Alternate InternetThis week, we look at the ways the internet could have been—and could be—different.
As Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Myspace was never finished, only abandoned.” Not those words exactly, but if brainyquotes.com disappeared, and the Louvre burned down, and all libraries were defunded, and a solar flare wiped out all of Earth’s power, and a historian found this sole surviving blogpost 200 years from now, they might equally wonder what was Myspace, and who was Leonardo da Vinci, and did he know the great composer Alice Cooper, whose vinyl records were discovered in a basement in the underwater island of Manhattan? History exists only as long as our artifacts, which survive by miracle or by the tender care of centuries-old institutions that protect them from fire, war, disc rot, magnets, selfies, and Sunday painters.
And botched corporate server migrations, which supposedly caused the recent obliteration of 50 million songs by 14 million artists posted to Myspace between 2003 and 2016, the vast majority of its library. Archivists and Myspace diehards compared the loss to the burning of the Library of Alexandria; the jury of the internet (the sum total of commentary in blogs and threads and legacy publications) mostly feigned glee at cremating audio evidence of teen angst, a bonfire which, in physical form, would have amounted to 127 Eiffel Tower-high stacks of cased CDs. The majority of Myspace’s 100 million users had already packed up years ago, and if they didn’t grab their stuff on the way out, that’s too bad, because Myspace is not your mom.
There’s some conspiratorial thinking about whether the loss was a “loss,” in the way that Myspace “lost” blog entries in a redesign in June 2013 and offered users the option to “vote” to have them back. Tweeted former Kickstarter CTO Andy Baio: “I’m deeply skeptical this was an accident. Flagrant incompetence may be bad PR, but it still sounds better than ‘we can’t be bothered with the effort and cost of migrating and hosting 50 million old MP3s.’”
Would Tom have let this happen???
Tom never would have let this happen! a redditor posted, meaning founder Tom Anderson, aka, “Tom.” But Tom did let this happen. Tom sold Myspace to NewsCorp for $580 million in 2005 and, as of this writing, Tom is in the Maldives living possibly the world’s most Instagram-worthy life, taking drone videos at resorts of a woman in a bikini and hopefully backing up his photos.
Tom was like all the other tech start-up guys who made a ton of money for their inventions–YouTube, Bebo, Friendfeed–and nobody knocked him for it. In fact he was applauded when he owned a Twitter troll with the comeback: “says the guy who sold myspace in 2005 for $580 million while you slave away hoping for a half-day off.”
Because Myspace isn’t Tom, or yourspace, or ourspace; Myspace is data residing in a rack of servers. We didn’t really have the vocabulary for that concept when Myspace came out in 2003, back when Geocities landing pages read like doormats, “welcoming” you to “come in” or “enter” the owner’s “palace,” “room,” or “castle.” But we’re all renters; your photos are on the wall, but the building is not yours and the landlord can evict you and also burn all your stuff.
Myspace is also a business, and it was first conceived as a Friendster copycat for a low-rent marketing company trying to sell diet pills,according to former marketing VP Sean Percival. In his telling, Myspace was enveloped in the slow-moving machinery of NewsCorp, which, in a post-Facebook identity crisis, bogged down the site with various ornaments like celebrity news and annoying ad pop-ups, while Facebook honed its simpler (non-customizable, regulation) interface which required users to give real-name formats over lowercase username pseudonyms. Plus, in the midst of a technopanic fanned by Dateline’s “Perverted Justice” vigilantes, Forbes writes that Facebook’s age minimum and early .edu email address verification made it a supposedly “safe” alternative to Myspace. In 2009 and 201, there were major rounds of layoffs. Myspace was sold, bought, sold, and bought for a massive discount. LinkedIn lists 393 current employees at the company, a shadow of the at least 1,300-strong staff of 2009. (As of this writing, Myspace has not returned request for comment.)
A few weeks after the announcement, the Internet Archive uploaded 490,000 tracks from 2008-2010 that had been backed up by researchers for an independent project, representing less than one percent of the songs once on Myspace. They issued a PSA: “This is Facebook in a few years’ time. Don’t treat any of today’s popular services as a permanent archive. If Facebook thought that it could make more money out of you by throwing you in a garden shredder and turning you into fertiliser it would do so in half a heartbeat. They do not care about you or your stuff. Please keep local copies of your shit.”
To be sure, Myspace was never the Library of Alexandria. That library represented the bulk of recorded human knowledge spanning centuries, while a librarian given a Myspace catalogue would have to sift through terabytes of amateur mp3s from 2003-2016 to find our treasures (the dynasty of Billboard 100 chart toppers starting with Soulja Boy–Nicki Minaj, Drake, Janelle Monáe, Panic! At the Disco, Arctic Monkeys, Calvin Harris, Lily Allen…etc). The professional catalogues have been backed up, and as for the rest, the New York Public Library wouldn’t even keep most of that stuff.
But knocking Myspace as a tomb for white emo high school souls seriously undermines its value; in 2009, a Pew study found that Myspace represented half of all social network users in the United States, who included more women and black and Latinx people than any other major network, and whose median age was 27. In a well–circulated study, social media scholar danah boyd analyzed over a hundred interviews with high school students who frequently used racist and classist language when explaining their reasons for leaving what one student called the “ghetto” of Myspace; boyd compared the abandonment to “white flight,” writing that Facebook’s “digital fences” of private profiles played to “wealthier” parents with “overblown fears” of sexual predators, nudes, and “urban black signals such as bling and hip-hop”–and ultimately to users who “had no interest in interacting with people who were different.” Primarily middle-class white biases, she writes, spun off into media coverage which could have accelerated a premature death, like a 2009 New York Times headline “Do You Know Anyone Still on MySpace?” Though at the time Facebook and Myspace usage was roughly equal, boyd concluded that “white middle-class journalists didn’t know anyone who still used Myspace.” Timescommenters called Myspace “the other side of the tracks,” for “the riffraff” and the “proletariat” who “never go to college.”
At its peak in June 2006, Myspace reportedly surpassed Google.com as the most-visited website in the country. Emo and metal and witch house were there, but so was crunk, trap, drill, pop-rap, psychedelic soul. And new genres were invented with deconstructed video game consoles, and kids were forming bands they described as “technical/avant-garde instrumental metal,” and you could attach “-core” to anything and make it more intense than it was.
Mostly, Myspace probably contained content of little historical importance and even less importance to Myspace’s prospective ad revenue: the kinds of memories people leave around that don’t matter until they’re gone. A cacophony of voices mourned them in comment threads from around social media:
“Has anyone heard an update?! Will we be able to play this music ever again? My son recorded a song when he was 7 years old that his guitar instructor uploaded to his Myspace page. My son died 2 years ago, at the age of 20, and I would do anything to be able to hear it again.”[link]
“8 songs recorded from when I was 16-17 and no way to download or play them. I’m 30 now… would be pretty sweet to hear them again before I die.” [link]
“Wow 😦 there goes some pics of me and my sister who passed away that ill never get back” [link]
“That’s a shame,, I still visit friends accounts that are no longer earthside” [link]
“Wow actually lost like all the solo music i made from 2005 to 2009…..my harddrive broke in 2009 as well so its gone forever….” [link]
“i know more than a few tracks that will never be heard again bc of this and that really is sad… the members have died, the band has disbanded and now there is no record of their contribution” [link]
“I recently started training as a music teacher (26yo), and hearing the senior students made me want to go back and hear how I sounded at that age. I don’t even remember how the songs went” [link]
“Lost my first song I ever did when I was a ‘rapper’ I been trying to get it. No wonder it didn’t play on by [sic] music page anymore” [link]
“I logged in last year out of curiosity. I wrote a song in 9th grade and uploaded it to MySpace. It showed the file was still there but it would never play. Listen count was at like 200. But I really wanted to listen one last time.” [link]
“This is funny for some, but to me it is devastating. My father was tragically murdered around 12 years ago, before Facebook was really a popular thing. He instead had a MySpace, and keeping it alive in his memory meant everything to me. I’m devastated by the loss of his memories.” [Link]
“I don’t know if it’s necessarily the worst thing, and from a business perspective, I get why a company wouldn’t store your stuff forever,” Dave Sinneway, 30, Pittsburgh–whom I’d reached over phone after finding his post looking for music–spoke with the deliberate resignation of someone whose garage had burned down. He has as much to grieve as the next Myspace user, having lost the bulk of the music he and his now-deceased friend made early in high school. A few years ago, he thought to hold his laptop up to a speaker and record the few songs he considers solid (even in 2016, the Myspace player was garbage, and there’s no download function) and post them to YouTube for “posterity”–but mostly, for him. “We were just kids up in his bedroom making music. I think the person who was most nostalgic for it was me.”
The big-picture loss to Sinneway is more the elimination of hyper-local history. He would click through rabbit holes of connections, ending up in a circle of small metal bands from the outer suburbs of Chicago. “It was a snapshot–what music was on there when people decided to up and leave. It’s not even my own stuff; sometimes you just want to relive a point in time that you had in your life. There are the bands that broke up, and their music was left on Myspace.”
He relates the Myspace loss to the movie Yesterday, which neither of us has seen, but the premise (as advertised) sells a mass audience on the feeling of losing beloved music in a world that doesn’t care about it. “It’s about what would happen if everybody in the world forgets that the Beatles happened except for one guy. If you lost all the music you loved, you’d probably be looking for it, too.”
The New York Times recentlyrevealed that “the biggest disaster in the history of the music business” already happened, and nobody knew; in 2008, a fire at Universal Studios claimed hundreds of thousands of master recordings, a vast anthology including Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Elton John, Sonic Youth, Eminem–just a drop in the bucket–and possibly worse, “tens of thousands of gospel, blues, jazz, country, soul, disco, pop, easy listening, classical, comedy and spoken-word records that may now exist only as written entries in discographies.” (Master recordings include far more vivid detail and recorded content than is translated onto lower-fi commercial releases–Times reporter Jody Rosen’s prime example is the 2017 box set of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, among other things, brought fans raw versions of songs like “Strawberry Fields” and “A Day in the Life.”) Consumers hoarding the lower-fi commercial releases end up with fucked CDs and warbly cassette tapes and neglected vinyl and dead flash drives, on top of forgotten Amazon Music passwords and all kinds of hardware problems, and will, by design, have to repurchase copies until the end up time or until companies stop releasing them.
The point is, Myspace fans could be the Beatles fans of tomorrow, if reduced to the most meager of scraps, and of scraps of scraps. In April, someone posted a video on YouTube captioned “Do you think this is the real Hayley Williams?” with tracks from around 2004-2005, and a whole thread says it’s not her. This person offered to send their backups to fellow fans referencing a national constellation of bands averaging around 10k connections on Myspace–a snazzpop/piconoise/tweegrind electronic band from New Jersey, a digital grind solo artist from the Midwest, a recently-disbanded cybergrind group from upstate New York, a solo electronic act described as “really confusing” from Columbus, Ohio…etc. At least two of the bands are defunct, and one artist is dead.
There’s some interesting stuff if you fish around in the Internet Archive’s trove, the “Myspace Dragon Hoard.” One music hoarder, who preferred to be known simply by Matt, found a bunch of morning talk show broadcasts; a Twitter account claimed to find early stuff by 2Chainz and Childish Gambino when they were “Tity Boi” and “mcDJ,” respectively. Mostly there’s a lot of unpolished music clearly not from a studio or autotuned but just people playing with the instruments available.
“You would have had to have had no one working there in order for this to happen,” Jason Scott, the software curator for the Internet Archive, told me over a video call.
There are people working there, but likely they’re not walking around in hazmat suits dusting off an arsenal of servers in an air conditioned airplane hangar. Computer scientist Ethan Miller, who directs the Center for Research in Storage Systems at UC Santa Cruz, helped me with a back-of-the-napkin calculation. These days, anybody with $6,000 and a closet could store 50 million songs–200 terabytes, assuming four megs per song–on about 20 hard drives, or, eight inches of shelf space on a server rack. But you still have to make sure the closet doesn’t burn down. Miller notes that Myspace would have had to have migrated servers at least two or three times over the past fifteen years to update its hardware, and they would have been running those disk drives hard (literally, down to the ball bearings) in order to copy millions if not billions of files; the annual disk failure rate is about one to four percent, but that rises the older the machines get older; on top of that, maybe you get 98 percent done with the data transfer, and the new server isn’t big enough to hold the extra two percent, but do you really want to bother getting a bigger server and doing the whole thing over?
It’s possible though unlikely that they could have left the hardware to degrade and die. Back when Myspace was founded, before most companies were using third-party cloud storage, companies would have had to hire expensive engineers to maintain data.
“Let’s say I’m in the process of cleaning out an old file cabinet,” Miller said. “And it’s easier for me to say, let’s go to Office Depot and buy a box for twelve bucks and stick it in the corner. If you said, by the way, that’s not twelve bucks, it’s 2,000, I might say, I don’t need this envelope of receipts from 2010. And then I throw it out and go, oops, that was a receipt I kinda needed, too bad for me. That’s the kind of thing companies will do, they’ll make copies, and the copies aren’t perfect, and it’s Myspace…and no offense, but it’s Myspace. Over time, everyone loses some data, especially if it’s not data you’re being paid to keep. And I don’t fault them for that! Because you weren’t paying them.”
Brian Wilson, the co-founder of the data storage provider Backblaze, thinks about it in terms of the 1977 Tenerife airport disaster, the deadliest-ever plane accident where two planes collided on a runway ostensibly because the captain skipped one step from the checklist–but only after a sequence of horribly-timed events including a terrorist attack at a separate airport, a traffic jam, fog, miscommunication by ground control, and radio interference at the fatal moment. The entire footage of Toy Story 2 was almost lost forever because someone accidentally deleted his files; one guy accidentally deleted his whole company once; a security guard cut the power to Backblaze’s data center when they pressed the big red power button (the data is fine).Wilson says that “at every company” he has ever worked for in his 30-year career, he’s seen some version of the scenarios where a technician wakes up groggy in the middle of the night and removes the wrong drive. Bugs. Etc. Shit happens.
“My only thought is always, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’” wrote internet critic and programmer Paul Ford in an email.
Over video conference on an mid-week summer afternoon, Jason Scott, software curator of the Internet Archive, turns his monitor to show me his mixtape crawler. Jittery lines of white-on-black code are ripping early-aughts hip hop mixtapes from torrent sites, filtering out the ones that haven’t been uploaded to the archive, and then populating before my eyes on the Internet Archive’s public-facing page with album covers and track lists, one after another. There’s no particular hierarchy in terms of commercial success–Migos is in the same bucket as DJ 837–butScott says history will decide their value.
Scott oversees the Archive Team, a group of over 100 volunteers who spend virtually all day rescuing as much endangered data as they can, from running the archive’s “warrior” app on their personal laptops to maintaining large server farms. You can see what they’re doing at any given time on archivebot.com (at the moment, they’re working on a forum for DIY computerized Christmas lighting and a memorial to gun violence deaths). They maintain “Deathwatch,” an extinct-and-endangered species list for 100+ large sites, representing losses for hundreds of millions of people. Eight million user-designed pages on Geocities, 15 years of encyclopedia Encarta, 115 million accounts on Friendster, to 134 million photos on Panoramio, over a million rare tracks on what.CD. “Young mothers are the biggest victims,” he says. People come to him all the time looking for baby photos.
While Scott runs the Internet Archive, legions of free-range hackers are stockpiling backups elsewhere. Reddit’s 3,000-strong “Music Hoarder” forum recently started a server on Discord to back up large at-risk music troves and grant random wishes from the internet. They field requests for things like a soundtrack for a 2003 Japanese manga series, or a 1976 album by an Italian jazz composer, or music by a now-defunct Myspace-only metal band.
“I have the time, and I love the search,” moderator Drake, 17, told me. He once offered a $300 bounty and to drive 43 hours to find the “Holy Grail” of music hoarding, a 1994 album by a Canadian experimental collective published only on 33 cassette tapes. (He subsidizes this by scooping ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s.)
His co-moderator Matt, 23, is coordinating an effort to re-label and tag the 490,000 Myspace tracks that the Internet Archive uploaded in April. (As it is, that collection is not very library-like; filenames are mostly a string of jumbled phrases, and users can’t browse, only search by the name of the artist or song. It’s not Google-friendly.) He hasn’t found anything exactly canonical; probably the most interesting thing he’s found is a parody video of Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” about potato chips by a British guy–stuff you couldn’t unload in a free bin of vinyl records on the sidewalk. I wonder why Matt cares. He simply says: “Music is a passion of mine, and the music from Myspace is all pretty much gone now.” That may sound vague, but it’s not; admittedly, he could probably live without most individual songs from that repository, but together, as an immense collection, the culture of song-making is seismic. Reserving taste is a hoarder thing–he started archiving on a separate Discord server which focused on, among other stuff, saving the Nazi Tumblrs before Tumblr deleted them–not stuff he cares for himself, but sees value in the proof that they existed. Also admittedly, he’s way too young to have experienced Myspace. His own legacy is in the Discord channels. The hoarders are already archiving them.
All Rights Reserved for Whitney Kimball