Our lives online
Post-Y2K, discussions around online images have focused on fears about a loss of privacy. It’s true that we have legitimate reason to be concerned about how images of us, and images we have taken, are seen and used by others on the internet. Advertisers, governments, and other corporate interests may make use of our images in ways that we would rather avoid. The possibility of one’s nudes floating in a cache somewhere for generations to come is another unsettling spectre. But fears relating to online image surveillance are double-edged: we are also afraid of being unseen.
Sharing an image online is always a request for viewers, whether these are our Facebook friends, Instagram followers, or Google’s machine learning algorithms.
Selfies are always derided as the ultimate demand for attention, but every image shared on social media is a kind of selfie, a request that other people acknowledge your existence.
We take countless photos of ourselves and our surroundings because we are trying to make sense of what Susan Sontag terms “the remoteness of the real;” trying to bridge the gap between ourselves and everyone else through photos. Archives of old images offer a retreat from the relentless pace at which the landscape around us is changing. Permeated in so many ways by the internet’s inescapable presence, even our offline world feels like it's changing achingly fast. Of course, I would still feel this way if the internet did not exist. Time always moves too quick. Photo archives only offer the illusion of a pause.
Susan Sontag points out in On Photography that “to photograph is to confer importance” even to the most mundane of subjects. With the wide availability of high-quality camera phones, this statement extends to the photographer as well.
It’s not the photo that matters, but the fact that you were there to take it.
“Any photograph that anybody takes becomes part of an archive of images about the world—or of the world,” the artist Penelope Umbrico tells me. As we record the world through images online, we are also expanding it.
“I think archiving the internet is important, and one of the major reasons is that a large part of our lives are saved online,” Douglas Batten, of Internet History, says.
“If the internet vanished tomorrow, you'd find years of information, a lot of it personal—but also a lot of it indicative of what life was like at the beginning of the 2000s—gone. The internet won't vanish tomorrow, probably, but it's entirely possible another situation like what happened to Webshots could happen again.
"For example, Verizon could decide to kill Flickr, and there goes fifteen years of history. But Verizon doesn't see itself actively erasing years of human endeavor or examples of what life was like in 20XX. It doesn't care. It's just ‘data’ to them, costing them money, sucking up space on some server in Yahoo's basement.
“The picture might suck and the blog post might be bad, but we're better off with them than without them.”
The possibility that our photographs will stay on the web forever continues to provoke anxiety, but it’s becoming clear that the opposite is more likely to occur. Images of our pasts, both personal and public, will slowly degrade, eventually becoming inaccessible, corrupted, lost.
It’s vital, then, that artists are working to archive the images of our near-present pasts, which would otherwise disappear. As photography becomes more about the photographer and the process, and less about the preservation of images themselves, online archives like the ones discussed here serve as imperfect records of the internet, and of ourselves.
"Photography is not practiced by most people as an art. It is mainly a social rite, a defense against anxiety, and a tool of power," Susan Sontag writes in On Photography. Nowhere are these functions of photography more apparent than in the photos I've discussed here. These photos were taken mostly to sell belongings that somebody thought had value, and to record people and places that somebody wanted to remember.
Photographs are proof of time passing, but a photo is also proof of the present—proof that you did exist, that you are existing right now, in front of a camera lens, or a mirror, or a computer screen.