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The disappearing internet: Do virtual spaces have value after the people have moved on?
It’s a Schrödinger’s Cat sort of conundrum: if people stop visiting virtual online spaces, do the spaces still exist? The answer to this is probably yes, in the sense that websites will continue to be available until they are deliberately removed. But as MySpace users are quickly discovering: if there’s noone there, does the space actually exist? Or is it, like the cat, theoretically dead and alive at the same time?
This is what’s happening right now on ‘Second Life’, the 3D virtual world. Founded in 2003, the site had up to 80,000 simultaneous logins in its heyday. There’s still a pretty decent user base of 600,000 active members today, but as Laura Hall wrote in ‘The Atlantic’, when she recently re-entered ‘Second Life’ after having been away for years after having once been a regular visitor, life has moved on: “Because I’ve spent so much time inhabiting digital rooms, I often think about how time decays digital structures. I imagine all of the strings of text that have come before or after mine that similarly disappeared into the void. But what happens when those spaces stick around, as in a virtual world – when they can’t physically decay?”
Virtual spaces are part of human history – this is the argument fuelling the work of the Archive Team. Describing themselves as “a loose collective of rogue activists, programmers, writers and loudmouths”, this crack team is determined to save what they call our “digital heritage”. Because regardless of what happened to MySpace when Facebook came along, the site is still the original social network, and historians will want to have a version of it available some day, even if we might not fancy hanging out there right now.
At the moment, the Archive Team is hard at work preserving the contents of TwitPic, which is scheduled for shut-down shortly. “Twitter was this unique new way that the entire human race interacted for four or five years. We watched it warp all of pop culture. It changed the relationships between celebrities and politicians and the world,” Jason Scott, head of the Archive Team, told ‘Geekwire’.
One of the so-called historic events that took place on TwitPic was the publication of the commercial airliner landing in New York’s Hudson river in 2009. As the news of this event was broken on Twitter, and not by a major news station as was customary, it was a powerful signal that we were experiencing a shift in how we consume and distribute news. If the news had been broken by a traditional media outlet, the original picture would be preserved in the archives of the newspaper or the broadcaster. So if TwitPic is disappearing, it’s a good thing that someone steps in to make sure history doesn’t go in the bin.