Ever since I password-protected my Diaryland site 15 years ago, I’ve slowly amassed a collection of now-abandoned online spaces in an effort to create a public, professional web presence. I hopped over to LiveJournal, where a few of my friends spilled their thoughts on a daily basis, then Typepad to create an early version of an online resume, then to a short-lived stint on Blogger, and finally to WordPress, where a significant part of my self still lives, albeit in fragments and forgotten drafts. Initially, I was bothered that these sites floated in the void, as I’ve tried to keep a tidy, tightly curated presence across the internet. Yet over time, as I’ve ditched Twitter, stopped blogging, posted less on Instagram, and made other accounts private, I feel strangely satisfied watching these profiles and sites languish, as my posts and updates harden into artifacts in the Museum of Me. I now wait for the moment when I can use them again solely for myself — when there are no readers left and no one is looking.
I thought about these deteriorating, forgotten spaces while reading Helena Fitzgerald’s thoughts at The Verge on one of the internet’s big ghost towns, Snapchat. Celebrities and the non-famous have abandoned the platform, and the ephemerality that had made the app popular is no longer a unique selling point, rendering Snapchat irrelevant and useless.
But it is this uselessness, Fitzgerald writes, that now makes Snapchat a compelling space for her again: a private hangout for a handful of people, far from the crowd, where they can yell out their secrets, be unseen, and disappear.
Perhaps more than anything else, what has sucked all of the joy out of the social internet in its current form is its exhortation to be useful. We have arrived at a version where everything seems to be just another version of LinkedIn. Every online space is supposed to get you a job or a partner or a stronger personal brand so you can accomplish the big, public-record goals of life. The public marketplace is everywhere. It’s an interactive and immersive CV, an archive. It all counts, and it all matters.
First in the era of America Online, and then in the era of LiveJournal and micro-blogging, the internet was at least partly an escape. It was a place where the boundaries of real life, in which everything was more or less a job interview, could be sloughed off and one could imagine the internet as a quiet, uninhabited space of whispered intimacies. In this era of hyper-usefulness, what seems rarest and most valuable online are spaces that offer, however illusorily, a return to this original uselessness. There are places where, against the constant obligation to be seen and remembered, we might get to be unseen, unrecorded, and forgotten.