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Rushing to save the best and worst of some terrible web history

Rushing to save the best and worst of some terrible web history

It's easy to forget how fragile the internet's memory is, but last month the members of the Something Awful forum got a harsh reminder. Ubiquitous image host Imgur announced it will remove nudity and pornography from mid-May as well as "outdated, unused and inactive content" not being linked to an account. The word was so vague that no one really knew what it meant. But the worst-case scenario was clear: an unceremonious purging of images from one of the longest-running communities on the web. A frantic discussion thread ensued, and soon, the solution seemed obvious as well. Using a spreadsheet as a home base, with a tight deadline of May 15th, Something Awful members had to help download as many Imgur link source images as possible — ideally, never before on the site. posted anything.

A few weeks later, the owner of Something Awful — who goes by Jeffrey of YOSPOS — is feeling confident. "We're rock-solid," Jeffrey told The Verge via forum direct message. While there is still much work to be done, he says the site's members have secured multiple copies of the nearly three-terabyte archive of pictures and short videos, now held on both users' hard drives and Something Awful's own. She goes He plans to host them by the end of May, leaving a minimal gap if anything is removed. But what has been internally dubbed the Great Imgur Download Caper is not a one-off crisis. It's all part of an ongoing struggle to shore up digital culture and convince people that it matters.

Something Awful has a long and notorious past, and much of its nearly 25-year history has been told through illustrations. The site is one of the fountainheads of our modern visual internet, responsible for the rise of the later cryptid Slender Man and the cheeseburger-loving Happy Cat, among other things. It's a space defined by the constant remixing of weird and strange images, encouraged by traditions like Photoshop Fridays, a recurring showcase for creative digital manipulation. "There are many people who started posting on this site as kids who are now raising kids of their own," says Jeffrey. (Jeffrey isn't the site's first owner; he bought it in 2020 from founder Richard "Lotax" Kyanka, who died in 2021.) Sharing his visual creations is keeping many of them coming back.

But the existence of these images has certainly not been static. As is the case with many forums, Something Awful has historically been dependent on external hosts like Imgur, which promise free uploads with just a few clicks. That's a great deal until, almost always, the services start pulling old photos and leaving behind thumbnail relics: a broken Flickr link, ImageShack's lonely yellow frog. Imgur isn't the first time the site's members have scrambled to back up a service. An earlier project saw him download and rehost a small trove of files from WafflePhotos—some holding images for an entire decade, Jeffrey says, before the site could officially restore them.

The Imgur download was organized by a pair of Caper Jeffrey and Something Awful administrators, and it basically consists of three phases. The first step was to scrape Something Awful, parsing its decades of threads to identify and remove links to Imgur. Those targets were identified and compiled into huge text files, each containing 100,000 Imgur link addresses. From there, the site's members (known as goons) jumped into action on the second step: splitting up the pieces and downloading them, using scripts shared and tweaked by other posters.

These first two steps were time sensitive. Not only did the goons need to meet Imgur's mid-May deadline, but they also needed to account for the possibility that Imgur would treat the download as some sort of attack and throttle it — a possibility. That, it turns out, never came. They would have more leeway for the third and final step: hosting the images from a server paid for by Something Awful, then overwriting the original post's hotlinks to point to them. “We have to coordinate to get everything in one place and validate, but we can take our time and get it right,” Jeffrey says.

Jeffrey says he's also been in touch with the Archive Team, the self-described "rogue archivist" community that has stepped in to preserve cultural artifacts like SoundCloud music and Google Plus posts. The Archive team is working on its full-scale Imgur project — team member Archiver told The Verge that it's backing up links at a rate of about 600 submissions per second, which could lead to hundreds of millions of downloads. It provides a fallback of last resort for Something Awful. It doesn't matter who's backing up the photos

It's possible that, even without any of these preservation efforts, many of Imgur's links will remain in perpetuity, given how little detail Imgur has given about its removal. (The company, which will be acquired by MediaLab in 2021, did not respond to a request for more details from The Verge in April.) But Jeffrey says hunting for answers is a "losing proposition" for the site. "It's clear that we need to host our images. Websites that promise they will 'host your images for free' are never going to run out of money - this kind of site is almost impossible to monetize is," he says. "We have an opportunity to break out of that cycle for good." Expanding hosting is a project that was already on the site's radar, but Imgur's impending changes have added further pressure.

Something Awful has the benefits of being a paid forum - there's a $10 fee to sign up, plus more perks like private messages or an ad-free site. Jeffrey estimates that the Imgur files will cost between $80 and $100 a month to host on top of an undisclosed cost for the initial archival, a price he says will help defray the registration fee. At other sites, administrators may face similar challenges without the same support. "A good deal of the modern internet is supposed to be ephemeral and 'whenever it's okay to delete it' and that's a real shame," says Jeffrey. "Does anyone on Reddit care that fifteen years of Reddit posts are suddenly going to be full of broken links?"

In fact, parts of the internet have deliberately tended toward ephemerality and obscurity. People have been flocking to the Discord messaging platform and closed forums like Discord, which have some worthwhile archival options. European privacy laws have established a "right to be forgotten" that lets people remove potentially embarrassing information from the web. And a lot of Something Awful's images are silly, pornographic, offensive, or all of the above. As one Twitter sighting highlighted, opening any of those downloaded files meant one of the internet's most notorious shock images. When the Imgur news first came out, at least some members thought purging might not be such a bad thing. A few cracked jokes finally waved goodbye to their own little serious uploads.

But history is made of silly, embarrassing transience. "If anyone ever looks back at our society, they won't understand it without understanding the Internet. Anyone who spends enough time online will experience both the best and the worst of humanity," says Jeffrey. everything else."

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