David Balzer is the author of Curationism: How Curating Took over the Art World and Everything Else and the forthcoming book This Is Not New.
In the sea of awful things to worry about, it hardly seemed to matter. This past May, the 2007 YouTube video “Charlie Bit My Finger,” among the first of its kind to go viral – indeed, for about two years, it was the most-watched video on the platform – was purchased at auction for US$760,999 as a non-fungible token (NFT), the much-hyped blockchain technology that gives digital artworks a unique fingerprint. The Davies-Carrs, the British family who originally made the video of their three-year-old growing increasingly flustered by their giggling, nibbling one-year-old, promised its removal from YouTube as a condition of its purchase.
Press and social-media pushback ensued, lamenting the public loss of something so “iconic” and “beloved.” Days later, the Davies-Carrs announced the video would remain on YouTube: They had convinced the buyer that it was “an important part of popular culture.”
It’s the kind of thing that prompts questions about the permanence of the internet, and the preservationist instinct of Western culture. Shouldn’t there be some kind of formal institution – a Grand Museum of the Internet, say – to protect such things as “Charlie Bit My Finger”? This could be a place where audiences remember and learn about Elwood Edwards, the person who voiced AOL’s “you’ve got mail”; or file-sharing services Napster and LimeWire; or other viral phenomena, such as vintage BuzzFeed quizzes and whether that dress was blue and black or white and gold. Such things may still seem faddish, but they are now part of how many speak, write, move, think and work. They are torchbearers of generations, connecting people across geographies in strange, wonderful, terrible ways. Yet, to date, the internet has no centralized, institutionalized, widely recognized, real-life version of, say, New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Surely there is an imperative – one in line with museum and university mandates – to commemorate and curate this defining medium of our time?
A Grand Museum of the Internet would, in fact, be a horrible idea. To put the internet within the bounds of a large-scale museum is inadvisable, perhaps impossible, certainly oxymoronic, possibly corny, probably unethical. There are practical reasons why such a museum doesn’t exist. It’s contrary to what the internet is, or at least claims to be. Postindustrial society already captures, stores, replicates and commodifies its users – that is, so many aspects of the current-day internet already resemble the worst aspects of museums.
The internet could certainly use more resources to maintain and secure parts of its archive, and regulations to protect its users, including the intellectual property of its content creators. But any thriving internet culture has, should, and does resist its own museumification.
The internet is by nature a kind of museum, and a kind of archive, the thing on which any museum depends. It also challenges both concepts. Traditionally, a museum selects and displays an archive – a large storehouse of things – in order to perform that archive’s value. The archive itself is not curated like a museum: arranged and stylized like the set of a play for the purpose of being consumed by an audience. Rather, the archive is organized like an encyclopedia or library. It is protected and preserved, though any material archive is unstable, subject to the ravages of time, discrimination, disaster.
The craving for a Grand Museum of the Internet is, in a way, a craving for a bygone era more innocent about what could and should be saved. Unlike the museum, the internet is part of our “presentist” moment, defined by the sense that what is going on now is all that exists. In his 2013 book Present Shock, Douglas Rushkoff cites some awful aspects of presentism: frictionless one-click consumerism, spectacle standing for substance, a labour force defined by multitasking and turnover, and entire markets and economies built on debt. The internet is at the heart of these things but it has never been wholly good or bad.
The digital archive created by users living large parts their lives online is, for example, reassuring to the imperfect human memory but also frighteningly intrusive. Users’ ability to make museums of themselves online – to curate photos that would previously remain in family albums or shoeboxes – allows for connection and visibility, but also makes private lives consumable. There are many reasons why users would want what happens on the internet to stay in its fleeting ether. And it is no coincidence that the history of the internet is in many respects a tug-of-war between those who saw it as a fluctuating space of play, interconnectivity, and reinvention, and the companies and governments that had the resources to use it for unprecedented surveillance and control.
Practically, the internet is not structured to produce concrete objects. Its culture has not taken the form of sculptures, paintings or even films. Digital data – ironically helpful for organizing material archives – are subject to their own form of degradation, or “bit rot,” that is nearly impossible for the average user to undo. There has accordingly been little expectation that the internet be subject to traditional saving. When the internet first arrived in affluent homes it followed the computer craze of the 1980s (and the TV craze before that), marked by ever-improving hardware (which became smaller) and software (which became faster), including ever-advanced gaming. Those without home access went to internet cafés for an experience as fleeting as a shot of espresso. In the 1990s the internet was something to try out, not to hold on to. Users gained access to things such as pornography and political organizing: experiences first and foremost, not artifacts.
Three decades later, experience continues to drive the internet. Forms of grassroots digital archiving exist, notably by and for subcultural and marginalized communities, but they are purposely selective. Efforts that seek to give credit to content creators, whose authorship can be erased by reposting and by outright theft, emerge from such community archiving, but arguably prioritize ethics and etiquette first, with the secondary hope that the proper credit survives the passage of time.
The Internet Archive and its Wayback Machine allow users to save pages as they appear in the present, but this archive is unstable and user-determined. Sites like KnowYourMeme, which is “dedicated to documenting internet phenomena,” function as types of museums, but they decontextualize memes from how they’re circulated, through apps and messaging: the internet equivalent of explaining why a New Yorker cartoon is funny. Google Cache, a more thorough effort to archive the internet, only consists of snapshots of websites at certain dates, and like so much of the current-day internet, it is controlled by a corporation – the only entity, besides government, large enough to do such extensive saving.
Faster bandwidth, increased storage, and more accessible and portable hardware led to the advent of Web 2.0 in the mid-’00s, and with it came the user-generated, image-rich era of social media – the successor of personal websites and the internet’s own hyperactive, individualist version of museums. Social-media users both contribute to and curate archives of their egos, experiences, and tastes, in a digitally driven performance of their lives that, for many, demands constant engagement.
In a manner somewhat resembling social-media feeds, exhibitions at museums come and go, carefully associated with their host institutions, but when they’re over, they’re placed into a memorialized archive. Museum exhibitions are also traditionally designed for a general public or audience. As has been made clear by activists such as New York’s Decolonize This Place, which has staged protests at the Brooklyn Museum, the Whitney Museum and elsewhere, this assumption of a universal audience – what the MoMA notoriously called, in its 1955 collaboration with photographer Edward Steichen, “the family of man” – does the opposite of what it claims, excluding and objectifying under-represented communities.
As mini-museums, social-media feeds are both more specific – that is, more controlled and individual – and more in relation than real-life museums, because they’re more in dialogue with others and oriented to specific groups. The key is that social-media users are given access to controlling who can see their posts, and may delete them or let them expire, creating a shifting kind of visibility. Deletions by famous people have become noteworthy cultural events in their own right. In 2014 Solange Knowles cleared her Instagram of all but one photo – of herself, a friend, and her sister Beyoncé – after an infamous confrontation with her brother-in-law Jay-Z in an elevator. In 2017 Taylor Swift deleted all her Instagram posts at the height of her vilification. The internet offers users the fantasy not just of embracing an ever-evolving self but also of disappearing that self’s archive entirely.
Since the 1990s museums have been trying to make themselves more like this: interactive (audio and now tablet guides), user-influenced and -engaged (parties and concerts in the gallery space), with more temporary performances and installations. But no museum exhibition could have the internet’s shifting relationship to the archive or the self. No museum is designed this way.
Enter Silicon Valley. Like the governments that owned the internet before them, Big Tech knows the power of mining digital information and storing it more permanently, as a resource-rich archive. Today, users have to consent to such archiving before they can even be on social media and other apps, but what they’re agreeing to often remains unclear, or cluttered by blocks of legal jargon. The perceived freedom to delete oneself from the internet no longer really exists. Users leave all sorts of traces they don’t know how to get rid of – or don’t have the time or money to manage. In a not-dissimilar assertion of power, users now source and post screenshots of other users’ old social-media posts that reflect states of mind that may or may not have evolved, to disrupt present-day lives.
Regardless of what you think of it, this kind of accountability unsettles the types of control the internet has long promised. There’s a reason that catfishing and deep fakes are defining paranoias of our time; that getting tagged in a photo can be mortifying; and that the Memories feature on Facebook, Google Photos and elsewhere can be as creepy and depressing as it is touching. All of these things take shifting identities and freeze them in time, in ways photography never could.
They also monopolize them. As users learn to live with the ownership of their personal data by corporations such as Google, Facebook and Apple, they have to contend with museumified versions of themselves based on this data. The price the contemporary internet user pays to be a curator of their own museum is that of being subject to corporations’ stashed-away versions of this museum, and the archive on which it is based. Ads and prompts generated from individualized online activity turn users from curators into consumer-viewers, under the guise of convenience and bespoke choice.
Doesn’t this actually signal an urgent need for a Grand Museum of the Internet, in the form of a non-profit institution, say, with a dedicated staff? What if an academic or a curator were to deem a viral video important – art – with its creator giving consent for it to be purchased by a collector and/or included in an exhibition and/or archive, to be hived off from the internet and somehow protected? Wouldn’t this be different from Big Tech’s despicable control of users?
Not exactly. The purchase of works by collectors, along with the theft of them by the state, is how many traditional museums got started. Saskatoon’s Mendel Art Gallery, now the Remai Modern, was founded with an initial gift of 15 Group of Seven paintings; Paris’s Louvre, Berlin’s Pergamon, London’s British Museum, and more, are filled with objects of imperial conquest. If the sale of “Charlie Bit My Finger” had resulted in its removal from YouTube, it would likely have heralded the further museumification of the internet, encouraging its continuing corporatization.
Consider the MoMA’s purchase of Jackson Pollock’s The She-Wolf in 1944, the year after it was painted. This purchase contributed to the rise of Abstract Expressionism, the movement with which Pollock became associated, as a style and a commodity. Markets form based on what a museum collects and exhibits. Elite institutions have something to gain by collecting and exhibiting cultural work previously deemed too new or unusual to include: refreshing their identity and brand. Certain movements then become solidified and sanctified above others, some influences upheld and others erased, in the interests of some and not others. Next-generation creators react to this canonization in turn, either with or against it, rebelling or complying at accelerated rates.
So, in whose interests would a Grand Museum of the Internet really be?
Any large-scale internet museum would work in tandem with corporations to continue to prey on the internet’s users. Such a museum would contribute to the continuing undoing of virality, for instance. There is no such thing as a viral YouTube video anymore, only posts manufactured, advertised, and boosted into sham virality – an increasing reality across platforms. If, as a 2018 New York Magazine piece reported, some 40 per cent of viewers or readers that register on present-day internet metrics are actually bots – software replicating the cursor-hovers and clicks of humans – a true internet museum could not justifiably select works based on traffic or views alone.
What would be included, and why? Who and what would be left out? A Grand Museum of the Internet, despite its best efforts, would risk replicating the patterns of exclusion, exploitation and appropriation that are endemic to museums. As corporations have, such a museum would present users with exhibitions that they did not create but that are inspired by their choices—and in which their agency is, accordingly, significantly diminished.
The drudgery of life during COVID-19 has led to a renewed appreciation for the impermanence of being online. Encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram and Signal saw a surge in popularity earlier this year; Instagram Stories, in which photos and videos expire after a day, are becoming the norm on the platform (though they are still owned and cached by Instagram, like their more permanent-seeming forebears). Cultural institutions have learned that fleetingness can actually give value to digital content: a dance performance or recording thereof beginning and ending at a certain time; an exhibition posted only for a few weeks; TV shows and films leaving and entering streaming services at a faster clip. This is how the most effective internet culture has always worked. Virtual events thrived during the early days of the pandemic, such as Netflix parties (and their many non-corporate, DIY equivalents) and Verzuz battles, in which two musical performers live-duel each other in a trip through their discographies. Some Verzuz battles are now preserved on YouTube, but recordings don’t capture the real-time feeling of seeing comments coming in, or the senses of community. You had to be there.
Go ahead, put “Charlie Bit My Finger” on a loop on a monitor in a cultural-history museum somewhere. Like Dorothy’s ruby slippers in the Smithsonian, the video would become a cultural artifact, important in its way but deadened and decontextualized, saying little about the medium from which it sprung. Post the video on another website dedicated to digital nostalgia and it would be yet another internet work, recontextualized. To be authentic and effective, any Grand Museum of the Internet would have to juxtapose times, places, and subjectivities into multiple experiences.
It would maybe have to do the impossible. How, for instance, was my own experience of the internet – as a middle-class, closeted Mennonite teen in mid-1990s Winnipeg, using Lycos and Ask Jeeves at a university computer lab – different yet similar, similar yet different, than those of similar or different classes and identities, using the Internet at the same or different times in, say, Mexico, Hungary, Thailand, South Africa – anywhere? How could this possibly be museumified? Why should it be? For good and ill, the internet lives on in the various bodies and minds that engage with it, as they participate in the flow of the present. And so it seems that a Grand Museum of the Internet would neglect the very thing the internet can’t do without: its users.
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