In a Rush to Modernize, MySpace Destroyed More History

by Ian Milligan on June 17, 2013

The destruction of Myspace blogs is akin to destroying Penn Station in 1963 - making way for the new by destroying the old. Both were abhorrent.

The destruction of Myspace blogs is akin to destroying Penn Station in 1963 – making way for the new by destroying the old. Both were abhorrent.

By Ian Milligan

In 1963, despite community opposition, New York City’s Pennsylvania Station was torn down. It was an age of modernism, old being wiped away for new. Afterwards, some of the sails went out of that movement: there was renewed interest in architectural preservation, added hesitation when it came to the wholesale destruction of our past.

Last week, a similar event happened. MySpace, in a rush to relaunch and rebrand itself, made inaccessible the blogs of all of its users. There could be no movement to preserve this record of the past, as it happened so suddenly. Millions of contributions, critical records of events of a decade or so ago, lost in the blink of an eye. It’s similar to the destruction of something like Penn station: a website that was run by user-generated content, that was a central hub of Internet traffic, and that meant something to multiple millions of people.

Remember MySpace? Before Facebook, there was MySpace: the world’s most visited social media site between 2005 and 2008. Users created heavily customized pages – wags enjoyed making fun of the garishness of many of them, as opposed to the sterile and standardized world of Facebook – and it was a popular blogging platform. For many young people, only a few years ago, MySpace was the centre of their social world.

So it was a shock when, without warning (even Yahoo! (no fan of history) gives warnings when they shut down their websites), MySpace decided to modernize their website and destroy those blogs along the way. MySpace is all about the new now: launching with a new cool, funky commercial by a cult photographer; focusing on streaming music and mobile applications; and blanketing television networks who have young audiences, from Comedy Central to MTV to ESPN.

Let me say this again: MySpace destroyed history.

Who needs old stuff when the future is here? As the CBC reported, the relaunch deleted all of its remaining users’ blogs. They reported that the feedback site was full of people mad at the loss of their material: “Where is all my old Myspace stuff?” “I want my Blogs and Messages Back!!“, “My messages!!!“, “I Want my blogs and classic myspace back.” The response: “We’re focused on building the best Myspace possible. And to us, that means helping you discover connect and share with others using the best tools available. Going forward we’re concentrating on building and maintaining the features that make those experience better.”

“Oh, but who cares?” was one refrain out there in the swamp that can be Twitter. “If you wanted to keep your website, don’t rely on a free service, host your own!” (CBC comment)That’s just not good enough. Yes, free services aren’t really free: in some cases, you get what you pay for. _But_ there’s a historical obligation here. Think of the treasure trove of information that would be on something like Myspace. If you’re doing political history, I’m sure at least one major party leader in oh, about twenty years, is going to have some Myspace page where you can find out about their musical tastes. For social historians, it should be nearly pretty obvious – the wants, desires, fears, loves of millions of people from all over the socio-economic stratum. For cultural historians, oh, the music, movies, videos, poems, and so forth.

For three years, this was the hub of the World Wide Web.

And now it’s gone. Without warning, without being saved, all so they can serve you better.

Let’s make this our wake up call. When the dust settled after the destruction of Pennsylvania Station, or any host of architectural marvels destroyed throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, there was regret: regret about the slabs that replaced them, regret about the loss of history, about the places and spaces that meant something to somebody.

When a website rebrands, destroying their past, it’s no different.

The difference is that we can save this stuff. If it had been left up with some warning for a few months, the Internet Archive or Archive Team could have saved it. Storage is cheaper, as density doubles roughly every eleven months. They could have provided warning, backups behind this rebrand. It’s even less excusable than Penn Station.

So let’s demand better stewardship of our collective works. Let’s care about this stuff, and, if you’re thinking about using Myspace (or if your kids, cousins, friends, etc. are) – think about demanding that they care about your data. Demand transparency, and recognize that nothing is ever truly free.

Ian Milligan is an assistant professor of Canadian and digital history at the University of Waterloo.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexander Freund June 17, 2013 at 10:54 pm

In the wake of revelations that US, Canadian, and German (and probably other) intelligence agencies have systematically spied on people (including G20 leaders) over years by harvesting data from services such as FB, Myspace, email services, etc., I am not sure I can share your concerns.

First, I am skeptical that the data has actually been “lost” or destroyed — it may just be out of public purview and access (next to intelligence services, private corporations as well as private individuals may continue to hold on to parts of Myspace data).

Second, we can’t keep everything, and even if we could, who is going to use it? Deciding what to archive needs to be based on more than simply the capacity to archive. Just like state archives do not keep all government records, it does not make sense to archive the complete internet (even if we have the capacity to do so).

Third, archiving personal information that was never intended for the archives raises all kinds of ethical problems that have not yet been sufficiently addressed. An excellent example of archiving internet data is the Minnesota 2.0 Digital Archive (https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/mn20), which “scrubbed” all identifying images and last names. One can imagine that this took a lot of resources. Despite such large investments, it is not clear that all necessary data (e.g. metadata) were preserved and it is not clear how valuable such an archive is if “authors” cannot be identified (including not even by location).

Fourth, like the destruction of Penn Station, the destruction of MySpace (and its survival in bits and pieces here and there) is part of history — an expression of its time that tells us a lot about relations and structures of power; public attitudes to history; and North American societies, cultures, and values of our time.

Fifth, as Pierre Nora has argued, the accelerating collecting and archiving in modern times has destroyed the need to collectively remember. I don’t share Nora’s romantic view of a pre-modern rural culture of memory, but some aspects of his argument are convincing, especially the idea that archiving is a form of perpetual postponement.

Before Penn Station was torn down, it was built. And before it was built, something else was torn down (http://www.bedrockimages.com/content/15-what-penn-station-looked-like-before-there-was-penn-station) — a neighbourhood, houses, shacks, homes, a way of life.

Ian Milligan June 18, 2013 at 8:43 am

Hi Alexander, thanks for your comments. I completely disagree with almost every one of your points, however, which is probably unsurprising. :)

While the data is probably still sitting somewhere (backup disks, etc.), it’s beyond the reach of grassroots archivists or the Internet Archive now, as well as beyond the reach of the users who contributed it to the site. That doesn’t change any of the points I, or others, have made.

Secondly, we can try to keep everything at this point (perhaps not forever if Kryder’s law of increasing storage density doesn’t hold true). More importantly, it’s too much data to sift through and curate. Given these requirements, I profoundly disagree with this point. The Internet Archive has been trying to archive the publicly-accessible World Wide Web since 1996.

I’ve raised ethical issues before (just did at the CHA a few weeks ago), and they have been tackled by many others. It’s an ongoing discussion. How researchers use it in a formal capacity requires ethical consideration, but right now, nothing’s really being scrubbed and it’s all being put online. If you put something on the Web, people will try to preserve it forever. As you point out, scrubbing it takes a lot of resources, which isn’t feasible on this large scale. C’est la vie. We can always find excuses to not do something, or not preserve something, etc. etc., but at some point institutions and individuals have to do something with the resources they have.

And finally, sure, the destruction of MySpace tells us something about today: that we don’t care about our digital heritage. That doesn’t make it good, and I don’t think we should just sit back and accept it without comment.

All of this, to me, shows that historians need to have a bigger conversation about web archives: their implications (in terms of size, technical requirements, and ethics) but also how it is going to change aspects of the historical profession.

arctiacaja June 18, 2013 at 10:12 am

I lost 7 years of my blog. I was an active user, I would go to the site every few weeks, my last blog was on the biggest moment in my career just 3 weeks ago. Now those memories are gone. Yes, I agree, it was potentially naive of me to believe they couldn’t just evaporate overnight on a site with so big a public profile as Myspace, and I should have backed them up. However, I was naive enough to believe that any large, professional web site would give it’s users fair warning before implementing such catastrophic and apparently irretrievable changes.

Myspace have not replied to any emails, nor have they responded to their own feedback pages, the silence and lack of commitment to anyone is deafening.

Myspace is not a site of integrity. I would caution anyone from trusting them with any content, they do not care about you or what you host, they simply want the figures of users..

If anyone hears of any kind of legal suit being brought against them, please let me know, I would be very happy to stand with the many other people affected by these changes. I would like at least a little time to be able to retrieve those many hundreds of thousands of words I wrote to help me watch myself develop over the past 7 years. Myspace has wiped my memory.

Ian Milligan June 18, 2013 at 10:24 am

arctiacaja, thank you for sharing your dreadful story. This is a very real loss of your data, and MySpace treated you very poorly. It’s a reminder of how much trust we put in all of these services, from blogging platforms to cloud storage solutions – and what happens when that trust is betrayed.

I will keep an eye out for anything that might arise out of the sudden closure.

Hang in there, and let’s hope that there’s enough a stink that MySpace gives people like you an opportunity to download their memories before they’re gone forever.

Chuck June 19, 2013 at 10:23 am

Interesting article, Ian! I have long been talking about myspace as a run-down digital neighborhood.

So, I do wonder if your analogy between MySpace and Penn station holds. It seems to me that MySpace was really the Pruitt Igoe of the Internet. The last time I looked at MySpace, admittedly a few years ago, it had become a creepy den of strippers, seedy musicians, and even creepier stalker-types.

I do agree, though, that for precisely that reason it was worth preserving for study.

Ian Milligan June 19, 2013 at 1:08 pm

Thanks Chuck!

MySpace as Pruitt Igoe.. an interesting point of comparison. Derided by outsiders, but a home to those who lived there? We’re moving outside of my comfort in terms of historical comparisons, but I think you’ve laid out an equally provocative one.

Suedinym July 18, 2013 at 8:20 pm

“MySpace: the world’s most visited social media site between 2005 and 2008.”

The dates when MySpace was in it’s hey day are precisely why the new owners should have provided a clear warning that it would be shut down, along with a date that would happen. (They spent 20 million on advertising, and couldn’t be bothered to download a free open source planner? The mind boggles.)

Perhaps archiving most of it could be left to the individuals who had produced the content. (Not that the strippers and other rogues would necessarily want theirs, but you never know.) I’m not particularly upset that I didn’t get an opportunity to archive all the messages I received from abused Nigerian men looking for love. One or two would have sufficed.

What deeply concerns me, is that before the Department of Defense cut off access to MySpace on their computers, American troops used MySpace as a means to effectively communicate with a large group of people back home. Our troops didn’t write letters that would take 6 weeks or longer to arrive; they chose a nearly instant means of delivery. As a result, we don’t have those fragile scraps of paper that might remain of a note or diary from past wars.

We have nothing, because someone chose to move new.myspace to myspace, and now apparently chooses not to move ‘old’ Classic myspace to old.myspace long enough for anyone to create an archive of any sort.

Their profiles didn’t just delineate troop movement — the profiles themselves were a look into each soldier, both as a warrior and a man. Some of the fallen soldiers did not live long past puberty, but the comments and insights they had about themselves, why they became a soldier, and what they thought of the war they were fighting, which were culled from their MySpace profiles for individual memorial sites were often very profound.

My son came home more or less intact. His best friend in the army was the first casualty of their unit and my son drove his body back to base. Ironically, that “boy’s” name was Justin. His profile is now indistinguishable from any other Justin’s — except of course the Justin who half-owns the entire site.

Ian Milligan July 19, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Thanks for this, Suedinym. This is a really meaningful comment, and yet another reason that we can’t idly dismiss our digital heritage.

I have been working with the GeoCities archive lately, which is now available in part through the Internet Archive’s WaybackMachine (http://archive.org/web/web.php). Their Pentagon neighbourhood is similarly replete with stories of deployment, guestbooks, chats and all of that. Yahoo! would have similarly seen all of that deleted, with little notice, and no help to those who ended up saving it.

We really have to do better, and your post is a reminder of why.

suedinym July 20, 2013 at 11:50 am

Ian, have you given any thought to the interesting historical moment that is currently in progress with regard to myspace?

Gathering up and archiving the passionate anti-myspace commentary that is now being posted on every bit of news surrounding myspace’s launch that surfaces in the top ten pages of a Google search is not an easy task!

Prior to 12 July, most of the truly negative ‘feedback’, indicating which orifice myspace owners could stuff their website in was basically hidden in the ‘askmyspace’ forum. The developers currently seem to be putting more effort into shuffling that part of myspace around than working the bugs out of the main site!

The askmyspace forum has gone through three or four major ‘upgrades’. Now all the posts about Classic myspace have to be submitted on a form, to be reviewed, after which they most likely go directly into the ‘reviewed feedback’ section. Numerous posts have either been deleted or somehow hidden (including a rather nasty flame war that was allowed to run 11 pages long and continued through the extended 4th of July holiday without any moderation, but disappeared after 12 July, most likely because one of the posters expressed suicidal ideation)

Apparently myspace has ‘migrated’ videos at this juncture, as I was able to find four videos regarding combat on a profile that doesn’t seem to have been ‘upgraded’ by the user. (When you refresh the profile the background image changes to a different one of the generic backgrounds they provide, which seems to be an indication that the account hasn’t been activated recently.)

https://myspace.com/jaminthecellphoneguy/videos

All the recent ‘plays’ of this video are most likely mine, as the player tends to stick on one song or video and perpetually repeat it every time you log in.
https://myspace.com/jaminthecellphoneguy/video/combat-life-saver-moving-our-casualty-over-obsticles/47054509

The cached copy of that video page shows upwards of 70 plays on some of the videos —which were apparently originally uploaded in November 2008. This brings up another interesting point: myspace is boasting a 42 million song ‘free’ catalog, but there is a lot of evidence that a much of the catalog may have been uploaded by users other than the original artist. In order to get it removed, the artist who owns the copyright now has to go through a legal ‘take down’ process. Furthermore these artists are not being paid royalties on their work while it sits in myspace limbo.

Do we sit at an important historical and legal juncture? Will myspace’s action of ripping the site down with absolutely no “warning time”, and no attempt to alert current users of the impending launch by any means set a precedent for other online service providers whereby it is patently A-ok to hold copyrighted content hostage (either by taking it down suddenly, or by refusing to take down things that are beneficial to the site owner’s business agenda without going through a lengthy legal process) —- simply because it has been uploaded at some point in the past?

PS — whether or not they’ve ‘cleaned up’ the neighborhood is highly debatable!
http://www.adrants.com/2013/07/does-the-new-myspace-ad-pass-the-alien.php

Gareth Wong (@GarethWong) July 29, 2013 at 7:35 am

I think you are absolutely right Ian.

with our digital world, and now much more reliant on ‘free’ services from likes of google cloud/ apple emails etc. we run a big risk indeed! What if one day they decided it is not ‘profitable’ anymore and decide to turn it all off.. (or the new owner decided that).. well, google (unlike myspace is rather profitable) still decide to turn off services whenever they feel like (although hard decision no doubt!) like googleWave, google reader just last weeks.

Most joe-blogg like me are ignorant as to what we can do with the gigs of data we created during our digital lives, let alone the specific behaviour info and other data collected without us knowing (I would argue that also needs archiving for my own use!?).

Legacy wise, it is also a very important area to look at, for argument sake, if you and other readers are our future Shakespeare-to-be, if you are reliant on digital creative writing only and when an internet only firm that you mainly use decided to pull the plug, not only would you lose everything (if you didn’t know how to backup from cloud) but your children will also suffer! Why?? When they inherit your estates, unlike Shakespeare’s time, all the notes/love letters and drafts are not saved for the prosperity.. it is a dangerous trend and sadly technology world is very much like lemmings, even Microsoft is now going ‘cloud’.. who would, who can really keep our own data safe!??

even if the cloud /social network services are well run and archived digitally, what happens when virus or the server centre(s) get fired or flooded or electricity spikes!?

our present outsourced model to the company that does no bad stuff like google (like myspace before) is rather dangerous, but what are the alternatives?

I in fact predicted the demise of facebook in 5years (ok by 2018!), if/when that happens, what of all the pictures/data/connections/likes of your ‘previous facebook’ lives?? does it mean you wasted all your time and energy?? very likely I’m afraid and yes, it will happen!

ref: @GarethWong: Erm, no! & my predictions…(death of @Facebook in 5yrs) At 30 years old, the internet is inescapable – Telegraph http://bit.ly/13gsYyA

Ian Milligan July 29, 2013 at 9:10 am

suedinym, my apologies for missing your message until now! Amidst other comments on other posts, this got lost in my inbox. Thanks for your post! I agree that it has tremendous implications as you’ve outlined here, and I wish I had good answers for you.

It is fascinating that they’re trying to wipe the slate clean of the records of this destruction – yet another (perhaps unwitting) middle finger to future historians.

GarethWong, thanks too for your comments. It’s true that so much of people’s online legacy is wrapped up into things like Facebook, which you can lose at any time. At least Google allows you to export your data from something like Google Plus, although I’m sure only a fraction of users would avail themselves of something like that.

Important, fascinating, thought-provoking comments. Thanks!

Tim Jensen July 30, 2013 at 9:05 am

My name is Tim and I like to eat plastic that I find in riverbeds. Sometimes when I am all alone I sing Quiet Riot or maybe Smashing Pumpkins. I smell bad and the kids at school tell me so, but I don’t let it get me down. I just put one foot in front of the other and march to a stink-stank beat all on my own. So you can tell the kids at school who make fun of me that I do not mind for I am spiritually attuned.

A lot of red-hot-tamale dames like to ask me questions about math and local city directions. They call me cute and want to hold hands with me. I tell them “NO!” and “HAVE AT YOU!” because I know better than to let myself get treated like a piece of hot man. I want to find a dame who knows how to meet my needs as a nomadic hunter, the kind of amazing lady who can hold up the cash register at 7-11 while I sit in the car as the get-away driver eating Skittles and listening to my jams.

Dear diary:

I think that me from the future went back in time and hit me of, presently, the past in the mouth. This was roughly about exactly two months-ish ago. I’m always at war with the me of the past and future, but me of the present I agree with mostly. The me of the past is always tricking me of the present and future, while the me of the future is constantly trying to get back at me of the past and present. Sometimes the me of the present is doing that too, but not as much as the me in the future. That guy is kind of a dick because he is all about revenge, but me of the past is kind of a dick because he is a prankster. Me of the present isn’t doing that stuff at all, but he is talking about it. Kind of a chill dude.

Anyway, I don’t use Myspace but if I did I’m sure I’d be angry about something right now.

Joe Black July 30, 2013 at 5:47 pm

if destroying the blogs and pictures of random persons on myspace has destroyed any tangible historic event then im afraid we may be destined to repeat said history and just repost other stupid opinions and meaningless photos

mblanco84 August 14, 2013 at 4:20 pm

I lost 3 different blogs. One containing all my poetry, one containing all my political essays, and one containing a 7 month, daily journal from my trip across india at 21 years old. The writing from that journal is the most precious to me. I have been inconsolable since this loss and have barely left the house.

alfonsoelsabio August 15, 2013 at 3:11 pm

As a recording/performing musician who was an early adopter of MySpace and whose content disappeared as well as being a trained archivist whose academic research focuses on the preservation of digital cultural heritage, I think I have a slightly different perspective than most on here.

MySpace had, nor has, ANY historical obligations whatsoever.

Let me repeat that.

MySpace had, nor has, ANY historical obligations whatsoever.

As an organization with no accountability to “The Public” at large, they bear no responsibility to see to the long-term preservation of their records beyond those required by any federal laws governing them as a corporation.

Am I happy about it? No.

But until corporate “citizens” are truly held accountable, this will only continue to happen. You want to change things? Then start with the notion that a corporation seems to conveniently have the same rights as “humans” when it’s in their favor but are never held to the same standards. As someone else said, “I’ll accept a corporation as a ‘person’ when I see one come home in a body bag from Afghanistan.”

I still have an account there, but I consider anything posted there to be as ephemeral as the most recent breath I took …

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