A note and experiment on Geocities, Wikipedia, ‘institutional discards’, and deletion as transition.

I had a vague idea that it might be interesting to try and map the ‘negative space’ of the internet – the sites and applications that once existed but no longer do, using something like the Wayback Machine. I haven’t found a way to search the wayback machine for all ‘sites that no longer exist’, but this did get me thinking about other places projects where deleted things are preserved or recorded.

First up: the work of the Archive Team. Their ‘deathwatch‘ list of at-risk sites looks like a way into an interesting taxonomy of digital decay, and the archives they’ve producing. Their Geocities archive in particular – which forms the training data for Aanand‘s Geocities Forever looks like an interesting repository of online discards. In my diogenes-like way, I attempted to grab a copy of this and store it away ‘just in case’ a project idea emerged that could use it – but decided against it. Not least because I’ve got nowhere to store it apart from ‘in the cloud’ which would’ve got very expensive very quickly, but also because I’m trying to make an active effort not to accumulate unfinished strands of research .

Second: Thinking more about ‘negative spaces of information‘, It occurred to me that one area of the internet which is continually written, deleted and re-written is wikipedia, and that a lot of this process of deletion and recreation is hidden from view (Wikipedia has a comprehensive deletion policy which can be the site of controversy). I wondered whether we could learn anything about Wikipedia itself from what’s left out from the ‘canonical’ version, or indeed whether it could function as an interesting example of ‘acts of deletion’ more generally . There’s been a fair few projects which use the articles deleted from wikipedia to interesting effect: There already exists site called Deletionpedia already archives these deleted pages (although it seems to only be sporadically updated), and Wikipedia’s ‘articles for deletion’ both inspired and formed the body of Gregor Weichbrodt’s Dictionary of Non-notable artists. However, I’ve been thinking recently about how designing to highlight deletion actually poses a bit of a catch-22 in my case – if i capture and archive things-being-deleted, then they are no longer deleted, and I’ve interfered in my field of study. Instead, I’d like to mark or draw attention to the moment of transition from ‘existing’ to ‘deleted’ somehow, without actually preserving the resource being deleted itself. This put me in mind of a funeral of sorts, and in particular of the memorial requiems we used to sing when I was in a church choir as a child, in which the names of the parish’s war dead were read out by the priest. With this in mind, I did a little experiment to see if I could surface and ‘ritually eulogise’ deleted wikipedia articles at the point at which they’re deleted, using the MediaWiki Recent Changes API. Here’s the result: a tiny web app which listens to the feed and produces a eulogy (the name of the article, it’s life dates, and its reason for deletion, if given), and rings a bell for each one. It was then a natural next step to incorporate that into a pseudo-ritual setting, with a recording of Faure’s Requiem, a couple of candles, and a stick of Palo Santo (given to me as a housewarming gift by Jaron months ago – the smell reminds me intensely of the incense used in the more high-church-y services I sung at as a child):

This was a bit of an off-the-cuff exercise, but I think it was valuable for a few reasons:

  • It got me thinking about deletion as a state change or transition, rather than just as the permanent state of ‘being deleted’. This is going to be useful as it helps get around the problem of ‘forcing the preservation of things by studying them’ and also gives us a nice link to rituals and rites of passage.
  • It was a way of thinking through the ways in which ritual has been present in my own background and upbringing – since reading Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the pluriverse for our bi-weekly seminars, I’ve been very conscious that incorporating ritual behaviours (such as potlatch) from cultures outside my own into the creative practice that makes up my PhD could very easily become appropriation, and for that reason I was keen to spend some time thinking about how I could lean on my own experience of ritual as part of this project.
  • The pseudo-ritual (in my eyes, and with my cultural background at least) setting did put me in a meditative frame of mind as the ‘eulogies’ passed by on the screen – I found myself wondering what their significance was, who had written them, whether they’d been useful or interesting to people before they’d passed. It struck that the deliberate decision not to preserve the text of the articles helped here – I couldn’t go back and know them directly, so was forced to contemplate how they had lived socially.

Finally, thinking through these sort of ‘institutional discards’ (mass deletions of web resources such as geocities sites or deletion of articles due to an institutional policy rather than an individual decision) has maybe made me suspect that they’re a different category of discard to every day deletions in a personal setting, and that I need to (a) develop or identify a sensible operating taxonomy (or at least a provisional one) of different types of digital waste, and (b) decide whether my thesis needs a more specific focus within this taxonomy. I’m loathe to impose too much structure at this point, but I do feel like i need to arrive at a more concrete definition of what exactly I’m investigating fairly soon, and, as i’ve discussed before, identifying what I’m not studying and why seems like a good way of giving this some more definition.