Abandoned Websites and Entropy on the Internet
The internet is collapsing. A 2013 study by Jason Hennessey and Steven Xijin Ge found only 62% of URLs were still available, and a URL’s median lifetime was 9.3 years. Contemporary discussion of internet entropy has generally focused on preservation, for example the Internet Archive’s WayBackMachine, and permalinks. Even archives prove unstable, however: technological and legal challenges undermine the supposed safety and permanence of such backups.
My thesis aims to be a pioneering cultural history of ‘internet entropy’, the condition by which the internet fails. This failure isn’t a single event but an assemblage of dead websites, broken links, and bad data. My research looks beyond conscious preservation to examine what sort of internet survives when no one looks after it.
My research questions are:
- How do we understand ongoing processes of internet entropy, not as engineers but as social inhabitants of the World Wide Web, and artefacts of this entropy?
- How has internet entropy influenced our experience of online and offline worlds? What social assemblages, psychological processes and artworks have arisen from this ruination?
- How should we deal with internet entropy beyond the flawed archival instinct? What choices might we be forced to make?
To answer these, my thesis considers five areas in separate chapters:
- ‘Abandoned websites’ which remain online in varying levels of intactness. These include those for the Bob Dole 1996 Presidential Campaign, the Space Jam film, and the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult.
- ‘Memorialised’ social media profiles.
- Abandonment in online games . This includes virtual worlds which remain online, such as Active Worlds; ‘server migration’, where players are forced to move servers because of merges and closures; and data mining in Minecraft to retrieve ‘lost’ structures and signage.
- Malware and viruses.
- The physical means by which the internet originates in and interacts with the ‘real’ world – server rooms, hardware, the internet of things.
My thesis synthesises and dissects established methodologies, utilising frameworks from cultural history, aesthetics, anthropology and technology. It combines the historical and theoretical analysis of media archaeologists including Parikka with the emancipatory use of glitch in writers such as Legacy Russell. A vital component will be close readings of cultural artefacts and their degradations, situated in (and against) cultural and technological history. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is a key reference for this strategy: for instance, she uses historical accounts of John von Neumann’s work on stored-memory computer architecture and close readings of Goethe’s Faust to uncover how ‘software hardened into something that allegedly guarantees heredity, and permanence’, the archival impulse from which my thesis launches. With these methodologies, I aim to analyse internet entropy as inhering in discrete cultural artefacts and as a historically-contingent process in its own right, happening and yet to happen.
Above all, I address the ongoing dominance of the metaphor of ‘website as manuscript’, the ideal of preserving every iteration. My thesis proposes instead a return to ‘cyberspace’ as a framing metaphor: website as environment. ‘Cyberspace’ highlights complex interactions between social and material constructions of the internet and vulnerability to abandonment and ruin. Originally, this metaphor was developed in the romanticised ‘Wild West’ of early internet use – but Facebook’s recent announcement of the ‘Metaverse’, a virtual reality designed for work and recreation, demonstrates how cyberspace is already returning to popular consciousness, inflected with contemporary dangers of privacy breaching and government interference. I use cyberspace to subvert these dominant ahistorical-commercial perspectives with a more nuanced view of historical and social forces surrounding internet entropy.