On Finding and Preserving Discord and Youtube

This editorial doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of this blog. However, blogs don’t have views anyway, so what would that even mean?

This is a slightly edited version of a diatribe I emitted on mefi.social. I really want people to see it and think about what it means though.

A dismaying thing is how much of current gaming culture is locked behind Discords, and/or is revealed to the world only through Youtube videos.

These two phenomena are the result of the Myth of the Benevolent Corporation, which was largely started by early Google and their “Do No Evil” policy, which sustained the early web for a good while but itself did huge damage to online culture, and yet promises to do much much more, when they decided that profits mattered more.

When Youtube started, everyone saw it as a kind of miracle. In the early days videos were limited to 10 minutes, but even so they began attracting a huge amount of material. When they switch to just letting people upload anything for free, that exploded.

I love this page, at http://cs.gettysburg.edu/~duncjo01/archive/icons/iconolog/pavilion/iconHall.html. I’m really sad that the world depicted within has shrunken so much, and of the list of links on this page only three survive.

It’s not just gaming stuff that I’m talking about really, although as a popular fixation for people it’s kind of a hint of things to come. Lots of information is currently exposed to the world through Youtube videos and minidocs.

From U Can Beat Videogames’s video on Shadowrun. It’s great, but some day it’ll be gone. How will people beat an ancient obscure SNES game like this then?

But Youtube has always been a time bomb for all this content. It’s inevitable that Youtube will someday begin deleting things. If not sooner, then later. Yet there are few entities capable of preserving all of it, or even most of it. All of this will [get destroyed] like [crying] in [a downpour].

Of course, it’s not like videos like these have any other hope as it stands. A collection of the incredible size of Youtube’s is so big that only a government could realistically do it, and most of those have their own issues when it comes to continuity of mission and funding.

But combined with Discords as a means of communication, and (bizarrely) information, a lot of online culture is currently a black box to outsiders, unless they sign up to dozens of miscellaneous Discords. And there is a limit to the number of servers you can follow, which is reputed to be 100. (It used to be that Google could get you a quick answer to a question like how many Discord servers can one user follow, but now I’m not sure.)

Social media companies, who all seem to be racing each other to make their services as crappy as possible to non-paying users, are no solution either.

There used to be a Mastodon search engine, at search.noc.social. This is what remains of it. (Yes, it’s just a white page with the text “project has been removed.”)

Fediverse to the rescue! But no, a lot of it is transitory, sometimes intentionally so! In some circles even suggesting that Mastodon be just searchable, let alone preservable, will subject you to a storm of criticism. It’s true that being opaque to general search helps protect vulnerable users, a noble cause, but it also makes Mastodon’s discoverability very low. (One solution, which I think I mentioned here before, is an opt-in search solution called tootfinder, but it currently only goes back three months.)

And I don’t see many other people talking about this, even though the sudden decay of Twitter and Reddit has made this essential problem more visible than its been for a long time.

I feel like going onto every Discord I follow, gaming research ones in particular, and ringing alarm bells, but it’s a task just to find them out, and really what good would it do. People use Discord because it’s free and easy and they even maintain the server for you. These kinds of spaces have always relied on some patron to uphold them; the only real differences are before they were visible to search and the Wayback Machine, and now, it’s a single company that will increasingly hold access to these places obscured behind a storm of pleas to subscribe to Nitro, and someday will delete them entirely.

The Zelda II Randomizer Discord. As a community, it works okay. As a way of storing information, well, it sucks rocks. As a way of preserving everything, it’s DOOOOOMED.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, there are vast swaths of online culture that are already lost permanently: the Compuserve forums of the era immediately preceding the rise of the web. Compuserve was once the biggest online presence. And AOL, which grew to eclipse it in size, likewise holds (still? I don’t know, it’s on AOL!) a vast amount of early internet culture.

Newsgroup archives are a bit better off because of their openness, although nowadays it’s mostly seen as just a way to enable piracy.

Still, essential web services are at least preservable. The Fediverse resembles those, at least in principle, so it’s immediately better off than Discords and Youtube, for making old information findable, even if it’s currently really hard to do it (and some people are outright opposed to it).

It is time to wrap this all up. I say things like this frequently these days. Maybe someday someone will listen. The power and reach of the internet doesn’t have to rely on big companies. I also have qualms about the ability of a even a horde of individual servers to keep things going, mind you. All those dead links on all those surviving old websites, they once represented living projects too.

I think what we ultimately need is an independent organization that can keep up old sites and communities, and provide a place for new ones, maybe supported by donations, without the explicit profit motive of the bigcorps. Something that looks like the Internet Archive or Wikipedia. There’s places where you can host plain websites even today, like the Tildeverse (but its individual pieces, like Fediverse servers, always feel like they could vanish at any time), ancient-yet-still-here Angelfire (of which, like the Lycos it’s a part of, it’s amazing still survives), or the newer, enthusiast-focused Neocities (which too has no guarantee of longevity).

Companies can live longer than people, or their interest cycles. It doesn’t feel right that something like a website require someone to dedicate their life to maintaining it, but due to the dysfunctional way our economic has come to see companies (involving the hateful words fiduciary duty) are also vulnerable to the winds of change. It feels like a non-profit, or at least a durable privately-held company that isn’t pushed by rapacious groups to chase every profit lead no matter how disastrous, may be a solution. I don’t know if it really is, though. I’m just watching this, mostly from the outside. I hope someone can do something though, to overturn the cold tides of entropy. I really do.

Revivals of Old Online Services

This isn’t intended to be a big meaty article, but it’s worth noting that three online services from the 80s through early 2000s, the old Commodore 64 service QuantumLink, and both its successor America On-Line and AOL’s rival Prodigy, have experiences something of a revival in recent years.

The QuantumLink experience can be had with new servers using client software available from the QuantumLink Reloaded project. It provides software that can be used to interface with their servers running on either a real Commodore 64 (with PC software acting as an intermediary) or the VICE emulator.

Snazzy banner!

For AOL, the AOL Reloaded project (who, fittingly, has an announcement post on Livejournal) is still in the early days, but have managed to get the AOL 3.0 client interfacing with their server. And gaming and tech journalist Benj Edwards is helping with the Prodigy Reloaded project, which seeks to provide something for its old clients to talk to. If you’re interested on some of the details of how this worked, you should take a look at Prodigy Reloaded’s project page.

Image source: https://g.livejournal.com/10829.html
The brutal JPEG artifacts in this screenshot edit are all part of the aesthetic.

I must emphasize that none of these services are hosted by their original companies or any rights-holders. They are all fanwork, and because of the ridiculous extents of copyright in this era could easily be wiped off the map without even a lawsuit, with a simple Cease and Desist. But until that happens (if ever), please enjoy.

Sadly, there is no word of a similar revival for former online leader CompuServe, which was my own early online hangout. AOL bought them in the late 90s, and, bizarrely, still puppets a compuserve.com site, which it loads with generic news for people who have yet to figure out that a much wider internet exists.

Their About page reads, “CompuServe: The Value Leader in Cyberspace.”
I feel deeply sorry for whoever still loads this page on the regular.

In any event, none of these projects or sites can hold a candle to cyber1, which seeks to recreate the experience and the software of the old PLATO systems from the 1970s.