The MySpace culture gap: what happens when platforms die?

How the demise of social networking platforms is leaving gaps in our digital history.

By Joan Westenberg , written on July 27, 2020

From The Culture Desk

In 2019, the once-great social media giant MySpace announced that due to a server migration and malfunction, they had lost 50 million user-uploaded items, representing 12 years of content uploaded to the platform.

This was a part of an entire generation coming of age, their first experience of the digital world and the nascent social media communities that would rule it, and it is gone forever. It’s a staggering loss, and it represents a huge slice of cultural context to have vanished overnight. 

Writing in Mashable at the time, Matt Binder pointed out that the loss was a far more serious affair than just a quirky news item about a forgotten website:

“While some won’t mind the deletion of millions of emo songs and mirror-shots from some of the internet’s earliest influencers, it certainly is a huge loss. Years of audio and visuals detailing how people lived and interacted online have vanished. The internet is an integral piece of modern history and MySpace was a major part of that. There’s a reason archivists preserve internet content.”

The loss of content on existing - albeit dying - platforms such as MySpace is a harsh reality. But there are other challenges in the preservation of our content.

Social video platform Vine, acquired and then eventually shut down by Twitter, was an essential part of online video content and communities, with thousands of creators building archives of videos and creating careers on the app. The short-form video service was rebranded as Vine Camera, but its demise led to orphaned memes and dethroned influencers, who had lost their digital homes, and lost their archives of work. 

But for many creators, it’s not just the cultural missing pieces that are concerning; it’s the work itself, calling back from another time in their lives and their careers, work that they might not have maintained in their own archives in a pre-cloud storage world where computers still had CD drives. 

I spoke about this with Patrick Lenton, a journalist and writer. Patrick’s earliest pieces, on a now-defunct gaming website, encompassed over 100,000 words, written at the beginning of his career and showing the threads of what would become a growing body of published work. Now the editor of one of Australia’s leading media channels, Junkee, Lenton looks back on that earlier writing as a lost thread. 

“When you think about how much you’ve lost, it’s hard to calculate the worth of it. But it’s equally hard to know that your work is just gone,” he said.

For Patrick, losing that content doesn’t impact his current career - but it does mean no longer having a way to trace his work back and see its development. As a creative, that’s a loss that will always be felt keenly. 

There’s an element of trust at play here; that when you upload content to a platform, content that platform needs in order to attract and engage users, they will take care of that content. Unfortunately, it’s an element of trust that is not based on most social media platforms’ terms of service. 

Some platforms have since improved their functionality for exporting user content as a personal archive - and that’s useful, but it doesn’t preserve the content as uploaded, as intended. 

Is there a responsibility for people who create and curate homes for digital content to ensure their safety and longevity?

There’s no inherent contract that suggests that. But in taking on the challenge of becoming a generational home, there must be an unspoken responsibility to properly tend and care for the content that has been entrusted to you. It would be ideal for archiving and curating to become a part of that process, and where that becomes untenable, for there to be a clear system of notifying creators about intended deletion months in advance and proactively ensuring they have a chance to preserve that work. 

There must be limitations to this - no platform can afford to keep everything forever at the expense of their own hosting costs - but there should be some time and some thinking devoted to planning for the du setting of user content. We can’t just deface and destroy it in the name of AWS bills, and we can’t simply forget it existed as beloved platforms come and go. When you consider the value of our content archives as being representative of a distinct moment in time, it becomes clear that these curated collections must be assigned more worth than simply obsolescence and server redundancy. 

MySpace was once the cultural home of an entire generation of creators and consumers, artists, and fans. It was the first iteration of a mainstream social network, and the first taste many had ever had of digital communities. To lose the content that had brought so many people together and given them that shared experience is to lose a piece of digital history and a part of that generation’s artistic expression.