Myspace’s server error reveals the danger that lies in entrusting tech companies with our cultural histories
It’s difficult not to be nostalgic about the early-noughties internet.
Web 2.0 was in its nascency, and a whole generation of surfers took to sketching out online personas for themselves for the very first time with the help of emoticons, ASCII art and angsty, side-eying self-portraits.
Founded in August 2003, Myspace typified this new era of online life. Users were able to cordon off and personalise their own little corner of the internet, adding any number of flashing widgets and garish animations. People did so in abundance – so much so that someone went to the lengths of establishing a whole new site dedicated to discussing the most taste-deficient offenders.
Unlike today’s dominant players, this social network wasn’t driven by mysterious algorithms: it was powered by people – and, in particular, young people. In doing so, the site came to reflect the turbulent grappling with identity that typifies adolescence.
Customisable options like the ability to choose the order of the ‘Top 8 Friends’ who appeared on your profile page brought the delicate social politics of the schoolyard online. Your profile photo, prosaic bio, rambling blog posts and lists of interests were all opportunities to express your own brilliant idiosyncrasies. And, of course, the track you selected to auto-play to anyone visiting your page had the ability to say more about you – and the social subculture to which you pledged allegiance – than anything else.
Within a couple of years of the site’s launch, it was clear that its core strength lay in its ability to connect musicians and their fans directly. Previously, the barrier between artists and their admirers had been manned by the traditional gatekeepers of the music press, radio producers, concert promoters, venues and booking agents.
Now, bands, rappers and beatmakers could upload new tracks straight to the online players (customisable, naturally) hosted on their pages and send out mailshots straight to their captive audience of fans. Before the likes of Spotify and YouTube started presenting listeners with algorithmically curated recommendations of similar-sounding artists, Myspace offered music fans a seemingly endless rabbit hole of demo tracks and live recordings to explore. The site’s comments sections functioned like personal message boards, mini hyper-localised forums and fan sites. Whole scenes and subcultures – everything from regional UK emo to grime and nu rave – began to incubate on the network. Myspace URLs were printed onto record sleeves and in CD booklets. Bands would blog their tour antics. The site’s name became a catchphrase for grime MCs promoting their pages on pirate radio sets.
In 2006, a spotty teenage band from Sheffield saw their debut album become the fastest-selling debut in British music history, buoyed largely by a rabid online following that had long been circulating freely distributed early recordings of the album tracks via peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. Arctic Monkeys’ Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not was heralded not just for its wry observations on life in Northern England, but for the way in which its release had apparently hoodwinked the music industry.
Later that year, Myspace announced its plans to launch a UK version of the site, with the clearly-stated aim of tapping into the UK music scene. By 2008, monthly user figures had surpassed 75 million and business commentators frothed over its enormous scale and monopoly of online culture.
Of course, within a few years that froth would run dry.
Visitor numbers dropped off rapidly as people migrated to the functional homogeneity of Facebook; Myspace’s global staff was slashed by 47%; and musicians sought out new digital distribution and promotion alternatives. In 2011, Myspace was purchased by online advertising company Specific Media Group (and Justin Timberlake) for $35 million – a tiny fraction of the $580 million that Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp had paid for it just five years earlier.
“The ‘server migration’ error raises significant questions about cultural ownership and how fans, artists and archivists can preserve their cultures in a digital era that treats cloud storage as a failsafe solution”
Today, the site is a digital ghost town. But the latest sad nail in its virtual coffin – the news that 12 years’ worth of users’ photos, videos and, predominantly, music, has been deleted without warning as the result of a “server migration” error – raises significant questions about cultural ownership and how fans, artists and archivists can preserve their cultures in a digital era that treats cloud storage as a failsafe solution that it clearly is not.
Independent efforts such as The Great 78 Project and the Hyman Archive, as well as established organisations like the British Library, show both the worth and efficacy of modern day cultural archiving. But this Myspace incident serves as a reminder that we’re still in largely uncharted territory when it comes to preserving digitally native cultures. Consider what a similar situation might look like in the case of Tumblr, or YouTube, or Google’s Blogger platform. SoundCloud’s community pages are already littered with users in despair after discovering their accounts have been erroneously deleted. And this challenge will only become greater – and more vital – as youth culture retreats further into closed and ephemeral mobile messaging apps, forced out of public spaces by austerity measures.
There is of course an argument worth stating that perhaps all of that Myspace music wasn’t worth keeping anyway (the fact it took almost a year for most people to notice might support that view). Plenty of people on Twitter were quick to celebrate all evidence of their embarrassing teenage forays into music being wiped from the web, while others have previously pointed out the environmental impact of the data centres that support our insatiable digital diets.
Some commentators have gone as far as suggesting that the “server migration” error was no such thing. Meredith, the media conglomerate that currently owns Myspace, can clearly find greater value in the data it still holds on old users than in millions of scratchy demo recordings. Online social networks and streaming services are, at the end of the day, glorified advertising platforms. So should they really be entrusted with owning, preserving and safeguarding valuable cultural histories? This week’s news – and the glib tone in which an unnamed Myspace employee originally confirmed it – would suggest not. As such, it should be taken as a warning worth heeding.