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Design

Preserving The Internet's Digital Past

13 years worth of homemade html brings on more nostalgia than a Bar Mitzvah photo.
February 7, 2014, 4:05pmUpdated on February 8, 2014, 7:52pm

The ‘Divorced Dads Page’, one of the fully reconstructed websites on One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age.

Web design functions in much the same way as the world of fashion; what’s hot and on trend one year is passe and garish the next. While web 2.0 as we know it has made slick, minimal design the predominant look of the present, this is not without its messy, GIF-filled and glittering text-based past. The ‘vernacular web’, as artist, lecturer, writer and all-around net crusader Olia Lialina calls it, was a time from the mid-nineties to the early aughts when the majority of the web was populated by user-made pages, connected by web rings and discussed on message boards and chat programs. In comparison, the contemporary web is more akin to a mall, where you go to corporate-run one-stop-hubs to do your shopping, your socializing, and your sharing. One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age is an archivist project by Lialina and Dragan Espenschied to document and examine this web of the past, where Geocities was king and rainbow gradients filled the digital sky.

_ ‘Gabriella’s Armoire’, advertising that it is “java enhanced” in rainbow-colored capital letters._

In April of 2009, Yahoo!, who had bought Geocities 10 years prior in 1999, announced that they would be shutting down the popular web hosting service. Geocities had proved to be an unsustainable investment into the web 2.0 era and Yahoo! decided to can it. While there was no way the vernacular web could exist in the shadows of Youtube, Facebook, and streaming music sites, what this really meant was that once Geocities was gone--everything that was hosted on it would disappear along with it, and with Geocities hosting over 38 million pages at the time of its demise, that’s a lot of content.

Geocities was an important facilitator in bringing the web to the world. Prior to the free hosting service, the internet was a considerably more cloistered place for hobbyists and people who knew their way around some code. When it started up in 1995, Geocities helped mark the shift of the internet from academia to an instrument of the people. But a website is not like a book. Even if your publishing house goes out of business or Barnes and Noble goes bankrupt, your books still exist somewhere out there in the world. When Geocities announced it was going away, that meant that all 38 million of those websites would disappear too.

Before it officially went dark, a group calling themselves the Archive Team were able to download almost a terabyte of the websites that were still hosted Geocities. A year after the 2009 shutdown, Archive Team began seeding a torrent that held all of the data they were able to rescue. Olia and Dragan downloaded the massive torrent with the intent to share it with the world. Thus was birthed the “One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age” tumblr and website and, in their words, a performative preservationist project that will be celebrating its one year anniversary today.

Scrolling through the One Terabyte tumblr (depending on your age) brings on a wave of nostalgia. Hand-cobbled html, anime jpgs, and starry, galactic repeating wallpaper backgrounds flow by as you navigate the blog. Updated multiple times daily through an automatic process that pulls screenshots from the torrent file, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age feels like walking down a familiar road, paved with comic sans memories. From the garish to the sublime, the old Geocities websites run the gamut of aesthetics and topics. While one may prefer the streamlined and integrated browsing experience of today’s web, there's something comforting in seeing these pages from a simpler digital era. But One Terabyte doesn’t just function as a ‘remember when’ image feed. The web has rooted itself within our global landscape as a generator of content and cultures. Until the dot com boom, the internet hadn't yet proven itself to be a mass-marketable entity. Due to this, as well as the digital continually coming at odds with traditional marketplaces, there has always been a conflict of preservation and value of the net and its content. To help in this preservation, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age is simultaneously an educational resource, now being supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

The one year anniversary of One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age comes at an interesting time. 2013 saw the acquisition of tumblr by Yahoo!, a company notorious for mismanaging its purchases. The irony here is that the One Terabyte tumblr now acts as the hosting site to what, in many sectors, was considered a huge blunder on Yahoo!’s part. Saving the data Yahoo! was prepared to wipe clean from its servers took the uncompensated efforts of a digital grassroots organization like Archive Team and the curatorial expertise of Olia and Dragan, both with long histories in the study and creation of internet-based and digitally-inspired work. At the rate they’re going, Olia and Dragan still have enough content to keep the tumblr going for another 13 years, a timespan which the curators themselves feel will more than likely outlive the tumblr platform itself.

In celebration of the one year anniversary of the tumblr, Olia and Dragan have cooked up something special. They have manually pulled data on their postings over the past year and are presenting the 3 most popular selections in all their fully-functional midi-embedded glory. The “Divorced Dads Page” (seen at top), “Cute Boy Site”, and “I Have a Website” pages have been reconstructed from the data in the original torrent file and made to function almost flawlessly on modern browsers. Upon entering “I Have a Website”, a personal page created by “Bobby from London, England”, we are greeted with a jpg of a nondescript middle-aged man, soundtracked by an ancient, damaged midi file of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”. The website consists of a small description of Bobby’s travels, and a link to an image of a “friend” at the bottom. Dragan outlines the reconstruction process of these sites in loving detail in a post for the occasion. On “Cute Boy Site”, the link to vote for the next cute boy for March leads you to a page with 3 options to pick from; Nick Carter, Taylor Hanson, and Edward Furlong. Even the jpg “award” images at the bottom of the site are preserved, showing off the classic Jokerman font in full effect.

“Awards” given to ‘Cute Boy Site’.

With corporate conglomerates and government agencies mining our digital data for profit and other less-than-altruistic reasons, it brings into question what the value of all this amounts to. For an entity like Facebook, the more images one uploads of themselves and their friends, the better the facial recognition software becomes. For every status update, the better they can turn your likes and dislikes into targeted advertising. The vernacular web that Olia and Dragan present on One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age is the personal digital data that didn’t survive into the current marketplace. However, as proponents of ‘digital folklore’, the value of this early web content goes beyond its ability to be turned into profit or retro longing for a previous age. It shows a time before social media, when the web was a space to be molded and created by its users, where clumsy formatting, broken links, and Backstreet Boys songs you couldn’t turn off amalgamated themselves into a markedly different place from today’s web. With the ability for this content to be wiped from the face of earth in a single server shutdown, it is important to preserve this kind of content from being lost entirely. 13 years from now, as One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age continues to automatically pull screenshots, where will our Facebook, Instagram and tumblr content live? Or will all that’s left be a digital algorithm bouncing around on a hard drive somewhere that can tell you what crowdsourced political drama you might enjoy next on Netflix, if it even still exists?

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