ghost cities of cyberspace

 

Tell me now, I beg you, where
Flora is, that fair Roman;
Archippa, and Thaïs rare,
Who the fairer of the twain?
Echo too, whose voice each plain,
River, lake and valley bore;
Lovely these as springtime lane,
But where are they, the snows of yore?¹

François Villon, Ballade des dames du temps jadis(1461)¹

How many dead people live on in their abandoned social media accounts? The future never seems to arrive, never really exists, but history never ends. For over a quarter of a century, social media has mirrored and shaped lives, always evolving, but leaving behind its detritus like any phase of civilisation. Where are the people we were sociable with on the forgotten single-community (bands, hobbies, comedy, whatever) forums and message boards of the 90s and 2000s², or the friends we made on MySpace in 2005? Some live on, ageing at an only slightly faster rate than their profile pictures (Dorian Grey would now age privately at home, his picture migrating untouched from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter to Instagram etc), others lost, vanished, dead? But still partially living on, like those sunlit American families in the home movies of the 50s and 60s.

Club Kids 1992 – Keda, Kabuki Starshine, and Sacred Boy, Copyright Michael Fazakerley

Twenty-five years is a long, generation-spanning time, but, just as abstract expressionism essentially still on, in almost unaltered forms, long past the lifetimes of Rothko, Jackson Pollock and de Kooning, so the (just) pre-internet countercultural modernity of the late 80s and early 90s, the shock-monster-gender-fluid-glam of Michael Alig and the Club Kids, still prevalent back in the Myspace era³, (captured brilliantly in the 1998 ‘shockumentary’ Party Monster and less brilliantly in the somewhat unsatisfactory 2003 movie Party Monster) lives on and still feels current on Instagram and Tiktok and reality TV and in whatever is left of the top 40. Bulimic pop culture eats reconstituted chunks of itself and just as the 60s haunted the early 90s, bringing genuine creativity (Andrew Weatherall, to pick a name at random) and feeble dayglo pastiche (Candy Flip, to deliberately target a heinous offender), a weird (if you were there) amalgam of the 80s and 90s haunts the 2020s, informing both the shallow dreck and some of the genuine creativity of today.

‘I’m ready now,’ Piper Hill said, eyes closed, seated on the carpet in a loose approximation of the lotus position. ‘Touch the spread with your left hand.’ Eight slender leads trailed from the sockets behind Piper’s ears to the instrument that lay across her tanned thighs.

entering cyberspace in William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) Grafton Books, p.105.

Alta Vista, 1999

Cyberspace, like any landscape which people have inhabited, has its lost cultures and ruins, becoming ever more remote and unknowable with the passing of years, but, like Macchu Picchu or the Broch of Gurness, retaining a sense that it all meant something significant once. The not-quite barren wastelands of Geocities and Xanga, the ruined palace of MySpace, a Rosetta stone partly effaced with dead links and half forgotten languages; photobucket, imageshack, tripod, what do these mean if you’re 15? But there was a time when Lycos, Alta Vista and Ask Jeeves were peers of Google, and Bebo rivalled Facebook and Twitter. Those brands are seemingly unassailable now, but empires do fall, albeit more slowly than bubbles burst.And meanwhile, the users of social networks age and die and give way to generations who remember them, just as the Incas and the Iron Age Orcadians are remembered, by their monuments, if nothing else. Probably won’t write about history next time.

It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.  JD Salinger, The Catcher In The Rye, Penguin, 1958, p.220

Geocities; this is what the future used to look like

¹ translated by Lewis Wharton in The Poems of François Villon, JM Dent & Sons, 1935, p54. Not reading French – I seem to go on about that a lot – this is my favourite translation I’ve come across, although apparently it’s a pretty free one, judging by the literal – but still quite nice – one here

² the continuing success of Reddit suggests that people never really grew discontented with the interface of the Kiss online fanclub c. 2005 (etc etc)

³It’s weird to note that the Club Kids would be considered – even without the murder etc – just as outrageous today as in the late 80s, even though their aesthetic was itself put together from a mix of Bowie, gore movies, Japanese pop culture etc etc. But then as I think I recently noted, there are people who still find the word fuck outrageous, after something like a millenium.

4Online and mainstream culture, even after this quarter century, remain mysteriously separate. Online news unfolds as it happens, but meanwhile in the daytime world, mainstream culture hangs on to husks even older than Geocities; publicly owned TV news shows don’t look to what’s happening now, but pore over the front pages of newspapers – yesterday’s news… today! – simultaneously being redundant and ensuring that newspaper owners’ views get publicity beyond their dwindling readership and therefore giving them an artificial sense of relevance. Which is really just about money, just as Google and Facebook are; the crumbling aristocracy of print media, its tendrils still entwined with the establishment, versus the new money, steadily buying its way in.

 

 

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