Pics or it didn't happen
In the visual archive of my life, there is a gap between my childhood photo albums and 2007. As my family replaced their analog camera with a digital one, my parents stopped printing their photos, and I didn’t really start uploading photos to the internet until I joined Facebook. I was in eighth grade at the time. Now that I can access a detailed visual record of my social life from 2007 to the present courtesy of Facebook’s timekeeping, the lack of a record from my earlier years registers as a loss of time.
If there are no photos of me as a thirteen-year-old, how can I remember how it felt to be thirteen?
For me and anyone else concerned by gaps in our digital histories, the Tumblr blog Internet History is the answer to our prayers. Created in 2010 by New York-based Douglas Batten, the blog was initially just a joke he shared with a few friends. It was a space for Batten to archive interesting photos he’d unearthed “while digging through Flickr, Photobucket, old blogs, or whatever sad corner of the internet I happened to find myself exploring.” But something unexpected started to take shape out of the photos he was finding. Batten began searching specifically for photos that had been uploaded and then forgotten about, digging through photo sharing sites to find abandoned accounts.
A site called Webshots, now long gone, used to be Batten’s main source of found photography. “The site was almost in complete disuse by the time I found out about it around 2009,” he says. “So it was a great place to find all sorts of pictures that people had uploaded and forgotten about because, say, they couldn’t remember their old Hotmail passwords.”
“It was a wonderful time capsule of digital photography from when digital cameras were starting to get relatively affordable and the internet was weirder, less curated, and your parents didn’t have a social media account."
I first came across Internet History not long after Batten first created it—sometime around 2010, browsing Tumblr on my mom’s desktop computer as a teenager, in suburban southern Ontario. I had never seen anything like it before. It was fascinating in a creepy and unexpected way.
Internet History's appeal is undoubtedly voyeuristic. At the end of the 2010s, when Tumblr was at its peak, the whole platform seemed motivated by a voyeuristic impulse. The chance to peek into stranger's lives was the entire point of the site. What made Internet History so unsettling was the decontextualization of the images, and also their startling familiarity. Internet History was an archive of photos I could have taken. Maybe you could have taken them, too, if you too were a young person in middle America, armed with a cheap digital point-and-shoot, at the turn of the millennium.
The photos have a few common characteristics: they are conspicuously low-res, often date-stamped, blurrily underexposed or blown out by the force of too much flash. While many of the images depict fires and accidents, photos like these are not the focus, and when they appear, they manage to feel as aggressively mundane as the rest of the Internet History archive (see above). Typical subjects of the blog include:
In other words, Internet History is a catalogue of the most weirdly generic images you can imagine. Scrolling through the blog once, I did a double take at a photo of some teenagers in the back of a limousine—I genuinely thought it was a photo of a birthday party I’d attended in high school. On closer inspection, it was not that party. The people in the photo were strangers.
The odd relatability of the found images on Internet History is probably a big part of what made the blog so compelling to so many people. Batten estimates that at its peak Internet History had over 60,000 followers. Although about seven years have passed since he started the blog, Batten is still finding and posting images. “I never intended Internet History to be anything other than a collection of found photos,” Batten says, “but over time and with the amount of pictures I've accumulated, the blog has become something like an archive of ‘vernacular photography’—or whatever you'd like to call the genre of photos on my site—of the early 21st century.” With over 15,000 posts and counting, Internet History is likely one of the most comprehensive online image archives of the early 2000s.
Batten wasn’t prepared for how rapidly the landscape of the internet changed in the time since he started his blog. “I was really bothered when the owners of Webshots shut down. Because I'm fairly certain that the vast majority of their users weren't able to save whatever photos they had uploaded. If I'm remembering correctly, there were over five million photos on that site, most if not all of them ‘personal,’ and whatever pictures weren't saved by either the original takers or people trying to archive Webshots before it went down are gone forever.
"You wouldn't ask, ‘What's an appropriate number of family photo albums to burn so we can free up some space?’ but that's pretty much what the people who owned Webshots did when they took the site down."
"I get this tiny anxiety when I realize it's entirely possible a good portion of the photos I pulled from Webshots might now only exist because I found them and posted them to a different site. I wish I saved larger screencaps.”
The intimacy of these images from the turn of the millennium makes them feel very unlike most photography we see online now. This difference is apparent not only in their low resolution; the images on Internet History are characterized by an odd sense of abandon. Or, to put it more plainly—these are bad photos. "Bad" in the sense that they are poorly composed and technically incorrect. Shooting analog tends to inspire a conservatism in photographers. The physical presence of the film reminds you that you don't have an infinite number of images. At the turn of the millennium, digital cameras let people take more photos than ever before.
Even the very limited memory cards available at the time felt endless compared to a 24-shot film roll. It was easy to shoot without thinking.
This sense of freedom changed photography, both how we view it and how we make it. For the past century, photographs had been taken relatively sparingly. To photograph an event was to confer some kind of importance to it. My parents still have photo albums from their childhoods, with images showing mostly family vacations and posed portraits. There are probably hundreds of photos of me as a child in the albums they've saved. Someone born just ten years after me, in 2003, would have been photographed hundreds more times. A baby born now can likely expect to be photographed thousands of times before reaching their first birthday.
The question is no longer "What do I photograph?" but instead, "What photos are worth saving?"
Any picture can make any moment last forever. Collecting unflattering, absurd, and boring images, Internet History explores the impulse to photograph—and to elevate—the banal. The landscapes of Internet History rarely hold objective appeal as well-made photos. They are not well-made photos. But they appeal to me because they look like photos of where I grew up, and because they look real. Old digital photos always look this way to me. Being fuzzy and pixelated makes them feel somehow more solid. They feel like images I could step right into, moving back through time.
My nostalgia for the crappy photography of days gone by is a chimera.
A low-res, un-posed photograph may feel more authentic and intimate, but there’s nothing intrinsically more “real” about these photos. A well-composed and edited image isn’t necessarily less genuine or personal. It’s just that clumsy low-res images remind me of a time when I was younger. Bad digital photographs recall the internet’s childhood. If you’re a millennial, they recall your IRL childhood, too. In this way, images like the ones on Internet History stand in for my missing preteen photo albums.