These short books are a good format for returning to subcultures that were mocked when they were popular or discarded quickly after. The writer Noor Al-Sibai’s account of the MySpace scene-queen community, which she participated in as a young teenager starting in 2006, will be the first book in the series to touch on the dawn of social media and Web 2.0. Today, if you type MySpace scene queen into Google, it will autofill “where are they now?” Most of the information you’ll find is just a handful of similar photos—girls with pink hair and emo bangs, boys with septum piercings, everyone dressed like they’re ready for Warped Tour.
But Al-Sibai remembers more than Google does: a space where “shit talking” was gold, where the best angles for phone selfies were up for discussion for the first time, and where teens “rubbed shoulders with micro-celebrities,” competing for a moment in the digital spotlight. “That was when the internet still felt new,” she told me. “We really thought we were doing something revolutionary.” Well, revolutionary “in a very aestheticized, Hot Topic, corporate sort of way,” Al-Sibai concedes with the benefit of hindsight.
Remember the Internet borrows its one-subculture-after-another format from Bloomsbury’s 33 ⅓ series about American music and the newer Boss Fight series about video games. But in the genre of intimate internet memoir, Remember the Internet has little company. (A handful of exceptions might include the array of books about the Well, the first major online community, built on Usenet, or the drugged-out oeuvre of the alt-lit bloggers.) Unsurprisingly, any attempt to authentically re-create a past internet runs up against some problems.
For one, online life often moves on before any given moment has been coherently summarized or processed. Plenty of headlines about the Google Glass enthusiasts were written during the golden age of Gawker, but Myers says that news blogging rarely lingers on a topic long enough to make a lasting impression. “There was just so much that happened and so much that was written about that felt so intense and real at the time,” he told me. “But looking back, so much is forgotten.”
Then there is the actual missing information. For Milks, doing research to remember a subculture that thrived in Yahoo Groups—which has been entirely dismantled—was especially challenging. Milks had downloaded some listservs at the end of 2019 but couldn’t access others. (By chance, one Tori Amos superfan kept an archive of about 20,000 emails from the time, and offered up access to Milks.) Al-Sibai had to reconstitute her memory of MySpace from whatever random screenshots she’d saved, or from Wayback Machine screengrabs of famous profiles. “Almost no profiles from the era I’m writing about still exist,” she said.
Ankerson, the web-history researcher, said that some platforms are better than others at maintaining archives, but the best hope for holding on to the internet is people. Amateurs, fans, or anybody who has “a passion to save something”—as was the case with the people who saved most of Geocities, or those organizing the current effort to document the pandemic year of Animal Crossing: New Horizons—will save much more than any institution will. I’ve noticed this myself, while doing research for a book about One Direction fans and the complicated arguments they had with one another on Tumblr in 2011 and 2012, before the site had an in-house data scientist or really any understanding of what was happening on its own platform. Many old posts no longer exist, or they’re preserved on the Wayback Machine but covered in blank patches where images and GIFs did not survive. Typically, I had my best luck interviewing people who remembered specific conversations or memes that were important to them—or just odd enough to leave an impression.