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The precarity of online spaces

CW: discussions of disinformation, racism, transphobia, xenophobia, and general bigotry


Last month's news has revealed that after a slew of decisions that amount at least to mismanagement, Elon Musk is stepping down as CEO of Twitter as soon as a replacement is found. This comes after only a short time of him holding the position.


If Web 1 has taught us anything, anything at all, I hope it has taught us that, as much as we want it to not be the case, there is a potential for websites to merely be fleeting spaces that last only for a few months, years, or even decades, and that the preservation of internet history -- especially of creative content -- is vital; otherwise we could lose it forever. (I say this, knowing that my very own website has existed in a few different forms, having first gone up in 2017 before being taken down, only to resurface again in June 2021.)

A drawing of a nondescript, anthropomorphic blue bird with a broken wing in a sling, walking with a crutch.

I had previously posted with joy about having broken the 1,000 follower threshold on Twitter. See, we all knew that Twitter was a hellsite, but it was a useful hellsite. I know that my work spans many different genres and involves different communities, but I speak from the experience of my primary work, game audio: for those of us working in game audio, it was an incredibly useful tool. Being able to embed short videos of up to 2'20" in length directly on the website, being able to directly embed Soundcloud and Bandcamp links so that the players showed up, these were godsends.


We knew that it was also rife with problems. Bots, disinformation, the far right, and the inability to take racists and transphobes to task through use of the reporting system were significant issues. I know how unsafe a number of us felt. For me personally, it was the xenophobia that made me feel unsafe on that site from time to time. But I stayed, for I was heartened to see how much the game audio and game dev communities were keen on fighting bigotry, whatever form it took. I truly felt, especially with bigger, better known voices in game audio and game dev like Osama Dorias, nadiaudio, and Rami Ismail, that these fields are truly for everyone. It is their ethos that has inspired me.


So it came as a great disappointment to see how Twitter, under Musk's leadership, made several decisions that caused the site, its infrastructure, and its various communities irreparable harm. The most recent, and the most concerning to many of us creatives, was the inability to share external links from sites like Mastodon or Linktree or other such places without them being marked as spam. YouTube was spared, but the concern was, how long more before YouTube, for instance, gets caught in the dragnet of sites to never be shared? And where would it end?


That decision was rescinded just a day before Musk announced that he would step down as CEO. Some of us, myself included, have left the site, and a number of us in this group have gone one step further and deleted our accounts. Some still remain on the site, but in the words of one close friend who is doing this, "it feels like playing with a pet that's already dead." Many of us are still watching and waiting, wondering where the mismanagement will take the site next, and hedging our bets with rivals Mastodon and Cohost. Many of us feel as though the growth we have achieved on Twitter is fast being undone -- I certainly do -- and are struggling to reform our networks and lay the groundwork all over again. I managed to get a decent amount of work from Twitter this year, but that was after two years of laying foundations during my nonprofit, asylum seeker situation before it changed.


Twitter, despite the hellish nature of what some of us have had to contend with, was at its heart a site for anyone and everyone, unless someone committed massive infractions against the Terms of Service. That nature of it being for everyone is what drew many people to Twitter. That, and the ability to quickly share things and to watch the number of likes and retweets go up -- you know what they say, "human like it when number go up." However, the recent modifications and decisions have sent a clear message that entire groups of people -- liberal leaning people, people of colour, queer and trans people, creatives, and anyone who genuinely is concerned for the safety, security, and future of that website -- are apparently not welcome there. And I don't think I'm catastrophising, either, given what I've written so far: there has been an uptick in racist commentary and far-right activity on that website since these decisions were made, for example. There are people continuing in protest, trying to hold out for as long as the site exists, perhaps against all hope.


But, while many of us hedge our bets and move to other rival sites, I would like to briefly touch on the thing I mentioned in the intro -- Web 1.


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Web 1 brought us Newgrounds, Napster, Geocities, Neopets, AOL, and various bulletin board services (BBSes for short; what we now call forums). Many of these sites were built and hosted by independent developers to rally together creatives, or to share various interests and pursuits. There was a community and a BBS for everything. A number of these sites, notably Newgrounds and Napster still exist, but have needed to make some adaptations to survive in this age. Geocities has since been sold to Yahoo, and has since been terminated.


I still happily go on about Newgrounds and the encouragement of indie art and games and music and animation there. I still happily mention that I am currently one of the audio mods there, albeit a less active one. But many of the old BBSes don't exist anymore. Kongregate, another site that was meant as a rival to Newgrounds, is partly dead in the water as they do not have the means of allowing their SWF repertoire to be played in-browser since Google Chrome stopped support for Adobe Flash. Many of us have felt parts of us missing when many of these sites went down or no longer functioned.


"Web 2," as we called it, brought about the age of all-encompassing sites or services that were owned or run by conglomerates. Twitter and Facebook are prime examples. The takeover of YouTube by Google further sealed that trend; Yahoo seems to have done the same by acquiring both Tumblr and Geocities. This was the advent of social media sites. Over the years, there has been a growing awareness of the various problems and traumas these sites could cause. That is not to say that the Web 2 titans were omnipotent or immune from disappearing like their Web 1 predecessors. MySpace declined in 2009 -- although it still exists -- and lost 12 years' worth of music on its site as a result of a server migration. Friendster changed substantially before it permanently closed in 2018. Meanwhile, news in 2020 was still citing a source that "Friendster (was)... taking a break".


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I guess what I'm trying to say is that for the most part, we outlast a lot of websites' popularity. All the marketing in the world, all the hype we have built, can come crashing down in an instant when a site disappears, changes leadership, changes its function, or makes bad decisions. The Web Archive preserves some of that history, but not every page can be saved -- not every image, not every video, and most certainly not every piece of music we share. No matter how much we try and keep things tidy on our end, what happens when a site we love goes down can end up being very messy, with a lot of loose ends not able to be tied.


And for our profession, as creatives, as video game composers, connection is key. It is more than frustrating to have to build that from the ground up. We do not have infinite reserves of energy to start the process all over again. The only thing we can take comfort in is the fact that where people gather, information is shared, and sometimes familiar faces pop up -- so it's not entirely a start where we're all left on our own. Many of the people moving to new sites are people with whom we'll have become friends over the years.


The wider consequences for something like this is that our governments, our councils, and various advertisers now need to find new ways of speaking to the general public. That, I feel, is a problem that will resurface at least once every decade or two.


But we adapt, we survive, and we move forward -- and the internet that we hope to build together is an open internet, one that can bring about much good for the wider world. I do feel that while a site might help if it has good infrastructure, it is not the primary reason behind the betterment of the internet. It's the people. Toxicity migrates, but so also does goodness. Together, we have the power to fight for an internet that helps us all, however slowly that progress is achieved.

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