Is the internet a library?
If I wanted to look at some photos of me in the 1990s, I would have to travel to my hometown in suburban Ontario, visit my parents’ house, and find their photo albums, which have years labelled on their spines with tape. In the album dated 1993, there are images of me as a baby, which were printed from film shot on a Minolta Maxxum. My whole childhood is there, preserved on glossy photo paper, but the archive ends sometime in the early 2000s.
In 2003, I turned 10, and digital cameras outsold analog cameras for the first time ever. It’s here that the photo record of my past begins to trail off. My family eventually upgraded from the Minolta to a point-and-shoot digital camera. We could have printed these photos, but they would have looked terrible. And why bother to print them when they were already on the computer?
Growing up alongside the internet, millennials came of age in two new worlds at once. As we struggled to establish identities for ourselves as adults, we had to figure out how to create an online identity as well, in a time when no one was sure how to go about doing that properly. Unlike the “digital natives” of Generation Z, who were born post-Google, our early lives were not necessarily shaped by the internet. Coming of age in this uncertain time means that, for many millennials, the archives of our childhoods are just as incomplete and difficult to navigate as the archives of the internet.
When the platforms of our youth disappear, our images often disappear with them.
In 2014, it was estimated that people uploaded an average of 1.8 billion images to the internet every single day. To be clear, this is not an estimate of how many photos were taken, but of how many photos were shared. An iPhone camera today has 12 megapixels; in 1995 a professional quality digital camera boasted just under 2MP.
As digital camera technology continues to rapidly improve, photos become just as important to communication as words. Platforms like Snapchat and Instagram have introduced a mode of communication in which images are more important and offer a more efficient means of conveying information than text. Even on Facebook, image-based ads are only permitted to include a limited amount of text.
In the early 1990s, the internet had not yet established itself as another layer of existence. At that time, the online world was still a place you could enter and exit. It seemed possible, then, that the internet could become a universal library. Unlike a brick-and-mortar library, the internet would never close. It could be visited anywhere, by anyone, and the information inside the internet would not be damaged or lost the way books could be. The library of the future was infinite, and it would last forever.
The internet today has succeeded in providing answers to pretty much any question you can think to look up. At the same time, the majority of the internet is unintelligible, unless you are an algorithm. It's estimated that more than half of internet activity comes from bots. A 2017 study suggested that as much of 15% of Twitter traffic is non-human. Almost 60% of email traffic is spam. On another level, much of the internet is not readable because it consists of trolls, fake news, and content which is simply not relevant to you or in a language you understand.
In his short story The Library of Babel (1941), the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges describes a library which is a whole world. Borges’ library is limitless, infinite, circular. It contains every book which could ever be written—every possible combination of letters. Of course, because every possible combination is represented, most of these books are unreadable. They are full of writing which doesn’t mean anything to anyone. Like the Library of Babel, the internet now contains so much information that most of it seems meaningless.
In the early 1990s, the internet began opening up to the public at large. In September, 1993, Usenet, which had previously been populated mostly by students and academics, opened up to a huge influx of new users. Around the same time, the graphical web browser Mosaic was becoming popular. The introduction of images changed the internet forever. It has become less and less like an academic resource or archive, and more like a physical space; a series of communities which imitate and alter existing social structures.
In his 1967 book The Medium is the Massage, media theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote: "Too many people know too much about each other. Our new environment compels commitment and participation. We have become irrevocably involved with, and responsible for, each other." He was writing about television, but his words have only become more relevant with time.
The internet is not like a library because it is too personal. Existing online means swimming through a constant flood of extremely intimate and decontextualized information, experiences, and, above all, images. How can we make sense of all this visual information?
More images are uploaded to the internet every second. How do we know which ones will still be online tomorrow? Or five years from now? In twenty years, will we still use Facebook? If not, how am I going to remember what 2005 looked like?
These questions all point to a larger one, which is: how will people two hundred years from now (or five hundred, or five thousand) know what life looked like in 2017?
The images we upload to the internet are a crucial part of our cultural history. As web browsers become more and more sophisticated, accessing images from the past becomes more and more difficult. This is another reason that the internet fails to work like a library: it lacks a uniform system of archiving. In the absence of an easily accessible, formal archive of old webpages, regular users who wish to trace the history of the internet are limited to navigating the annals of the WayBack Machine.
Created by the nonprofit organization Internet Archive, the WayBack Machine is an extensive, though still incomplete, archive of webpages from the past. Internet Archive has also facilitated the project Internet Archaeology, which archives interesting images from the GeoCities website archive. From their mission statement:
“Unlike traditional archaeology, where physical artifacts are unearthed; Internet Archaeology's artifacts are digital, thus more temporal and transient. Yet we believe that these artifacts are no less important than say the cave paintings of Lascaux. They reveal the origins of a now ubiquitous Internet Culture; showing where we have been and how far we have come.”
We have come a long way online in a very short time. But records of this past are definitely transient, and just like physical artifacts of ancient history, they are sometimes inaccessible or destroyed. Perhaps that’s why nostalgia for the 1990s is so pervasive on the internet. The decade is starting to feel like ancient history, even to me, and I was born in the early ’90s.
In On Photography, Susan Sontag writes that the aim of photography “is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—as an anthology of images.” The internet, as the largest anthology of images that exists, ends up constituting not a library but a whole world unto itself. How, then, can we try to understand it? If collecting images means collecting the world, as Sontag says, the first step is creating your own archive.
This project explores the difficulty—and importance—of archiving photography on the internet, through a discussion of several online image archives and interviews with their creators. In Internet History, Douglas Batten has amassed what might be the most extensive online collection of photographs of America in the early 2000s simply by browsing through old photo hosting websites. Created by the artist Eric Oglander, Craigslist Mirrors is a compilation of oddly beautiful photos of mirrors for sale on Craigslist. Lastly, the artist Penelope Umbrico uses images predominantly from websites like Craigslist and Flickr to create archives of anonymous portraits which raise questions about online identity and authorship.