How social media’s fading archives are erasing our digital history

Joan Westenberg
10 min readAug 7, 2023

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In 2019, the once-great social media giant MySpace announced that due to server migration and malfunction, they had lost 50 million user-uploaded items, representing 12 years of content uploaded to the platform. This was 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, representing a huge slice of cultural context to have vanished overnight.

Writing in Mashable then, Matt Binder pointed out that the loss was far more serious 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 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 their work archives.

And that’s the larger concern, of course. To lose an entire platform is to lose huge swathes of our digital culture and shared memories. 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 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.

“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.”

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 loss will always be felt keenly. And it’s not just early work that gets lost — platforms come and go, sites get redesigned, and apps get shuttered. Work that felt seminal can disappear before you even realize it needed backing up.

There’s an element of trust at play here; when you upload content to a platform, content that platform needs to attract and engage users, they will take care of that content. Unfortunately, it’s an element of trust that is not based on the reality of 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. The context is lost, and the conversations and connections fade. An exported video on a hard drive is not the same as a video on Vine shared and engaged with by a creator’s community.

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 becoming a generational home, there must be an unspoken responsibility to tend and care for the content entrusted to you properly.

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 hosting costs — but there should be some time and some thinking devoted to planning for the sun 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 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.

Platforms like MySpace, Vine, and countless others were once the cultural home of entire generations of creators, consumers, artists, and fans. They gave many their first taste 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.

The Impact on Creators

The loss can be intensely personal for creators and artists who relied on these now-shuttered platforms. When a platform disappears, it takes their labor, community, and portfolio with it.

Zach Valenti, a filmmaker, and cinematographer, had built his audience and career through Vine. “I went all in on Vine. It’s what I wanted to do,” he told The New York Times. When Twitter announced it was discontinuing the app, the news felt apocalyptic. “It honestly felt like I was going to die.”

With the death of Vine went six-second skits he had meticulously planned, shot, and edited. Projects and passions he had invested serious time and creative energy into producing. He suddenly lacked access to much of the content that had defined his work for years.

“All of that stuff is just gone,” Valenti said. “It no longer exists anywhere.”

For artists and creators building their portfolios and proving their talents, a vanished archive can feel like having years of work erased. Comics whose strips were hosted primarily on Tumblr faced this erasure when Tumblr banned adult content, deleting flagged posts en masse with little recourse for creators hoping to rescue their work.

Even when platforms don’t entirely fold, site redesigns and algorithm shifts can bury or break content creators relied on to showcase their abilities. Links go dead; embeds don’t load. Portfolios are left full of holes where proofs of skill are used to live.

Preserving Digital Cultural Touchstones

It’s not just individual creators impacted by vanishing archives. When platforms fold or migrate servers without care for what gets lost along the way, our digital cultural history pays the price.

MySpace becoming a virtual ghost town, didn’t just lose people their profiles and emo band content. It lost a massive chunk of cultural context and shared memories for millions.

MySpace was a defining platform for indie music discovery in the 2000s. Musicians could upload tracks and directly engage with listeners in a way that bypassed the gatekeepers of traditional music industry pathways.

Many bands' MySpace profiles were vital portals between their music and fans. Arctic Monkeys shot to fame off the back of their MySpace following. The platform allowed them to organically gain listeners in a way that would have been impossible before the internet age.

That history and those breakthrough moments are now largely lost if they weren’t individually preserved by the bands and listeners who lived through them. The cultural context of MySpace representing a paradigm shift in how musicians could grow an audience and distribute their work has been wiped from the communal record.

Vine faced similar criticisms when its vast viral video archive disappeared. Vine birthed trends, slang, aesthetics, and pop culture moments that resonated across the internet and still shape memes today. Yet future generations will have no archive to scroll through to understand the platform’s cultural contribution and context.

Leaving legacy platforms as ghost towns, rather than properly archived, severs our ability to preserve cultural eras for retrospective understanding. It cuts off our ability to examine how digital communication and artistic expression evolved over the decades.

Rethinking Responsibilities

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 becoming a generational home, there must be an unspoken responsibility to tend and care for the content entrusted to you properly.

When platforms make decisions that obliterate swathes of user uploads, intentionally or otherwise, they destroy collective digital history.

Of course, maintaining inactive accounts and legacy content isn’t straightforward for companies with an eye on costs and server space. Maintaining a platform where users have left en masse requires resources some companies can’t justify spending.

But some duty of care should be incorporated into the wind-down process for platforms that have come to represent entire cultural eras online. Companies profit enormously from user content that fuels network effects and communities. The content creators investing in driving platform growth should warrant more care than ending up accidentally destroyed.

Better planning needs to be built into social platforms that have come to gain cultural significance:

  • Long-term archive plans should be formulated so that when the platform reaches the end of its life, its legacy content can be preserved rather than removed entirely.
  • Users should get sufficient notice before deletion so they have time to compile their content archives. APIs should be available for this purpose rather than walled off.
  • Company priorities must include maintaining accessibility to legacy content, even at minimal levels, so cultural context isn’t lost.
  • Consider partnerships with nonprofits, libraries, and academic institutions to fund and archive legacy content collaboratively rather than handing down unilateral decisions.
  • Transparency around algorithm changes, redesigns, and migrations could disrupt or delete content communities or creators depend on for their portfolios.

Platforms that gain cultural importance take on an implicit duty of care to preserve the value they accrued by that importance. The content that fueled their rise deserves care and consideration as technology progresses.

Re-Framing Worth

When you consider the value of our content archives as representative of distinct moments in time, it becomes clear that these curated collections must be assigned more worth than simply obsolescence and server redundancy.

Companies naturally prioritize their current interests over maintaining stagnant old content. But collective digital history should be treated as inherent to our cultural understanding and intergenerational communication.

Archived creative work and community interactions capture the zeitgeist of online cultures past. They represent artistic trends and breakout voices that may have shaped broader media. They formed communal touchstones and inside jokes among internet subcultures.

This content remains valuable as a window into understanding how technology and creative expression co-evolved over time. Future generations researching obsolete platforms deserve the ability to scroll through their archives, not just read second-hand accounts of their cultural footprints.

Valuable creative labor fueled the rise and profitability of since-departed platforms. That work didn’t just disappear when the platforms moved on. Its cultural worth persists, as do its traces in the memories and hearts of the creators behind it.

Preserving what remains, even in museum-like glimpses frozen in time, shows respect for the communities and trends that flourished under the roofs of proto-social internet shrines.

It demonstrates respect for creators and users whose content brought value and vitality to the platforms they made their digital homes.

Letting archives fade to 404 after profits fade requires reframing how we assign worth. The creative digital expression represents parts of lives, communities, and historical moments, all of which hold meaning stretching beyond the platforms housing them.

New Medium, Old Problem

The internet allows information to spread with unprecedented ease. But that freedom of access brings a false sense of security that nothing will ever truly disappear from the web.

In reality, content online can be even more ephemeral than traditional media. Geocities, Friendster, YikYak — the internet is littered with ghost towns of dead platforms and broken links. Flash games, Photobucket images, Vines stripped of context — creative works and personal expressions fade as the tides of technology roll on.

As living memory shifts, collective recall begins to blur. The early internet seems hazy and abstract to those who weren’t there to experience proto-social networks and pixelated pages. When archives crumble to dust, cultural and generational chasms form.

Vanished content represents lost connection points. It severs intergenerational artistic understanding and leaves youth culture disconnected from its roots. Millennials scanning current platforms see only the slick commercial influencer era of the social web. Lost are the archives of the messy, experimental Wild West early days.

Preserving legacies does not need to trap platforms in perpetual maintenance mode. But a duty of care should compel them to be stewards of the culture they accrued before passing the baton.

Progress marches on. New platforms rise, popular consciousness shifts, and old guards fade into obsolescence. But when the physical record of formative digital communities disappears, generations lose touchstones that bind their understanding.

Careful archiving preserves pathways to bridge that divide.

It offers rearview mirrors to see where we’ve traveled as we drive ahead.

Without it — I think we’ll all become a little more lost.

I’m Joan. Transgender. Solopreneur. Tech writer. Founded studio self, a marketing agency, community, & product lab. We publish The Index, an indie tech publication & more.

https://linktr.ee/joanwestenberg

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