In the first episode of Preserving Worlds, a docuseries about dying or defunct online communities, we are given a tour of a section of the expansive but now depopulated Worlds Chat. Our guide brings us through museums and labyrinths rippling with xenomorph-like textures. In roofless spaces, we get hints of a dark abyss sprinkled with stars. Despite the limitations of the site’s mid ’90s aesthetics, the possibilities seem endless. Worlds Chat and many other such spaces are relics exemplifying the boundless imagination of an earlier era of the internet. Documenting these worlds does more than highlight history that could otherwise be lost; it preserves a time when users were creators and not products.
As internet culture has grown more accessible, it also has shrunk. Logging onto the World Wide Web used to mean delving down various rabbit holes. Your experience was drastically different than your neighbor’s, and the internet seemed far more contiguous, with countless roads leading to countless destinations. Now we all log on to the same five websites. The tech takeover corresponds with shrinking possibilities. This evolution has also seen the rise of a seeming aesthetic paradox. Minimalist design reigns now that the corporations have taken over the net. Long seen as anti-consumerist, Minimalism has now become a coded signal for luxury and control. The less control we have over our virtual spaces, the less time we spend considering our relationships with them.
Writing about our connection with social media in The Twittering Machine, Richard Seymour explains what it means to live in a “control society” — a concept from Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. “In a society of control,” he writes, “no one tells you what to do, whom to worship, or what is good and bad. You are simply presented with a range of tolerable options. Your reality is written to exclude behaviors that the system finds intolerable.” There is only one way to “play” Twitter, and the only real gain is that “No one is learning anything, except to remain connected to the machine.”
Episode 4 of Preserving Worlds takes a look at Doom, the groundbreaking 1993 first-person shooter video game which was programmed with support for player-created modifications and maps, known as WADs. Doom may seem out of place with the other worlds featured on the show. Its brutality and apocalyptic landscapes feel hellish, and its structure as a shooter game means that our virtual tour guide can’t remain passive as they lead us through the different WADs; the world is actively hostile toward the user. Yet looking at the WAD community grants a nuanced understanding of virtual spaces, one omitted from new social machines. Filmmakers like Gus van Sant in Elephant and Gerry have drawn on Doom‘s mechanics to examine our changing relationships to spaces and each other. The virtual world is informing physical spaces, rather than vice-versa. Video artists like Cyriak Harris have also taken to the platform, building maps often described as “chaotic evil.” Much like in his animation, he uses the platform to exaggerate and amplify the dreamlike structure of these game worlds.
The final episode, which is about Second Life, is the most challenging, as it explores the limits of virtual spaces as Utopian. Released in 2003, Second Life is an expansive online multiplayer game where you can be or do anything. As our guide explains, “The only thing you can use Second Life for is social space.” Yet unlike the other worlds in the series, Second Life has created its own economy as well. Developer Linden Lab has “introduced artificial scarcity and precarity to its virtual economy for no particular reason but to collect rent on it.” Despite this, Second Life has thrived as a space for adventure and experimentation with gender, sex, and social norms. Rather than the public squares of Twitter and Facebook, whose design and market remain hidden and controlled, everything is out in the open in Second Life. In that sense of simulated tangibility, it is negotiable rather than absolute; there is no one way to play the game.
Can you be nostalgic for something that continues to exist? The digital landscapes of Preserving Worlds remain active, albeit sparsely populated compared to their glory days. Users’ attachment to these worlds is nearly always rooted in their respective senses of community and promise. Preserving these worlds does not only mean holding onto historically and artistically significant chapters in the internet’s development. It’s about holding on to the idea that the players can control the game, and not the other way around.