The internet that disappears

And the artifacts it leaves behind.

Getting emotional about Tumblr in the year of our lord 2021. —Kate

Throughout high school and college, I was warned over and over that anything I put on the internet would be forever. This was almost always mentioned in conversations about alcohol, and for a long time the worst thing imaginable to me was that my 20-year-old self would be caught holding a bottle of Woodchuck cider in a photo that a hiring manager would one day see. 

This is probably still true for more traditional industries, but I graduated into digital media, where my most embarrassing or shocking adolescent experiences were fodder for the industrial essay machine. I wrote about how I learned “to put away the padding and love my small boobs,” about the first time I saw a penis, about non-consensual sexual encounters that I only divulged because at the time it was the Thing To Do. Those stories, instead, became things that permanently branded me online. 

But recently, I’ve been watching that era of the internet break down. HelloGiggles, where many of these early essays of mine live, stopped publishing in September. Other 2010s websites, like BuzzFeed and G/O Media properties, have been on a mass picture-deleting spree to avoid blowback from the stringent photo copyright laws that weren’t really of concern in the blogging years of 2013. Now, articles like this one don’t make sense, and beloved posts like this have lost the pictures that made it so special. 

I wrote about all this over at Study Hall, but it bears repeating here: the internet, it turns out, is not forever. It’s on more of like a 10-year cycle. It’s constantly upgrading and migrating in ways that are incompatible with past content, leaving broken links and error pages in its wake. In other instances, the sites simply shutter, or become so layered over that finding your own footprint is impossible—I have searched “Kate Lindsay Myspace” every which way and have concluded that my content from that platform must simply be lost to time, ingested by the Shai-Hulud of the internet. 

Which is why it felt so rare last night when I actually stumbled upon something from my past internet self. I was trying to find a knitting pattern on the site Ravelry (yes, I’m the same person who was concerned there would be pictures of underage me with alcohol on the internet. We exist) when I came across the profile I made in college. My page linked out to my old Tumblr, which was still, miraculously, standing. 

There were signs of decay, of course. Almost every image, quote, and other miscellania I had reblogged was from a user that now had the telltale “-deactivated” next to their name. But aside from a few images that had been removed thanks to Tumblr’s crackdown on sexual imagery (at least, that’s what the error message in their place says, although they’re almost all bookended by pictures of cats and the Harry Potter cast, so how spicy could they have been), everything was as it was a decade ago. Here’s a particularly ironic highlight:

The fact that the internet reliably breaks and disintegrates and swallows your memories means the act of stumbling upon something that remains feels unexpectedly human, as if you sifted this version of yourself from sand with other ancient artifacts. If this was an archeological dig, I’d gingerly lift this part of me from its resting place and find somewhere, like a museum or attic, to preserve it. Instead, all I can do is rebury it and hope it remains there for me to stumble upon again in a few years, surrounded by an entirely new internet.