What Happens When Digital Cities Are Abandoned?

Exploring the pristine ruins of Second Life and other online spaces

I stand at the junction of several dusty, well-traveled roads. Passersby hurry through, chattering and laughing as they make their way from the city looming in the distance to the north, along the paths to the southeast, which branch out as the land grows less dense, winding through lakes and forests.

I haven’t been here in years, but it’s as familiar to me as if I’d been away only a few weeks. There are no familiar faces, and no one recognizes me. By memory, I make my way along the winding road and soon end up in a clearing by a lake. Trees bend over the water, dragging their tendrils across its mirrored surface. Birds chirp contentedly.

This is it; I’m home. 

Sort of.

That’s because, in this case, “home” is actually “grove,” as in “a small wood.” It’s a term used in the text-adventure game I am currently playing, a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) set in a vaguely Tolkien-esque world with touches of Greek mythology. I spent the better part of five years playing this game, all through high school and into college. It’s still running today, and it remains immersive to an astonishing degree, even compared with contemporary games—it has its own social mores, cultural life, history and folklore. Its political systems are complicated and well-developed, and to this day I still use some of the slang terms that were common. And it’s all presented via simple text on a screen.

In this game, members of the Druid guild have dominion over the world’s forests, and are allowed to select a single forest “room” as a personal waypoint. As a player, that becomes your home base—you meet up with people there, hang out and chat, protect yourself and use it as a starting location for navigating the entire world.

That ownership expires, though, and must be continually renewed, the way a garden must be continually tended, lest nature overtake its carefully-arranged borders. I touch the ground, sensing. Yes—someone else owns this spot, now. I am just a visitor, here. I straighten up again, thinking about how much the Internet has changed in the last 15 years—and how much I, too, have changed.

* * *

The nomenclature of the early Internet is domestic: home pages, key words, hosts. And in those days, the web was small, knowable. Search engines contained a finite, hand-indexed listing of every website that had been submitted.

Map used to navigate MUD (Laura E. Hall)

In the late 1990s, GeoCities was one of the first sites that let people create webpages of their own. It was organized into topic-based neighborhoods, and those into suburbs, with what were essentially house numbers. Because the service was around so early on, and because it was free, many users found their first taste of internet self-expression there. When Yahoo! shut down GeoCities in April 2009, there was a concerted effort to collect and archive all of the site’s contents.

“The great paradox about these digital communities is that they’re easily kept around forever, and they are even more easily deleted utterly,” said Jason Scott, an Internet advocate and archivist who launched a digital preservation team that year. His Archive Team worked quickly to capture as much of the info as they could, backing it up on the Internet Archive and releasing a torrent of all of the files, and a handful of other sites scraped and reposted what they could.

“When we founded Archive Team, it was in a dearth of recognition that these communities had lasting historical and societal value,” Scott said. “They were considered to be byproducts, like a street corner—thinking of it as the point where two streets collide, rather than being a hangout that when removed, removes the entire community.”

I recently tried to revisit my own first homepage, a wonder of center-aligned blinking text, purple tiled backgrounds, clever “Under Construction” gifs and pixel-art icons I had traded with other GeoCities page owners. But all that remains is a single mention of the username on someone else’s page, a record of my having visited there once. Because of the nature of the sites, none of the archives of GeoCities is 100 percent complete, and it’s difficult to know for sure how much actually still exists; much of the data is simply being stored for a later date, when technology has reached the ability to collate and curate it all.

“People build these communities without really recognizing what they are, then they suddenly realize, we’re out of money, we’ve changed priorities, we’ve been acquired—they decide to jettison their material,” Scott said. “That’s when we step in. We grab a copy of it for posterity, just because the conversation stops when the data is gone. We take a backup so that somebody can make use of it down the line.”

One of the archives promises that, just because a page isn’t displayed, it doesn’t mean it’s gone forever: “It may simply mean that we haven’t gotten around to restoring it.”

“Your page isn’t gone,” Scott said, when I mentioned my search. “It’s just in a quantum state.”

* * *

People use terms like “majestic,” “spectacularly vacant,” and “post-apocalyptic” to describe real-life ruins. There’s an entire subculture around images of once-splendid buildings, now left to rot and decay. I’m a quiet fan of these urban explorers, people who devote time to poking around abandoned buildings or “haikyo”—and, if they’re lucky, uncovering stories about the people that once resided there. And because I’ve spent so much time inhabiting digital rooms myself, I often think about how time decays digital structures. I imagine all of the strings of text that have come before or after mine that similarly disappeared into the void. But what happens when those spaces stick around, as in a virtual world—when they can’t physically decay?

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Laura E. Hall is a writer and artist based in Portland, Oregon. 

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