Meet the Gravediggers of the Internet
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the internet used to be a much wilder and more vulgar place.
Dragan Espenschied is a black-hooded programmer, but he’s nothing like the Zuckerberg lookalikes who loiter the grounds of Stanford University, Google or Facebook, reimagining the future and fantasizing about the big bucks that come with it. His obsession is far freakier. Espenschied digs up the corpses of decaying web pages and brings them back from the digital dead.
It sounds like a bizarre pastime — dredging up the cobwebs of the World Wide Web — but hey, it’s what the cool coder kids are into these days. Forget trading bitcoins or building virtual-reality apps or learning the latest programming languages, like Golang or Julia. These netizens are intrigued by the prehistoric: mining the virtual graveyards of GeoCities, Myspace and Friendster for archaeological gems, like gaudy animated gifs and rainbow blink tags. Like Indiana Jones, they are the gravediggers of the internet: “We can go back in time,” says Espenschied, a user interface designer in Germany.
Granted, they’re not exactly going back for the Ark of the Covenant. But their projects hark back to the past in a strange blend of homespun history, art and code, making it feel like the ’80s and ’90s are alive and well. Take, for example, 40-year-old Espenschied’s oldweb.today, which allows you to enter a web portal via the world’s earliest browsers and surf old sites like The New York Times or Facebook (“The Facebook,” as it used to be called) as if you were decades younger. Or you could relive the good old days of Technicolor fonts and unrefined self-expression from Cameron Askin’s haphazard collage of archived Geocities, a ’90s-era webpage builder where anything goes — including garish eyes flying across the screen or cheesy background music when you enter the page. How about a walk down memory lane through the online Malware Museum? It’s filled with once-lethal MS-DOS–based malware and viruses from the ’90s that would take over your monitor with hovering skull graphics or cute cannabis messages. Together, these digital Dr. Frankensteins are amassing millions of hits on their sites while unearthing the internet’s untamed past — and some of it ain’t pretty. It is, in fact, quite ugly.
This new rage for the old web is being driven by a collision of two merging trends: nostalgia for the past and preservation for the future. And we’re always barreling toward the next big software update or some flashy new gadget. But experts warn that while we’re upgrading toward the future, we might also be failing to chronicle its history. The average life of a webpage runs no longer than 100 days. It’s difficult to imagine, but with each successive update or new technology, today’s photos, documents and data become more unreachable and unreadable, says Jason Scott, from the Internet Archive in San Francisco.
There’s also a mounting desire for the earlier Wild West of the web, a time when people felt like they were playfully building the internet and leaving their mark. The internet used to be hardwired for independence, but today, we’re numb to the cookie-cutter templates and one-size-fits-all layouts that run amok on the interwebs, says 28-year-old Askin, whose “love letter to the Internet of old” has received more than one million hits so far. Back then, you had to spend days tinkering with HTML. Nowadays, you can throw up a functioning webpage in five minutes. “I’d gladly trade all of the social media and hullabaloo for a few hours spent picking out GIFs and playing with fonts [when] everything wasn’t always about SEO, growth hacking and other nonsense,” says Ryan Glover, who built his first website on Geocities at seven years old.
Plus, millions of carefully crafted accounts were deleted forever or stripped bare when throwback sites like Myspace, Friendster and Geocities were reconfigured or sold. But then again, why would anyone want to look back on their awkward teen phases or dopey AIM messages? Sites are shuttered every day and lost forever — for good reason. Even the European Union fought for the right to be forgotten from Google searches, like removing an ugly butterfly tattoo. And what happens when something is brought up that ought not to resurface? Facebook learned that lesson the hard way when the “On This Day” feature caused people to relive the pain of losing their loved ones. (The social-media juggernaut stresses that the company has since readjusted the algorithms to give people more control over the memories they see.)
Bad memories aside, these net necromancers say it’s not about hurting anyone or even preserving the old internet, but a younger, more naive one: the clumsy first steps of the World Wide Web. The internet may live on for centuries, but we have only a short window to build a time capsule and chronicle the birth of the great digital beast before it crumbles into cyberspace dust forever.
So, go ahead: We dare you to find your tween-age account on MySpace.