so many parts of her character. Some of this might be projection and extreme stretching, but that’s the beauty of being able to interpret characters––especially fun, unreleased ones. At the very least, I hope you’re able to take a look into why Hu Tao may be one of the most complex characters lore and story-wise we have coming, rivaling the likes of Childe, Zhongli, Venti, etc. –– made more interesting by how Mihoyo hasn’t really been writing their women with the same level of dimension as some of these men (though, they are archons and harbingers). Hu Tao presents an incredible exploration into Genshin Impact’s themes of mortality with sour truths on a coming-of-age within a quickly-intensifying period of rebellion against the divine. Faced with the darkest parts of life is a young lady who stands so closely to respect the face of death, while never letting go of eccentricities and everyday acts that make our brief lives meaningful: she plants trees, writes poetry, sings (badly!) to the night, unwavering, cheeky, misunderstood more than anything else. With a laugh and so much more, this is Hu Tao.
In Liyue, many cross paths and make their living…
In Minlin, majestic stone pillars stretch unto the heavens as cradled by the archons. Forbidden to mortal steps, these pillars stand defiant against the implacable sky, flailing bridges with the broken steps telling of endless mortal aggravation. Man as man resists the earth, seeks to perch themself above the clouds, pledges allegiance to eternities that only their protectors hold.
As surrounded by fallen adepti, treacherous members of the abyss, and the grand bliss of mortal longing––you may find a mysterious lady resting on a precipice of stone, singing abandon to Celestia and the stars. All her being is dedicated to the venerable borders between life and death, or rather, existence and oblivion. The only tangible thing that tethers her then, are the junctures she transposes into poetry…
“Balance must be maintained, and yet destinies remain variable.” MORE ABOUT HU TAO: V
Beginning of analysis Hu Tao, titled as Fragrance in Thaw, is described in-game as the 77th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor who took over the business at a rather young age. A young adult outfitted in near-black and outfitted with plum blossoms, a symbol of the thawing winter, changing seasons, and of perseverance and hope––she carries on a sacred, centuries-old business with Consultant Zhongli and her Undertaker known as the Ferrylady. While others in Liyue seemingly write her off as an eccentric prankster (“whenever someone mentions Hu Tao, their neighbors find it extremely hard to navigate the conversation…”), underneath is a woman who happens to be simultaneously steadfast, devout, harboring the fates of the thousands in Teyvat’s richest city––a fate increasingly questioned by man and the archons themselves. Perhaps there is no individual better suited to question the purpose of our mortal presence than someone who regularly contends with death, facing the spirits and gods herself.
Message: “If any residents see a zombie child out in the middle of the night, doing stretches or gathering herbs on the mountain, please don’t be alarmed. Her name is Qiqi. She’s a student of medicine who helps out at the Bubu Pharmacy, and she’s completely harmless.” “—Baizhu, Bubu Pharmacy”
Another Note: “Life and death are up to fate. Why delay the inevitable? Why suffer to live alongside one who should already be dead and gone? Bring Qiqi to the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor and we will provide a comprehensive, stress-free funeral service that safely and respectfully returns her to the elements. Wouldn’t that be grand?” Reply: Please, Master Hu, no more jokes.
The talk on Hu Tao
Before Hu Tao’s story reveal, the surface level view of her was that she was a troublemaking prankster––the most hated in Liyue, at that. Presently, you can find discussion boards around Liyue that showcase her mischievous side. Despite Qiqi’s forgetfulness and general apathy, she keenly remembers her burning hatred and death wish on Hu Tao. Chongyun’s blood boils at the thought of her. The bright and excitable Xiangling turns, voice irked at her pranks. Even Zhongli with all his patience and wisdom seems to speak ill of her as he scoffs, “The young master of the funeral parlor…? Ahem, I cannot deal with that child.”
The only one who seems to be exempt from outright hate is our more detached and scorned adeptus, Xiao. “Hu Tao? Her liveliness is irritating. Fortunately, she is also humorous, so you need not worry about her growing into a boring human.” Alone, we know that a literal god-lite entity bent on massacring souls finding only her amusing of all people speaks volumes.
“Ah yes, the young lady who is now the master of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor. If you’re asking what I think about her as a person… Well, there are all sorts of rumors about the way she works. But I think if you really want to understand someone, you need to find out what they are really after.” Xingqiu: About Hu Tao…
Outside of her antics, the sincerest line we have on her is from Xingqiu, someone who lives a life of duality with a strong sense of justice but unstirred love for levity. He glosses over a first a direct opinion, something that could potentially be negative as well, but suggests something else. Dismissing rumors and smalltalk, he implores the Traveler to think a bit more about what Hu Tao is after.
The 77th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, a young lady managing the parlor’s operations. Despite her position, she’s an amiable preson who puts on no airs. Her antics are as plentiful as the stand on Yaoguang Shoal. She never ceases to shock people with her countless bizarre ideas. Hu Tao may seem like all play and no work, spending every free moment on leisure and being widely considered a laissez-faire business owner.
We see Hu Tao as a lax, troublemaking prankster at odds with a revered position in one of Liyue’s most well-respected institutions: a goofball presiding over the sensitive extremes of death and passage––themes introduced to us as Zhongli carefully orchestrated his own false body’s parting rite. How can a total troll be Zhongli’s boss? A parlor managing rites for commonfolk (orphaned children in Liyue speak of the ferrylady in black coming for their passed mother’s body) and those for the adeptus alike that even manage to be intertwined with affairs between the Fatui (as hinted by Childe).
Hu Tao is a young lady who constantly walks the line between life and death. She has seen the realm of the spirits, the plague of mortality and the consequences of class and strife along Liyue’s streets, and the work of gods and the eternal. She knows her consultant is potentially an adeptus or archon, is incredibly perceptive and ingenious, and one of the richest characters we have that more closely connect the underlying themes of human mortality under a world ruled by warring divinity. Enkindled closely with her character are symbolisms of plum blossoms that tell of the transitoriness of life as envoy of winter and harbinger of spring; butterflies that are culturally closely interlinked with souls and the cyclic nature of life (as with their own cycle)––along with moments of transformation and resurrection; and the flames she forges itself that perfectly embodies not just warmth and radiance, but the fervor of spirituality and eternal life. With it, solemnity, gratitude, and memory of war and spirits. The plum blossom, butterfly, and flames are crucial visual elements that are most prominently showcased in her abilities.
Some bits on her name!
Hu (胡 surname), hu– is also present in “butterfly” (hudie 蝴蝶)
Tao (桃) means peach/long life, “the way of nature and/or the way in which to one’s life”. In China, peaches are associated with immortality and long life.
Also, together it literally means walnut, hence her nickname.
“Live in life, die in death. Follow your heart, do what you can.” Hu Tao’s character dwells on this seemingly simple worldview imparted to her by her grandfather, and the ways she bestows this upon others in both in her role as the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor’s Director through ceremony and rites of parting and as a poet and friend. Rejecting the rigidity of work and tradition for frivolity whenever possible, dealing with the most disturbing of human condition in favor of hope to living, and a kit that revolves around her rejecting the ends of human mortality and a Vision imparted for her own questioning of spirits for a person who shaped her deeply… there’s few that are quite as distressingly, authentically raw as Hu Tao. Death is never a simplistic thing; even for those who make peace with it for people every day, deeper questions lie beneath…
Wangsheng Funeral Parlor’s Significance To set ample context for Hu Tao, we need to discuss her place of affiliation, the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor. Insignia carved in proudly onto Hu Tao’s hat, the institution is literally translated as the “Hall of Rebirth” and has been around for centuries, highly revered by both gods and mortals alike without regard to class (“Regardless of their social standing and level of wealth, all who depart deserve a ceremony that would do them honor. This is the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor’s client service philosophy”).
Centuries-old institution that the Hu family runs, managing funeral rites for mortal men, adepti, and even gods in the world’s richest nation, even Morax concerns himself with its operations
Services people without regard to class, concerning themselves with their dignity and peace through rigid rules
Current known members are Director Hu Tao, Ferrylady, and Zhongli as a consultant
Ties with the Liyue underground, maintaining relations with the Fatui and even dealing with assassination/hired killings
Highly-respected but feared institution; Liyue citizens see it as scary and difficult work, especially as they perform operations into the night
Parting is given utmost reverence in Liyue: we see this with the region’s story arc and introduction of Consultancy Zhongli’s wisdom being around the painstakingly precise and measured means of granting Rex Lapis a proper rite, and with side characters such as Childish Jiang and his parents’ gravestones given utmost care by the Millelith. Death is at every end. (Unless it’s an orchestrated death, surprise.) While Teyvat seems to be in a relative time of peace compared to the bloody Archon Wars or rumored fall of Khaenri’ah that had taken place ~500 years before the game’s timeline, we still see many markers of death and suffering across these first two regions. Wangsheng deals with all of these, providing mortals with a sense of dignity and immortalizing the gods. Teyvat’s richest region unexempt from the coils of life. On the other hand, Childe reveals a darker side to Wangsheng’s dealings. In the “An Organization Known as Wangsheng” quest line, he discusses the more sensitive nature of the Funeral Parlor that links Zhongli to the Fatui. Bringing up hired killers, Childe admits that the organization doesn’t “ostensibly” dabble in it, suggesting the darker roots to the Parlor. These deeper networks aren’t just constrained to shadier Fatui diplomacy or assassinations for mora and special clientele. When Hu Tao is questioned about the adeptus Yaksha Xiao, she attempts to dismiss it, “What would I know of the adepti?That kind of stuff is top secret!” as we know the Parlor also deals with parting rites of not only commonfolk, but archons and adepti alike, maintaining at least some attempt at confidentiality. With the care put forth in each ceremony, veiled histories stretching centuries, vast networks that span across regions for the sake of the living and the dead, and enough responsibility for a defected archon to run on random archaeological trips in the name of service to the Parlor (and the fact that you can consult the Parlor for services outside of funeral rites themselves) attests to the immensity of operating the parlor in the world’s richest city. Hu Tao is a young lady facing a heavy organization and all its secrets, even going to complain about the complexity of their business and express disappointment at how others treat the Parlor, “If you ask me, there’s nothing hard or scary about working at Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, it’s just a pain is all. It’s a shame – others see us going out to work at night and just don’t understand – and that’s what scares them. *sigh* You all just don’t understand!” – one of her only voicelines where she breaks from a restrained, light delivery to the point of exasperation. Death, despite its commonality in Liyue Harbour’s street, is still a feared and scary topic: it’s hard to find respite in it, which Wangsheng must champion and soothe people with. Again, death is always at every end, but it’s no surprise that managing and directing the entirety of the Parlor’s operations (and being raised to do so) has taken a heavy toll on Hu Tao while also misleading the friends and people she wishes to make in the city.
A short aside on reading Hu Tao’s age: this is up to interpretation (and looks like it will always be ambiguous) but we know that Hu Tao first performed a funeral rite the year she became a teenager at thirteen––including that of her grandfather’s when attaining her vision. After her grandfather’s passing, another Funeral Director took on tenure as the 76th, and it was later passed down to her after a few years (“I’m Wangsheng Funeral Parlor’s 77th Funeral Director, my grandfather was the 75th. First thing I took over was funeral affairs. Haha, surprising huh? And just like that, it’s already been a few years… Time really does go by so quickly.”) I’d presume that after training in her teen years, she took on the role, then several years passed since then. She’s close to young adult/late teen characters like Keqing, Xiangling, and Xingqiu (referred to as a ‘young man’; contrast to Childe’s ‘young adult’ description). I doubt the 76th took on a very short role, tacking on a few years before the story since Hu Tao was instituted as the 77th, putting her around age 20. Feel free to read it as whatever makes sense to you, since it’s not really relevant aside from knowing that a 76th Director took lead (and is presumably not dead) and that it’s been a few years since Hu Tao filled in her present role.
The 77th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor. She took over the business at a rather young age.
On the 75th, her Vision story, and the flame of the living Hu Tao’s in-game description interestingly highlights her age; she’s by no means a teenager, but we can tell that the tenure of a Funeral Parlor Director is long, arduous, and perhaps a role taken on until death. We see this most prominently through Hu Tao’s relationship with her grandfather, the 75th Director. Her vision story and the birth of her abilities begin with this close relationship. Let’s begin with a recall of it, since it’s her most important story.
Fondly called “Old Hu”, Hu Tao’s grandfather himself had wished for her to conduct his grand funeral before passing to an unnamed illness. At only age thirteen, Hu Tao arranged a perfect, grand ceremony for her grandfather. Immediately after the rite, she grabbed a traveler’s bag, departing the harbour at the dead of night. Only accompanied with a few rations, water, and light sources, she treaded towards the deserted, evergray skies of Wuwang Hill where the “border” resides. Separating life and death, secrets that have been managed by Wangsheng Funeral Parlor for generations, legends say that souls of past relatives and the spirits of those with unfulfilled aspirations linger. Hu Tao believes this line to be a chance to see her grandfather once more before he departed the mortal realm forever.
It took her two whole days to reach the line at Wuwang, restless and desperate, she was unable to find her grandfather amidst the innumerable spirits. None of them resembled Old Hu. She waited for a whole day until collapsing and falling asleep of sheer exhaustion, awakened to the constant grey of night, overbearing dew, and heavy mist that fogged the borders. Surrounding her were spirits, clapping and laughing, almost mocking her: “Silly girl, why would Old Hu be here of all places? What were you thinking, looking for your relatives here?”
Hu Tao continued to wait for her grandfather, the few rations she brought with her slipping away. Despite her perseverance amidst the endless litany of souls, her grandfather didn’t appear. Instead, a little old woman came to Hu Tao, now exhausted and famished. With a smile, she directed Hu Tao: “Look at your stubbornness, you’re exactly like Old Hu. It’s a shame, but none of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour Directors would ever linger here. You come from a family of plain speakers, so let me return the favor.. Go back. Go back to where you came from,” before she passed over the border and like all the other souls, grew infinitesimally smaller until withering away. Only then did Hu Tao have a revelation. Her grandfather was gone because he had passed over as soon as he’d arrived, seamlessly treading onto the place beyond, “to the place where he was bound.” Open and honest without any regret, there was no point in framing his departure in regretful terms. And with a smile, she trudged back home. Her grandfather’s words rung in her ears, “Live in life, die in death. Follow your heart, do what you can.”
When she arrived back at the harbour at noon, climbing over a wall and heading to her room, she found a Pyro Vision amidst what she expected to be her depleted belongings. Hu Tao had no idea when it arrived. “As one of the few living that had dared to visit the border, perhaps Hu Tao’s actions had moved some unknown god. Perhaps this then constituted a heavenly gift… the ultimate recognition of her strength.“
Live in life, die in death. Granddaughter like grandfather, Hu Tao bears these words closely, her soul clinging unto them closely. At the very core, the carefree nature she has at the surface is because she’s witnessed death so closely––this is her means of treasuring life. Hu Tao faced the spirit realm head-on, risked her well-being to wait days for her grandfather to show out of intense love, resolute and unwavering until witnessing an old woman’s spirit passing and recalling her grandfather’s words. Also worth noting is that the hat she presently wears is her grandfather’s, passed down to her and adjusted (by her herself, with plum blossoms she plucked and planted and tended herself). When questioned about the clearly-modified and unique hat, she jokes: “this hat is magical, upholding good and repelling evil, and is a bringer of peace!” –– while behind the Wangsheng insignia is a girl tenderly holding onto this physical remnant from her grandfather, deliberately keeping it pristine and clean no matter the storm. At thirteen, she was full of love and longing for a grandfather that had shaped her and ingrained in her philosophies that she lives to the fullest, only once she had known them to be fully true. At thirteen, she grasped this precious facet of life that others take decades––or their whole lives––to come to a conclusion to.
“Balance must be maintained, and yet destinies remain variable. Death has its own rules, and yet is still hard to predict. Remember –– no matter where, no matter when, no matter what the reason –– one should never poke fun at death. Only once you know and respect death can you truly understand the value of life.”
Hu Tao’s attitude towards death can’t be understood without cognizance to the kind of love and sincerity she has put forth both in her practice from a young age to the relationships she has built with her grandfather and clients. Listening to her voicelines and reading her stories, much talk of client philosophies and responsibilities come up; Hu Tao sets the standards of respect each and every client and event must be deliberately given (again, enough to cause a cultural rift in Liyue); and to Hu Tao, death is an absolute. Living in close proximity with death has given her the most genuine, pure understanding of life’s value. While others in Liyue dream of and deal with issues of cash, class, and power, Hu Tao’s only concern is to live a life of meaning and purpose for this inevitable, unpredictable fate we all meet. She even remains apathetic at her vision (“Vision… Vision…? Oh, this thing? Yeah, whatever…”) and remains distasteful of fighting (“Fighting’s a pain for me. For me, it’s not an objective as much as a means to an end”). Her apathy towards her vision could potentially be read as a refusal of dependence towards it (lining up neatly with her attitude towards fighting), or simply a sensitivity at its origins. Losing a grandfather whose legacy you’re actively carrying on and moved you to go seek him out in the realm of spirits is a thing that sticks with you forever––it’s clear how important her grandfather was to her. She shows a more a clearcut resolve towards what’s more important to her: living a life that matters to her––one of poetry, people, connection, space. We’ll go onto her attitude towards play in the next section, but something interesting to center around is a deeper reading about why her character plays so well into Genshin Impact’s larger themes, fitting in a new perspective to the cast we have currently.
In living life without regrets, she heeds her grandfather’s words delicately as she balances the rigorous and processional in her duties at the Parlour with an uncompromising view of gaiety and whimsy every other second. These extremes are difficult to maintain in Teyvat; work is shown to be an end and complete focus for many other characters such that they have few other identity markers to go with them. Even moreso than Mondstadt, Liyue as an economic powerhouse is culturally rigorous with tradition and routine as manifested in the attitudes we see in the Qixing (Keqing, Ningguang, and even half-Qilin Ganyu must bend to this life to maintain power and order amongst the city). Death and spirituality is also a traumatizing, haunting, and sensitive thing. We see this in Chongyun who hasn’t seen a single spirit himself that Hu Tao loves pranking (“But whenever I see that cheeky smile…” from Chongyun’s About Hu Tao), and Xiao who walks amongst souls tirelessly and with clear trauma… that Hu Tao has no problem playing around with (“Fortunately, she is also humorous…” from Xiao’s About Hu Tao), stopping to maintain distance in conversation when she feels it’s not her right to disclose anything.
“It is here that heart and soul are as one like clouds. Death is a constant for all among the multitudes that sit beneath the heavens.”
Human Mortality and Divine Goals This duality is hard. How easy it must be to fall into either extreme can’t be understated, yet Hu Tao clings so truly to these words––knowing it only to be true when she saw it in practice with the acceptance of her grandfather’s soul passing herself. These words aren’t humored blindly.
Questioning and rebelling against divinity are central plot points in Genshin Impact. We see this most prominently in Liyue when Zhongli willingly gives up his gnosis for an amicable exchange with the Tsaritsa, planning a rebellion against the gods to presumably retaliate against Celestia. The Traveler of course, as an otherworldly outlander without need for a Vision to channel powers to, and has directly been intervening and witnessing the capture of the gnoses, is another central figure. What we know is that it takes archons, beings who have divinity and otherworldly abilities themselves, to question notions of godhood and heroism in Teyvat. These beings have ruined civilizations and cast mortal men into the throes of war under the guise of saving them not without cataclysmic loss. In the grand scheme of things, the lives of NPCs like Ying’er to playable characters like Hu Tao and Keqing are no different in the lossy timeline of Teyvat––until the tides turn today.
These points are crucial to establish because we see that with Hu Tao’s intellect, she’s understood that there must be some degree to which spirituality and mortality are customs for the sake of customs. They, like anything else, could be bent if man truly dares to question them. Treading to Wuwang Hill and likely being willing to die while waiting to see her grandfather until an old spirit intervened, she knew this fully. For someone who has been studying traditions and arrangements so early on and masterfully executing them, Hu Tao’s love for her grandfather in both 1.) the desire to see him pass and 2.) the desire to ensure that there is a place for him exemplifies how she knows the cultural, historical importance of processions––but demands to see truth for herself, stepping directly into the barriers of the spirits. She’s called stubborn by the spirits in this act that moved the gods enough to bestow upon her a Pyro Vision; to see someone once more before mortal soul succumbs to nothingness as someone of her background means a questioning of the gods.
At least she came to the conclusion: her grandfather’s absence was due to him having passed over the border as soon as he’d arrived, the place where he was bound. He had been open and honest in life, leaving behind no regrets, so was it right for his departure to be framed in regretful terms?
Hu Tao’s Divine Insight We see that Hu Tao was satiated only once she had understood this herself, with the pressing of a few kind spirits. This shouldn’t be simplified to a “positive” view on death; she’s very much godfearing and taking power over its finale with her lackadaisical attitude towards living. When she talks about Chongyun, an exorcist with “congenital positivity” that instantly wades away any evil spirits, “Positive energies and unity between yin and yang… Who knew such people existed in this world.” Hu Tao’s surprise at Chongyun’s abilities (and likely an anchoring point that makes her enjoy messing around with him) stems from confusion at such a simplistic, yin and yang-style divide that emanates from positivity. She’s used to death being this deep, complex thing––acceptance doesn’t come at a completely fatalistic view of life, it’s more of deep cognizance of one inevitability, and her enviable, erratic restraint and resistance against all expectations otherwise. Against divinity, this is her absolution: an acceptance of the cursory lives of men against the realms of eternity, and a source of deference to human mortality (“Death is a constant for all among the multitudes that sit beneath the heavens“, Feelings About Ascension: Conclusion). Note the sit beneath the heavens line. Even as she dwells between archons, adepti, and man… her end state to her, is the only constant––but the variable of living and all its enigmatic toils is hers, and hers alone. The next thing she offers aside from her own personal ultimatum is excellence, responsibility, and loyalty towards every other mortal man in Liyue and beyond (“We are entrusted by the people to loyally see out their wishes.”); she lives these words not solely for herself, but perhaps in broad, open confidence so that everyone else in Liyue can share it, too…
Genshin Impact heavily draws from themes of Gnosticism, a ‘heretical’ movement of the early Christian Church. Within Gnosticism, it’s believed that esoteric knowledge (where gnosis is the Greek noun for “knowledge” or “awareness“) that contains insight towards humanity’s real nature is the key to unlocking divinity, providing a “divine spark within humanity from the constraints of earthly existence.” The basic tenet of Gnosticism is to unlock the gnosis, a self-awareness intuitively attained yet obscured for man to intricately understand “who they were, how they came to be here, where they came from, and how they could return” that will then liberate man –– the most essential part of salvation. Divinity is locked within human beings, and this divinity is only returned to higher realms when this knowledge of the divine is obtained.
For an archon who once bore his own Gnosis and saw Teyvat for thousands of centuries to closely concern himself with Wangsheng Funeral Parlor and its practices solely for tradition and the adepti’s sake makes sense, but what if Morax were looking more closely since all the Parlor Directors are the humans with the closest answers about divinity and the gods? What insights on the divine does Hu Tao bear, and what more will she learn as she takes on her role for the decades to come? What makes her grandfather’s spirit worthy of passing over to the cosmos immediately and other spirits not?
“We are entrusted by the people to loyally see out their wishes. Wangsheng Funeral Parlour is special, in that it carries a dual responsibility, to those both of this realm, and the next.” Something to Share
While Hu Tao loves leisure and time with her friends, it’s also to read into her clear fear of irritating people to a degree––showing a sense of maturity and restrain like how Venti approaches his pranks. While teasingly recalling how Xinagling gets easily scared, she talks about how she “gotta keep it in check though, in case Guoba ends up toasting me instead,” or the Qixing’s uptightness drawing her to mess with them while pondering on whether Keqing would knock (bonk!) her on the head with a sword. Like how it’s reductive to put her off as a prankster, it’s moreso incorrect to think that she has no restraint. After all, wading through the duality of life and death is exhausting: she carries the edge of death nearly every day, putting emphasis on “balance”, almost as if desperately clinging onto the little moments she has with herself and with friends, commonly ending up misunderstood despite bearing genuine intentions. If Hu Tao had long been raised with family in the Funeral Parlour business and performed rites as soon as she hit her teenage years, a lifelong devotion to mastering the procession of your own future funeral would draw anyone to sacrilege; while she seems content with her grandfather’s conclusion, it feels like her attitude towards passing exists in the god-fearing sense. That is, there’s a degree to which this innocence and bizarre curiosities are driven by fear. Of all adepti and men, who can stand completely emotionless at the thought of incoming oblivion? Her humanity is a treasure and shrewdness unquestionable; her complexity near-puzzling to others of the harbour.
Hu Tao’s relationship with death is refreshingly human, living at its mortal extremes. When this relationship is situated with the love she has for her grandfather, we see her veneration for the dead but her physical longing for any affects (her hat that she’s excessively overprotective of), something far from unfamiliar from how we relate to death in-person… that also hints of a skewed relationship against divinity and normal ideas of who deserves mortality and who doesn’t. Remember–-she balances these personal contentions and feelings about death with the heavy weight of running an organization with deep networks across Teyvat and a storied history––while even lifting up its reputation and bringing it to further market success. Her genuine nature to offset the inevitability of death with a general playfulness and easygoing attitude – with an ability to “switch off” or just constantly keep up with the esteemed presentation of the Parlour shows a degree of maturity present in few others.
Youth and humanity We get fun lines of Hu Tao’s unorthodox upbringing, showing that her zany kind of attitude has forever been within her. Just as how she’s misunderstood as a prankster, it seems that the public generally frown at her fun side –– which is a shame, since she’s sort of a genius.
As a three-year-old, she would read through volumes of classic texts while doing handstands. (No wonder she’s great friends with Xingqiu.)
At six, she would cut classes and fall asleep in coffins.
When she was eight, she started living in the parlor and learning the etiquette of funeral ceremonies.
And at thirteen, she conducted the grand ceremony for her grandfather, the 75th.
Hu Tao can play a four-player card game accompanied by no one for hours on end.
Traveling merchants taking respite around the Huaguang Stone Forest can spot a mysterious girl keeping herself amused in solitude.
Hu Tao’s shadow can be seen in the moonlit docks or at the highest, most precarious viewpoints in the mountains where she’s likely to take in the scenery…
…and shape her thoughts into beautiful poetry. Aside from leading the only and most respected Funeral Parlour at a young age while being the talk of Liyue Harbour, she’s even more known as a poet –– with no end to her skills.
Potentially has heart-to-heart talks with Statues of the Seven.
Hu Tao frequently visited and petted two life-like stone lion statues outside the Ministry of Civil Affairs building, speaking to them as if they were living without a care in front of crowds. (She named them Whiskers and Mittens. She doesn’t give a fuck about what other people think of her––even if they know her as the Funeral Parlor Director.)
Wears her grandfather’s hat as passed down unto her, spending an entire day and night to modify it from two sizes up to fit her.
Planted and grew a plum tree herself, with a routine for the blossoms that adorn her hat: “pluck and air-dry, then paint, lacquer, and outline carefully before sun-drying for three days”
Proclaimed herself as the “versemonger of the darkest alleys” and crafted “Hilitune” – a poem popular across all of Liyue.
Has two unpublished poetry anthologies waiting called “Fiddlesticks” and “Of Common Lives”
These hints from her story quest show that not only is Hu Tao prodigious, a genius, and genuinely freedom-seeking and joyous; she’s a polymath––literally. Her life’s purpose of respecting death through resistance pervades, so much that she seems “all play and no work” despite being ridiculously capable and masterful at her professional craft. From reading volumes at age three to writing poems that stretch across all of Liyue, she proves that not only is she known for her unending dwellings with death as the Funeral Parlour lead––she’s made a name for herself on the lips of the living. Despite calling herself “versemonger of the darkest alleys” suggesting this clinging onto the grim, her poetry reaches the singsong hymn of children (how dark can an anthology called Fiddlesticks be?); while Hu Tao contends with these lines, it’s clear that she faces no problems walking between them.
Hu Tao needs deeper understanding, above all else. Liyue’s citizens don’t get her at all, afraid of how the undertaker’s master can be so frivolous––while reading her poetry in its gaiety and quirkiness. She’s long been immersed in a life philosophy that others just can’t grasp, is ridiculously humble and just as normal in idolizing others (“She doesn’t know me, but that’s cool, me just knowing about her is enough. Aw man… I really do wanna make friends with her.” About Beidou). At the same time, she’s ridiculously endearing. Ministry guards watching her play with inanimate stone lions waited days for her to return, asking her about her disappearance. Xingqiu respects her, and Chongyun umpires rap battle sessions in a strange love-hate friendship. The most hated person in Liyue is filling it with life: in both her presence, poems, and the peace she brings to the living.
As with the character quotes, Xingqiu knows that just like Hu Tao with his temporary freedom from the grasp of the Feiyun Commerce Guild–levity, play, and happiness mean everything. That life is purposeless if it’s only driven for a single purpose; working hard doesn’t necessitate blind seriousness that other characters like those in the Qixing, or Jean and Rosaria seem to bear. Hu Tao literally nopes the moment her duty is done to chase the more meaningful things in life. One of the most charming aspects about Hu Tao and Xingqiu (who is clearly one of the only characters that fully grasps her openly, if just by virtue of sharing similar struggles and responsibilities––though Hu Tao is truly binded to hers) is their poetry rap battles. Her Character Story V dictates that the two met, hit it off immediately, and exchanged pointers and poetry in the halls of Wangsheng Funeral Parlour: Xingqiu’s tradboy artistry against Hu Tao’s whimsical, strange, and marvelous verse; a bizarre, chaotic rhythm would ensue as they sparred––dragging Chongyun in as umpire to see two absolute high birth nerds, thought leaders, and geniuses fill the streets with laughter. This is her purpose, realized. Beyond all, she’s a young adult trying to not take things too seriously and enjoy the fleeting life of most in Liyue, one she knows too well. Live in life.
While Hu Tao’s eccentricities are absolutely endearing, we see that they continue to impose an always-upended sense of doubt in her from other folks in Teyvat.
Even the Parlour’s undertakers and consultants had anticipated Hu Tao to bring in more of the unsuitably kind of gregariousness to rites, “anticipating her debut with their stomachs in knots as if they were suspended over the peaks of Jueyun Karst.” Instead, Hu Tao continues to maintain this impossible balance, flipping her personality like a switch. With her genius, she memorizes the parlour’s rites and rules, respects its formalisms, educates the current generation of undertakers with lectures from consultants like Zhongli (unafraid of playing around and teasing him), and even prodding to grow her business –– even if it’s a strange market to hope for business in. “Ever since Hu Tao took over, the parlor’s operations have been so solid and reliable, with ceremonies conducted so tactfully that quite a few superstitious people in Liyue have changed their attitudes towards funerals.”
On Hu Tao’s relationship with Qiqi (Character Story IV) Addressing her relationship with Qiqi and reframing one of her biggest scandals is pretty simple: THE ASSHOLE IS BAIZHU. He’s long been manipulating Qiqi for so fucking long (see Qiqi’s stories and voicelines, where she mentions his lack of sincerity towards her, though she appreciates anyone’s concern). Hu Tao’s About Baizhu line shows that she’s pretty distrusting of him. She merely wants Qiqi to be free from suffering, the worst fate she knows of that she has long seen over and over, and out of respect for the natural order of death.
In her Character Story, we know that Hu Tao accepted her incorrect judgment over Qiqi’s fate after acknowledging Qiqi’s will to live was so strong (a fact that might be difficult for her to grasp, as she struggles with maintaining that one’s value and time in life can perhaps even overcome natural order). Later on, she pampers Qiqi and treats her like a friend. Unfortunately, Qiqi only remembers the complicated instances where Hu Tao would joke about burying here, and because she has selective memory…
What do these actions tell us about Hu Tao?
That Hu Tao wishing to bury Qiqi is entirely out of concern and care. To Hu Tao, death is a respite and the only place of eternal peace –– and that Qiqi deserved this instead of suffering in a mortal realm that she did not belong in.
That Hu Tao’s resentment of Baizhu (and thusly, her confident mockery of him on bulletin boards around the city) likely comes from witnessing his abuse and exploitation of Qiqi; she’s a prankster asshole only when necessitated, and is unafraid to stand up
She’s incredibly respectful of death and its natural orders, but also willing to bend it completely –– just as she did with her grandfather in traveling to Wuwang and waltzing with spirits to find him. Hu Tao’s love and concern for others manifests in her facing against the natural orders to which she’s bound to serve. This is the second instance of it we see, especially now that she “pampers” Qiqi.
Hu Tao has solid kidnapping skills (recall that Qiqi has adeptus powers within her and can literally go berserk)
Before kidnapping Qiqi, Hu Tao would go through “much deliberation” such as calculating the most auspicious time for a ceremony, preparing for cremation, and finding a tomb to bury Qiqi in somewhere in the outskirts of the city. How thoughtful!
Was perceptive enough to dig into Qiqi’s history and discover the series of events that led to her preservation and resurrection as a zombie, despite these events potentially happening hundreds of years ago (Qiqi was encased in amber and these fights took place in wars looong ago)
Her voiceline on Qiqi is just her messing around. (“Have you seen Qiqi? Tell me where she is, quickly. I need to go seal her away, hee-hee!”)
While Qiqi’s hatred of Hu Tao is likely going to stick around, we know that none of these came from ill intentions and how remorseful and apologetic Hu Tao is. Not that Hu Tao’s well-executed kidnapping is excusable by any means, it was enough to be ingrained in the forgetful Qiqi –– which shows how traumatizing these experiences were for her; this wasn’t also the best approach to defend Qiqi from Baizhu who still continues to exploit the zombie every single day. While there’s a lot of question with two of Liyue’s biggest institutions warring with one another, it’s safe to say that Hu Tao and the adeptus that watch onto Qiqi face the same dilemmas when dealing with her; she wanted to live, but at what cost did this mean when it was more likely that her greatest will was to see her family? Her fear of death was so strong that it acted as the moment where the Cryo Archon and adepti gave her another chance at life, but there lies a predicament in that her current existence is pretty much exploitation and suffering; a misunderstanding of divinity and godhood that they’re detached from that only mortals like Hu Tao can contend with and grasp.
We do know, however, that the true enemy is Baizhu. Fuck him fr fr
Let’s move onto the symbolism in her two abilities that we have no visuals of at all yet! (Her attack is simply the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor’s style passed down, so we’ll skip that.)
Recall the recurring motifs around her: butterflies, plum blossoms, wispy ghosts and spirits. To summarize, Hu Tao’s skills reveal a bit more about her treatment towards death and the strength she derives from walking its boundaries, plus further validates the lingering fear and anxieties she nurses when passage after death is lead astray. “The more anxious she feels, the stronger the flame.“
It’s long been rumored that vision holders tend to carry similar traits, where it’s theorized that the archon of each region bestows visions across each region. Like other Pyro holders and with the context we have on her story, it’s clear that Hu Tao’s Vision manifested due to a persevering, deep volition, passion, and love for her the lines drawn between life and death from both her practice and her encounter at thirteen that changed her. Note also that Hu Tao is pretty dismissive about her vision, “Vision… Vision…? Oh, this thing? Yeah, whatever…“, which isn’t entirely new (see Ningguang and Albedo) and sees fighting as a mere “means to an end”.
E: Guide to Afterlife “Only an unwavering flame can cleanse the impurities of this world.” “Hu Tao’s Secret Spear technique is based on several rules, the first of which is: ‘The spear opens the path to the afterlife, and the butterflies bridge this world and the next.'”
Aside from desperate wishes a her E turning her spear into a scythe, her elemental skill centers around two effects. In “Guide to the Afterlife”, Hu Tao takes on the role of a harbinger between the mortal and spiritual realm. She enters the ‘Paramita Papilio’ state after sacrificing her HP, converts her damage into Pyro––taking on the role of a butterfly. Celtic symbolism is rife around Teyvat, mostly in the celtic Triquetra/Trinity Knot. In Celtic symbolism, butterflies similarly represent the soul: myths revolve around how butterflies swoop the dead, consume their slots, and fly into the skies with them, not just a standard act of passage. Instead, this “consumption” of souls is an offering of immortality. Mortals like Hu Tao don’t have the nature of eternal life present in adepti or archons, so the closest thing is to offer one’s soul for a chance of rebirth in a life that was close to extinguishing. It’s a symbol of transformation for the ephemeral man, and a nod towards the idea of rebirth. While a life must be treasured, we know very well that not all bear the privilege to do so. Instead, there is always a chance at rebirth and renewal in another lifetime. Self-sacrificial and all, we can read this as Hu Tao offering an entire part of her life and being to help bridge the path between the mortal world and the next––servicing it in very literal abandonment of her chance at a regular youth.
Charged attacks in the Paramita Papilio state apply an effect called ‘Blood Blossom‘ to enemies, afflicting Pyro Damage every few ticks. We can link this the Plum Blossom, China’s National Flower also known as meihua, that is “a symbol for resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity, because plum blossoms often bloom most vibrantly even amidst the harsh winter snow.” In China’s cultural context, the plum blossom represents both society and constitution, adversity and faith of the people’s spirit, the Five Races Under One Union, and its branches the noble virtues of “originating and penetrating, advantageous and firm”. From her stories, we also know that Hu Tao planted a plum blossom tree and preserves the blossoms she wears on her hat herself. All in all, these further insinuate the transitoriness of life that she beholds, but also the unadultered faith required to keep up with her line of work. How much of it can she really bear?
Q: Spirit Soother “Commands a blazing spirit to attack, dealing Pyro DMG in a large AoE. If Hu Tao’s HP is below or equal to 50% when the enemy is hit, both the DMG and HP Regeneration are increased. Supernatural activity by those who have already left this world is a source of great anxiety for the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. In such cases, cremation always lets Hu Tao find peace of mind. The more anxious she feels, the stronger the flame.“
The most interesting line in Hu Tao’s ultimate ability is the last––”The more anxious she feels, the stronger the flame.” In her stories, we’ve explored that positivity and apathy are far from sufficient explanations towards her dealings with death. We see instead that death and its processions are means that Hu Tao venerates not only for tradition and her clientele, but because they quell the realities of the spirit world she deals with. Hu Tao is not exempt from spirits (unlike Chongyun, who can’t face them at all), she’s refreshingly, heartbreakingly human and bears far more than she deserves. We also know that her line of work isn’t something she does solely for the sake of tradition and upholding her role; there’s a deep-rooted sincerity and veneration she has for the practice (furthered by her inquiry of it), so these fears aren’t sourced from resentment from the position. Finding genuine peace and comfort in the diverse array of funeral rites the Parlor abides by, particularly in cremation, we see how her love and dealings with death are cultivated. These rituals become a source of peace and meaning for her just as they are cathartic to the bereaved families. Fostering and mastering these practices for herself and others then, is her act of service to Liyue.
We can talk a bit about cremation here. Funeral homes smell astringent and heavy, and will be littered with hundreds upon hundreds of flowers moving through while preparatory rooms will have the distinctive smell of wood-burning, . While flowers soothe the grieving, cremation itself gives peace to people like Hu Tao who take on the role of the intermediary, giving others the calm to focus on mourning.
The Stars: Hu Tao’s Constellations
Teyvat and the regions beyond are ruled by the presence and imagery of the celestials and stars (where GI’s heaven and realm of the archons Celestia literally hovers over the skies of Liyue and Mondstadt). Constellations dictate a supposed progression and rekindling of power as ascensions do. Character constellations can be read as pieces to each unit’s story.
Hu Tao’s constellation is “Papilio Charontis”, Papilio meaning butterfly and Charontis likely a reference to the extinct Prodryas persephone butterfly (Jupitellia charon) with name connected to the underworld in Greek mythology –– particularly the Charon, a psychopomp (creatures that escort newly deceased souls from Earth to the afterlife) acting as ferrymen of Hades. (Note that we know of the Parlor’s Ferrylady who hangs around at night, who even tells the player to “Go, lost soul. Into the light.”) Extending this, Charon means “of keen gaze”, a euphemism for death.
Crimson Bouquet Thematic relations to her plum blossoms. Note that in China (and presumably in Liyue), the color red/crimson is considered to be happy and unappropriate for death. Hu Tao bears red plum blossoms as a sign of hope and happiness – less so as an offering – and in effect, subverting her expected role.
Ominous Rainfall Simple draw at the supernatural and mysterious that’s dealt with. When it rains, Hu Tao responds with a sigh: “What a bummer…“
Lingering Carmine Carmine is a deeper and darker-tinted red pigment (as with crimson), matching the plum blossoms that Hu Tao wears. Carmine is often used as a descriptor for dried blood, furthering the complexities imbued in the color red with its representation of human condition, passion, death, and being.
Garden of Eternal Rest Move that boosts allies’ CRIT rate, excluding Hu Tao. Suggests that her affinity with plum blossoms is part of her adoration of life, and honoring for those who have departed. Men leave flowers at graves as tradition, believing
Floral Incense Linked to the performing of cremation. Rules around death are of utmost importance, including the burning of incense to honor the deceased. In particular, cremation involves a casket placed on a stack of bricks where family members toss lit candles, incense, and wood to initiate the burning themselves. Ashes are later gathered.
Butterfly’s Embrace Essentially, Hu Tao cheats death, the constellation saving her from lethal strikes. What does it mean when the butterfly, a symbol of fleeting life, rejects its role of consuming the soul and instead holds on to her –– making her embrace the state of living?
These constellations give us a bit more insight to the symbols and practices that Hu Tao is surrounding with. It’s no surprise that as a Funeral Master, these items return again and again––subverted by Hu Tao in the most interesting of ways. A color of dried blood turned into a gesture towards hope, eternity, and happiness. The butterfly’s embrace of death turned into a final act of resistance. There is far more to her than she lets on, affirming her precocious philosophies and attitude.
Staff of Homa Hu Tao’s weapon is made for her, and its lore confirms its connections to the Hu family, image of flame, butterflies, ash, and cremation through rites. Here’s a link to its full story, it’s pretty straightforward.
Affirms the role of Hu Tao (and other Parlor Directors) in bringing peace and purifying even corrupted corpses of the gods
Signifies the role of death in Teyvat as release and peace, upholding the importance of Wangsheng’s role
…and the surefire fate too, that Hu Tao bears, turning into a lovely butterfly.
Emphasizes that Hu Tao’s spirit is a result of centuries of practice and tradition, and that the firmest reminders of her role come when she herself is facing darkness.
What’s Hu Tao really after?
Meaning in both life and death: peace for men and gods, and a deep-rooted belief that toeing these boundaries and resisting a death she seemingly should be at peace with brings more for mankind
Acting as psychopomp not only in her traditional role of carrying people to this realm and the next, but even moreso to society in her role as poet, creator, friend…
Understanding from people, even if it might ever only come in her verse and processions
Changing society’s view on death, even if she’s wholly fearful of it herself and if it comes at her expense
Purpose, abundance, and selflessness in our cursory lives before the nothingness of the end.
Insight on divinity that can actually be maintained by every mortal man once the right knowledge is obtained, passed down by work in the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor. With all of Teyvat’s nods to Gnosticism, it’s not a stretch to believe that Hu Tao is very close to understanding the heaven’s meanings…
Fragrance in Thaw The most a mortal can do in the realm of archons and adepti: life with meaning, gesture, and little rebellions against the realm of gods through the act of rebirth and sheer happiness. To Hu Tao, perhaps playfulness and joy is a radical act in a broken, wartorn world where mortal lives are short and are slowly making their way to ruling and overtaking godly powers and hierarchies that have long succumbed them to war. Hu Tao lives in an age of rebellion that we’ll be closely following as the traveler marches forward––and is the perfect Director to renounce all the negatives of tradition even at the cost of her own image. If for the sake of people’s peace, joy, and chance at rebirth––she takes it, tired of fighting. If to question the gods and spirits, she walks these lines. If only to spend every second outside of her duties for others in the creation of verse, song, and play for the rest of Liyue to enjoy in their lives, she creates. If only to grant peace for the living as ceremonies grant more for the bereaved than they do for the dead, she is one with mortal men in her role and all the moments she spends out of funeral work. She’s barely out of her teenage years, yet spends a life of giving out of genuine belief and love.
Fragrance in Thaw. Hu Tao is a ridiculously complex, fascinating character who everyday disavows death and preservation in the most human ways–while simultaneously respecting customs and bridging life-and-death for mortal men and gods alike. Death is an inevitable thing for those beneath the heavens (for now), but it’s also incredibly complex, sensitive, and in the world of Teyvat––a mystery to mortals that she is navigating. She offers comfort to others, internalizing a covenant that frequently goes awry with how her personality is constantly at odds with Liyue, yet never ceases.
It’s no surprise that Hu Tao can be easily written off as a prankster, it’s an immediate deflection when we think about harsher topics like death. How unsettling must it be to see a young lady adorned with plum blossoms on her head in complete solitude, adherent to routine and ritual in the dead of the harbour’s night––escaping to gallant off and stare at the moon for verse.
While Hu Tao’s importance to the Traveler’s story still has much to be found out over, we learn from her death’s hegemony in Teyvat and one of the most intricate, collectivist yet simultaneously self-preservationist attitudes towards a finality that mortal men may be on the way to overcoming. Be it in risking her own life to watch her grandfather pass over in an act of defiance towards custom, a pious (be it skepticism required) fervor towards the enormity of death for men and gods, carrying on the burden of entire regions’ death rites at a young age, a final constellation that reveals her inner desire to save a present soul than carry on, an awkward kind of prankster attitude that has turned people against her––while still casually confident in strides of crowds that talk shit about her nonstop, and a sheer love for bridging understanding and making both the passing and living of life beautiful… she acts.
If anything, only when fragrance turns into a tangible veneer of ash does she rest; and so that may be her own end.
Thank you for reading this is so long. If you have more points to make or want to talk about Hu Tao, please talk to me. firstname.lastname@example.org or Chia#1840 on Discord
February 3: New cover image, note on analysis being based off English localization, slight formatting fixes; adjusted name meaning including peach as symbolism for immortality/long life
January 26: Points on Gnosticism and Zhongli regarding Hu Tao’s divine insight; first analysis of the Staff of Homa story
January 25: First published
One of my favorite lore writers is /u/Ellie_0_o. Her brilliant in-depth analysis on Childe moved me to write this (hello, we need more Genshin Character analysis essays please!) and inspired structuring this more like a narrative instead of bullet point takes into each of her stories that I was originally going to do.
I watched a city burn down before my eyes on a flickering feed. Each video perfectly designed to twist and sicken me, relentless and damning despite the amount of distance between me and Marawi. On an early Sunday evening in 2020, I 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. Technology preserves these moments, gift and curse of eternity laid in human hands.
The internet revolution had brought us both the curse 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 theoretically brings you nearly anywhere in a single click, more detailed on the Critical Atlas of the Internet) still has us contained to the closest spectacle if we aren’t gated already. We know so much yet so little. 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 s2005016.students.dlszobel.edu.ph 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 fast 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 cbox.ws––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 form of 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.
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 betterthantheother.
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.
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).
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 capture than a mere link tells us of new behaviors, a gesture of “you don’t have to leave our conversation” or “see what I want you to see from this article.”
While there’s a more genuine sense of realism that thrives when humans touch and represent digital content, we also lose context. The issue with digital journalism and the prospect of civic engagement comes to this: the nature of mass-scale reporting, or any type of reporting that deals with facts, is impossible to navigate with the way humans communicate and deal information. We love anecdotes, stories, personal retellings, and encounters. Exaggerations done right are a love language, facts do not move us. The more viral and worthy of telling something is, the more it has been reposted and lost of its original content; someone on the internet will always say it louder, and this retelling is a necessary evil to reach the largest audience. Inherently, this poses problems with reporting that attempts to link to posts and trace public discourse, instead turning very real words and commentary (even if they come under a veil of anonymity) into quotation games and blanket statements.
Technology gives us countless platforms and tools to make our voice heard. Words that surface the earth and are accessible in a click, no publisher needed on the most famous platforms and reels, yet we regress into the same flaws of the broadcast and broadsheet.
Content disappears faster than ever. This is the truer reason as to why reposting is barely viable. We have these traces of information and sayings, but without source links, they remain of questionable authenticity. Tumblr urls and posters die, anonymous names and erratic usernames leave us unknowing of where they were off next. Other platforms are less forgiving: Removeddit can preserve most Reddit threads (including the poster usernames of deleted comments) if they’re not removed immediately, but Chrome Extensions exist to nuke your entire history better. Privacy settings shut off people’s trails completely. Twitter used to show the usernames of private accounts that people were replying to, but now they’re obscured. For others, their existence is nefarious and ghastly as getting quote retweeted by a private account is untraceable; all you see is the little numerical indicator of your tweet rising with nowhere else to look. The Reddit thread that infamously misidentified the Boston Marathon Bomber, a worldwide wreck, was cited endlessly by journalists praising the work of anonymous internet sleuths––until the real suspects were released and their unfortunate target revealed. Edited, manipulated screenshots have the same authenticity as the deleted real unless the investigator looks closely to find traces of human intervention, Photoshopping, or sheer impossibility of origin. While many comments on the /r/WTF thread were deleted, others still remain as a grim marker of how both the internet must be preserved for its wrongs as it is with its truths.
Of the age of no icons and link rot
Link rot is escalating as we move into an internet age that respects the policing and moderation of content, moving to avoid the atrocities that occurred with the 2013 Reddit incident.
John DeFoe took a look into his fourteen-year old abandoned blog, a format any Livejournal, Blogger, or Tumblr kid should be familiar with. A little like our social media feeds today, but blogs have a more tangible, spatial component to them as you occupy your own part of the web. While DeFoe’s domain registration had long expired, Google had been pretty good about preserving Blogger content. He dove into his posts, seeking the fate of his hyperlinks. He found that only 18% of external hyperlinks still resolve properly. While links to viral videos were generally dead (DeFoe’s blog was a part-time viral-video curation site), he could easily retrieve them and find another copy. Chocolate rain, Rickroll, Nigahiga’s early videos… these are just the tip of the iceberg of the internet’s cultural gifts that stand the test of time and still last, forever.
For personal content exchanged between friends and family, this is a different issue.
Theoretically, large tech companies have access to everything, really. We’re warned that nothing deleted is really ever deleted. Attempting to delete a social media account is pretty difficult, frequently reversible or padded with weeks of waiting before the deed can be done. These come as no surprises when data has surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable resource.
Yet even in the case of criminal investigations, state investigators frequently conflict and collide with tech companies that have been designed to track every trail and keystroke, predicting our behaviors, wants, and needs, knowing how often we stay in one location or the other, visualizing our waking hours and desires. Data is “out of jurisdiction”, data is a tremendous problem, data must also be protected from ill-intentioned law enforcement agencies. It’s an enormous, painful grey line that we constantly tread.
When we look at our own personal situations and relationships with technology, we realize our profound unimportance and simplicity. There’s little chance that a tech company will surrender information to us or point us somewhere; all it takes is a copyright strike, a forgotten password, a deleted Photobucket… everything saved will be wiped away, truly. Recovering your childhood Neopets account is a grand heist in itself, articles about recovering your old Myspace account get more attention than present-day Myspace itself, and unless you remember your 38th private Twitter username change –– good luck finding it at all.
When I was twelve, I hosted and administrated a Minecraft server for my friends. It was one of the go-to servers for the school, and I was ridiculously proud; LogMeIn Hamachi presence and all because I couldn’t portforward our IP address. One Saturday, we gathered together to create a server “teaser” video to the entirety of Matchbox Twenty’s “Let’s See How Far We’ve Come”–– a masterpiece, really. It’s gone.
It must have been stricken down due to a copyright issue and navigating my twenty plus or so Google Accounts brought me no luck. It’s the most heartbreaking thing. I remember putting it together painstakingly on a cracked version of Sony Vegas Pro, recorded with a cracked version of Hypercam (Registered, this time), and drowning it out with video effects, gifs, and blending modes. I even timed in subtitles.
It seems minor, but it’s also one of the truest records of memories I have with my friends at age twelve. If it turns up again, I wouldn’t know what to feel.
No one really expected Twitter and giant tech companies en suite to have deplatformed the President of the United States, signaling a new era on voice, platform, and the limitations of cyberjournalism. However, like Ted Cruz’ Twitter likes, Trump’s words remain as a memory to the general public despite massive documentation and archival done (since they are records of the President’s words). Words that could anger and incite a world in seconds without care for geographic boundaries turn into
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.
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.
Undead content exists at the precipice of being erased, manipulated, forgotten, or untraceable. To the online citizen, it could very well be any of them. This doesn’t stop it from dominating the web. As the internet mimics the real world, content is more meaningful when we turn them into abstractions, ideas, and passive remarks. We only scrutinize content that doesn’t serve our our agenda or interests. Humans simply don’t have time to wade through what the internet has given us, but we encounter the web and its conversations with an unparalleled amount of trust. Even if links and stories are long dead, we retell them in even more comments, paraphrase them terribly on blog posts that will be dissected for SEO farms, and find them once again in its JPEG glory somewhere in our emails. They are inescapable: a matter of the internet shaped by us, for us, glorified by us.
My biggest frustration with today’s internet is that its design and structure innately awards sensationalism, maintaining no standards for preservation The movement towards curation over present-day’s influencer domination reflects a necessary need to both free us from information overload to the historical model of putting the work of the digest into the hands of select curators, and the larger community at once.
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 critic. Both collective ratings and individual reviews tell the story: when purchasing something on Amazon, you need to look into both numerical ratings and individual reviews.
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. As he admits, he skims, speeds, and digests content to pull this feat off, missing out on materials that don’t immediately hook you in the first few lines. Many of the greatest pieces of writing will be missed by acts like this, but it at the very least handpicks more effectively than slow, conscious reading––though as he produces selections of five of the “best” reads each day, are these really the ones that instigate, question, and provoke?
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, while also grasping the entire spectrum. How do we resist turning the internet in all its magnitude and grandiosity from falling into the same pitfalls of the printed word?
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. Today, we see chains of Trump’s deleted tweets as bygone records. Alt tweets and mistakes slip by and become material for the rumor mill. Historians will be digging into the age of society that lived in these moments, thinking that they would be preserved and documented––until they weren’t. The whiplash we experience when realizing that all our online records that were supposedly digital and near-eternal is jarring, decentering us from conversation; when we exist in real life, we at least have physical manifestations and signals that let us latch onto memories better, have interactions that confirm vivid encounters, and intuitively turn to paper or the net to write things down. Yet, the internet doesn’t have this. We’re navigating a lull of the web where environments are both ephemeral until they aren’t, where we have no control of the ever-changing conditions of the cyberspace. This is the internet of the dead, of false memories, and gaslighting. I live my youth in pixels and lose it as quickly as it happened.
Preserving the web
Envisioning the future of recordkeeping is terrifying in the internet’s current state. Millions of tweets, posts, and comments are defunct. World-changing broadcasts wither, unrestored. We were promised that the move from analog to digital would allow us to preserve moments, but it seems like this is further from the truth when we struggle to follow a day’s conversation in an expanse of broken links.
There are many efforts in academia that currently exist to better preserve the web for historicity. You may be familiar with some of them.
Perma.cc focuses on helping scholars, journals, courts, and others create permanent records of the web sources they cite. It’s
Tools and initiatives remain at that. Independent efforts and initiatives to preserve the web are only so effective. It will require massive cultural and practice-based efforts to reform the web into a joint effort of preservation––a responsibility that designers, journalists, and humans alike must share. We use the web in detached, disjointed phases where our communication methods do not match up with our tools, designers have a long way to go in balancing security, product delight, and archival. Mindfulness from several parties is the only way to go to bring back the eternal side of the internet.
Like how the web is currently architected to make sharing content difficult while simultaneously producing tools that make creating original content easier than ever, we need to better investigate both our human relationship with communication along with design’s role in constraining us from free, information sharing. Because humanity has never been able to communicate and exchange thought at such a rapid pace, we may need a radical rethinking of the standards and practices we employ when referencing ideals to better use tools to their maximum potential: to archive, restore, remark, and preserve––respecting both provenance and posterity––using full use of the tools we have developed, with intentional awareness of what these materials could mean.
The goal of the human user (all of us) and of the designer and all the historians, journalists, and communicators within must converge in the name of preservation and longevity––of reanimation of the web for the space it can fully be. Our tools must work towards inching us closer towards enabling a future that respects the content that we can so easily craft, and man must take extra steps to propel this treatment of content to the mainstream.
The role of designers
On Reddit, text posts follow a very standard format. A 300-character limit title, a markdown text body. Different communities spin this format around: /r/askreddit limits the larger text body and restricts the questioner to the very title box, people with questionable moral compasses in /r/AmItheAsshole start off each thread with the characteristic “AITA” before writing biased paragraphs on real-life messes. Each subreddit has its own unique cultures, norms, memes, reposts, and drama, carried on by tens of thousands of visitors each day who absorb and partake in their favorite niches.
To better serve each subreddit’s purpose, moderators impose bots, tagging systems, and titling standards that play on this raw text post format. /r/tipofmytongue that features people struggling to name something they do their utmost best to describe is an excellent example of how subreddit moderators, under reddit’s constraints, play on new ways to make their communities work. The interesting part is not only the raw text post format, but how they’ve changed the comments system to make it easier to reward contributors and solvers, and easily get people to the correct answer.
Each post begins with [TOMT] and the format of the ask, in this case a [MOVIE]. Narrows it down pretty quickly, and subreddit frequenters who have established expertise in specific areas (be it web games or early 80s romcoms) can easily track things down.
When the ask is solved, OP responds with a “Solved!” and a bot promptly changes the post tag and comments a direct link to the comment with the answer.
Point is given to the solver. User flairs (the gray box next to usernames) contain TOMT points, indicating how many times the user how solved someone else’s ask. It becomes sort of a gamification system.
Additionally, in response to a flood of questions being asked and abandoned, OPs need to comment on their own post before it’s visible on the subreddit.
It’s not a perfect system (what if several people respond with the right answer and OP awards the latest commenter instead of the first?), but it shows how these communities have designed systems under their constraints.
Other communities like /r/AmItheAsshole to gaming communities mashing together megathreads of questions, leaks, and official announcements do all they can, constantly exchanging practices and bending the limits of subreddit CSS to establish these customs in their community.
Doing updates on posts that garner a lot of attention is a pain, there’s no standard for backtracking on links. As accounts disappear and moderators scramble to verify questionable users, offering any sort of progression on subreddits is a nightmare. (It’s a common joke that Reddit search is flaming garbage, and it is.)
To make content more accessible, we need to encourage an era of design that prioritizes longevity and cross-functionalism.
It’s too hard to link to content we see on apps, and the amount of websites that gate users–requiring them to download or create an account before they can see material–is ridiculous. Look at Pinterest’s obnoxious home gate, or the amount of mobile websites that prompt you to download the app to look at one piece of content. Content will thrive on the internet when material can be cross-linked and referenced easily either on web or mobile. A counterexample: TikTok and Vine thrive because they’re spread everywhere, still maintaining their brand identity with their characteristic format and logo on the original material. It’s still easy to share and view them; the word of mouth spread and subsequent cultural significance makes up for pushes to optimize downloads.
Reject platforms that destroy the basic building block of the internet: hyperlinks. To reject hyperlinks is to reject coherent thought, discovery, and exploration. Platforms that restrict us to linking to only other social media sites are the bane of today’s existence. Today, entire companies are founded on monetizing the one-link slot we’re given on platforms like Instagram. Beacons.ai, Linktree, Carrd, and other ridiculously simple site builders are beginning to see use by content creators, corporations, and mass organizations alike. Why did we base the web around hyperlinks then decide to do away with them?
A conversation is multi-directional, but social platforms aren’t designed to reflect this. We backtrack, stumble, stutter. (See how Honk treats real-time messaging – with no “Send” button at all.) We navigate several threads of linear conversation at once on different platforms with a friend, with the acquired context of all that bystanders won’t comprehend. When these types of conversations are elevated and become reference material, things get complicated. We need new modes of citation and cross-referencing that don’t take away from these natural flows of conversation (e.g. Twitter’s decision to be gentler with links and @s when navigating text limits). Who will be the first publication to set this standard, or offer a first take at it?
Bi-directional links come with a facet of social awareness, treating websites not only as linear structures or simple maps––but deep, interconnected structures and graphs. We know that a link can bring us from not only Point A to B or A to C, but A to Z, and a continuous mix of either. Webpages should be treated like nodes, letting conversations and interactions flow between different spaces in the internet. This is more reflective of human thought. Notion, Roam Research, and Obsidian are capitalizing on these modes of navigation and thought for knowledge bases.
Webrecorder offers a suite of open source tools dedicated to making web archival more accessible. I haven’t fully checked it out yet, but they have a wonderful list of “academic and memory institutions” (and I will now be holding onto the term ‘memory institutions’) that make use of their tools.
To aid humans in the act of preserving more idle moments (see: my Minecraft Server trailer is not important in historicity, but it’s important to me and my friends and unfortunately a very big defining moment of my childhood), we need to elevate content modes and information that we store. Metadata about materials needs human support to be meaningful; materials do not exist in silos and in isolation. If we design interfaces and systems that encourage more mindful, manual input and interaction with metadata, we can inspire better behavior from the humans that nurture and grow these packets of information.
The role of humans
Tools are what we make of them. The web outstretched to what we can contain. When the tools we design make it easier for us to leverage them, it’s up to us to better capture experiences and moments––as they’re ours to consume in the end.
We need content standards for linking towards and referencing content. While we see what Perma.cc is doing for academia and the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine for books and webpages, there’s so much information that archival efforts for day-to-day drivel are simply unsustainable–even if they hold individual meaning. If we care about the life we live on the internet, humanity must take steps to take care of its words. Screenshots and links must be given the same level of importance. We must curate items and name them, nursing the information we save on our hard drives with as much context and metadata as possible.
Recognize the gift of context in our interactions. That a response gestated in inquiry, thought, and processing is far more meaningful than an immediate reaction; that trust means questioning and inquiry. When we present an article to a friend, we trust that the entire thing bears material meaning. All its hyperlinks, the publication itself, the overall topic. We delve into it deeper, returning questions and more references. Thinking of someone when encountering something means sharing a snippet, and receiving a world of wealth back.
Our culture of creation has never been stronger. Everyone is a producer, everyone has the means to share their talents online. My friends and family are knitters, illustrators, freelancers, writers, bloggers, tweeters, photographers––each craft as valid as the next when they’re all given the same attention span on the high-speed internet. With this, we’ve seen significant movement in the value of giving credit. Everyone is a creator or curator; reddit will mob posters who don’t source content, “OC” is as serious as ever. This is much unlike a decade ago where most people would give original pieces passing glances. Everything is watermarked, defended, sacred; production is a familiar act, and we protect because we know how it feels.
This move towards giving credit where credit is due says a lot about an interlinked web. We know people who will trace back sources, reverse image searching their way to original creators. Provenance is questioned less. It’s still difficult to navigate with the wealth of information and how rapidly things spread––but we’re better at establishing cultures where content is respected and links are given to find pieces back to home. The easier it gets to give credit, the better we’ll be able to preserve content –– and give voice to where it started from.
Aided by designers, Twitter makes this easy for video. People can simply hold and tap on any clip and tweet it, no saving needed. When a video is tweeted, the video’s source is present at the bottom. (See: From Xiao Updates, thank you Venti!)
Today’s wealth of information and our inability to properly utilize our technological tools in an age of rapid evolution may be one of our most human challenges. Picturing the information loss we face if we do not immediately set better standards for the preservation of the web is terrifying.
Perhaps there are is also an alternate future that treasures the web as a cursory thing: a mode of communication as brief as idle conversations we have day-to-day, situating the role of preservation to the analog. A passing interface that performs its functional role, then dissipates. Temporality as a product point or feature (disappearing messages, conversations, etc.) will need to come to a conclusion on whether everything is eternal––or if nothing is. Tese two can’t simultaneously exist on the same, centralized web we have today.
The most radical attempts to reshape the human are typically carried out under this guise of reinforcing and protecting the human. Design is a paradoxical gesture that changes the human in order to protect it.
Beatriz Colomina, Are We Human?
It’s unfortunate that the age of disinformation and decay needs a large-scale rethinking of our current engagement with the internet. No prodding or nudges will solve this. We need new tools and media that birth an epoch of mindfulness, permanence, and meaning to our interactions; tools that will reframe our thinking. What is design if not something that forcibly changes our behavior in the act of human preservation?
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?
Is it foolish for platforms like Snapchat or Instagram Stories to brand themselves as “temporary” when temporariness is impossible on our internet?
Should the web exist as something organic, malleable, and destructible –– or as an eternal timekeeper?
Is link rot more of a technological issue or a human one?