Tumbling off?

Yahoo, the deleters of Geocities, now own Tumblr. Will our GIF collections ever be safe?

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Yahoo were busy last weekend. Not content with acquiring Tumblr for $1.1 billion the company rolled out a new interface to Flickr (one that's proved to be particularly divisive among its user base). Yahoo's poor record of running services saw many digerati run to grab their virtual pitchforks and firebrands, but on this occasion Yahoo is due the benefit of the doubt. The company is under the savvy stewardship of Marissa Mayer, one immense factor that should mitigate against jumping the gun on this weekend's business.

Two factors unite the deals. First of all was the widespread threats of bailing out of the respective platforms: in Flickr's case there was a lot of users unhappy with the latest web-lite overhaul. With Tumblr the threats of leaving were more preemptive - “let's jump before we're pushed”. The manner in which delicious was run into the ground following Yahoo's acquisition of the platform is one raw memory that's spurred such sentiment. Going further back still, the unceremonius shuttering of Geocities has been touted by some pundits as the inevitable fate that awaits Tumblr. And it's geocities that provides the second uniting factor. As Dan Williams was quick to note, the new limit for Flickr users (all users, not just pro, another item that has stuck in the throat of Flickr power users) equates to the entirety of the Geocities archive.

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The irony of Yahoo providing, for free, the same amount of server space necessary to host the whole Geocities network it mothballed four years ago has been lost on no-one. The intersection of Yahoo-past and Yahoo-future is epitomised by a Tumblr we've previously doted over in Hacked & Burned. The research tumblr of  Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied, the tumblr presents a selection of screenshots grabbed from the Geocities Archive. Though it's been ongoing for the last four months, in light of the weekend's tech turnarounds, it takes on added import.

Geocities was the first instance of digital “low culture”, or genuine vernacular use of the web.

If you're unfamiliar with Geocities then let me recap it for you. In the web 1.0 era Geocities was the place to make your website, a product of a time when curating your personal interests was unavoidably more labourious than today. The first digital immigrants dove into web design and GIFs and created a hot mess of HTML content. Lots of it can be filed under eyesore, but it was a landmark time: Geocities was the first instance of digital “low culture”, or genuine vernacular use of the web. When time was called on the project many digital migrants were agog that an entire swathe of user-generated-content would be culled, lost forever to the ether.

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Olia and Dragan inform me that their Tumblr “only covers the rescued files (which amounted to 1TB). Geocities was for sure much larger. The Tumblr presents a screenshot a day. “We were looking for a way to narrate these artifacts of user culture in the dominant language of the current social web. The audience of Tumblr seemed like the perfect group to be confronted with their own history as web users”. There is the tale that "the Internet never forgets", but it will easily "forget" any user production that can not be turned into profit by algorithmic manipulation.

Yahoo is suddenly a colossus in the field of future digital culture archives: Flickr's cavernous storage limits will create a vast photographic archive just as Google's newest gadget promises a game changer in photography. And moreover, the ultimate fate of the webs fastest growing pop culture repository (Tumblr) is in their hands. “At the moment it appears like the awareness of what could be lost is growing. The public criticism of Yahoo's acquisition of tumblr and Yahoo's promise "not to screw up" are telling signs” Olia and Dragan opine. “As authors of the One Terabyte Of Kilobyte Age Tumblr blog it looks like a tragedy that is going to repeat itself as a farce. We expect that Yahoo! will shut down Tumblr before we can finish our 14 years of posting images of a former Yahoo! service.”

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