Losing Ephemera

Do not mistake this screed for something well thought out or researched. I’m having a crisis and working it out here on my semi-secret blog. Comments welcome.

What’s a part of the internet you think back on and realize that you’ve lost something beautiful, both as an artifact and as a piece of yourself?

I think back to gURL.com circa 2003. We still have the archive to look back on, but it’s not the same. gURL had personality and was useful in a way that a lot of the more sanitized sites we see today aren’t. The archive page linked above includes links to things like

  • “i have a sharp pain around my ovaries. is that normal?”
  • make fake blood for your halloween costume!
  • featured user generated poetry
  • a prompt to write about what you’re thankful for, with the chance to be featured to other site members
A screenshot of a gURL.com tattoo generator game from 2004.

Today when you go to gURL.com it redirects to the Seventeen Magazine website, and headlines as of this typing include

  • Khloe Kardashian Just Got Real About Claims That Tristan Cheated On His Pregnant GF with Her
  • Taylor Swift Made Katy Perry Cookies with the Words “Peace at Last” to End Their Feud
  • Fall Might Be Cooler, But These Trends Will Keep You Looking HOT
A screenshot of seventeen magazine's online headlines from June 2019.

Now, I’m not precious about the Kardashians or girls being interested in fashion. I think it’s great that these things exist and I’m happy for the people who find joy in this content. But outlets for these stories existed before, and will continue to exist until the breakdown of civilization. But the unique, quirky, earnest, and informative world of gURL.com has been completely erased.

Cover of "Deal With It: a whole new approach to your body, brain, and life as a gurl," published by gurl.com in 1999.

When I was a tween my mom bought me the gURL.com book. It, like the website, is heavily influenced by 90s zine aesthetics. Lots of block letter headings, and bright colored background chunks where blocks of text lived. It included frank discussions about puberty and development, in a way that had a sense of humor and was devoid of shaming tactics. It feels painfully earnest now, looking back at previews on Amazon.com (where the book is available used for less than $2). It’s like a relic from the kid’s room at Lilith Fair. But I learned a lot from that book. So much so that nearly twenty years later I remember it fondly and can still picture the aesthetic of the book.

Screenshot of a page from the gurl.com "Deal with it" book depicting disembodied mouths with colorful speech bubbles quoting online users.

What will tweens today be able to look back on and remember fondly and specifically? Everything looks the same now.

"Old man yells at cloud" screencap from The Simpsons.

But I’m not just worried about the kids these days. What is it doing to all of us that our online history is both so permanent and so fleeting? All of our transgressions [teenage indiscretions on Facebook, leaked nudes, poorly worded or understood tweets (or hell, BBS posts – I have no idea what people are keeping on me from the old days of the internet)] are screencapped and infinitely distributed – held against us forever. (or at least that’s what they want us to believe) None of us, especially in the United States, has any real right to be forgotten. But the things that shaped me [gURL.com, a half remembered fanfic that wormed into my brain in the summer of 2003 but which no combination of keyword searches seems to produce, proto social networks that allowed for customization like myspace and vampirefreaks] are either gone or have been purged of their historical content. The MySpace purge of 2013 was devastating. The admission from them earlier this year that all of the music is gone was played for laughs on Twitter, but we should be horrified that so much of ourselves that we thought safe is lost forever because some DBA fucked up one day.

Our desires, secrets, and fuck-ups are profitable. Our passion projects from a decade ago are not.

We’re forced to deal with our mistakes forever, and have those mistakes mined and used to create ever more accurate and invasive models for advertising to us every second of our waking lives. But the context from which those mistakes were made is eroding. What is that doing to our image of ourselves? What is it doing to our ability to relate to and trust one another?

This is all happening at the same time as the physical world around us is eroding. If we really want to talk about disappearing context, let’s take a look at the increasing lie that is “seasons” or “historical precedent” when it comes to weather.

Everything seems like it’s falling apart. Inside and out. Physical and digital. With only the glaring and irreversible consequences of our mistakes remaining.

And it’s not like the physical and digital are separate here. Hyper-specific advertising and machine learning models are inherently created to maintain the status quo. Machine learning does not identify how to make things “better.” It takes training data and makes more of what already is, whether or not that will produce a more desirable outcome for its targets. This leads to things like disinformation campaigns around vaccines or climate science. People don’t want to change their lives or confront their flaws, and we have created giant reflective chambers where people will only ever need to interact with things that re-entrench those worldviews. Digital lack of foresight and maximization of “engagement” has real world policy and behavioral implications.

What can we do to turn this ship around? I don’t have answers. If the failures of the modern condition could be solved with code, they would have been. Everything we do in that arena only seems to be making things worse. So what do we do? I can’t be the only one perpetually on the brink of a nervous breakdown fueled by existential despair, can I?

As everyone knows by now (I have the zeal of a newly sober junkie who is desperate to let everyone know about it), I have removed myself from the social media giants (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter). I’m still on Goodreads. I don’t think that’ll change anytime soon. But I’ve been developing a bit of a Tumblr habit that I think I’ll need to squash. I feel like these behemoths are a large part of the problem; they provide the illusion of granting context and increasing engagement, while really stripping us of those things. There’s no such thing as context in a 280 character tweet, and stringing a bunch together into a choppy simulacrum of a blog post is no substitute. The things that you see in “feeds’ are filtered by their potential to enrage you, because that’s the best proxy software engineers have discovered to figure out what will engage you, and you don’t see them in any sort of logical order (like chronology or topic) that might enhance your understanding rather than muddle it further.

But there’s a compelling argument to be made that by abandoning these noisy public squares, I’m ceding my right to a voice. If I retreat to secure my own oxygen mask, I lose the access necessary to help others secure theirs. I’ve been very deliberate about not linking this blog on any of the social media giants. I’m not hiding it, but I’m not promoting it as part of my “””brand””” either. Am I making a mistake by not letting the public image of ‘Jess’ absorb every part of me?

To some extent I think we can look to art for guides on what we might do to retain a sense of individuality and meaning. The central question of queer art and queer life is “how do I exist meaningfully in a system that does not want me?” and it’s a potentially useful and inspiring avenue of thought to go down. But that only addresses the social conundrum in which we find ourselves, and not the way in which social and ecological dissolution are increasingly interlocked.

What can an individual do to actually affect things? We can call our congresspeople until the cows come home, and some of us have. We’ve voted, but still there’s no meaningful global or local action on the climate, or researching increased bacterial resistance to medicine, or kids in cages, or any of the existentially threatening issues we face. Received wisdom does not seem to be working. Many people I see online seem to be advocating for a revolution as the agent of change, but at the end of the day we’re all armchair anarchists, and Netflix is an effective opiate.

Who needs a guillotine when you’ve got a gif?

Read some things by people who are smarter than me:

Stray Travel Thought

May is a truly miserable time of year to visit Costa Rica, so my recent trip wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. But one of the biggest things I kept thinking about while wandering around San Jose was that in America we have ceded so much of public life to the auto industry. All of the US prioritizes the needs and storage of individually owned cars above all other methods of getting around, and that’s simply not true other places. There are entire pedestrian-only avenues in San Jose filled with street vendors and people just walking in the middle of everything without fear. The only place in the US you see that kind of thing is literally in amusement parks. It makes me wonder what we could be capable of if we invested in public infrastructure and de-incentivized individual car ownership. I say this as someone who owns a car and loves it. But it’s possible that I just love it because owning a car makes the experience of living here materially better in ways that aren’t true in other parts of the world.

I am being personally called out

A day off meant we could do things we’d always meant to do. Like go to the Botanical Garden, the Frick Collection, or something. Read some fiction. Leisure, the problem with the modern condition was the dearth of leisure. And finally, it took a force of nature to interrupt our routines. We just wanted to hit the reset button. We wanted to feel flush with the time to do things of no quantifiable value, or hopeful side pursuits like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money. Like learn to be a better photographer. And even if we didn’t get around to it on that day, our free day, maybe it was enough just to feel the possibility that we could if we wanted to, which is another way of saying that we wanted to feel young, though many of us were that if nothing else.

Severance, page 199
Ling Ma

This paragraph should just @ me next time. Rude.

Kind of gets at why this whole personal blog/web1.0 throwback experiment is appealing though. I am giving myself space to engage in something that I will not be able to monetize. A piece of myself I am not leasing to a centralized social media giant in exchange for the hope of more social capital. It feels strange and uncomfortable, but also like I’m working to gain something back.