By | August 8, 2022
Something Awful races to save the best and worst of web history

It’s easy to forget how fragile the internet’s memory is, but last month members of the Something Awful forums got a rude reminder. Ubiquitous image host Imgur announced it would be remove nudity and pornography starting in mid-May and, along with that, “old, unused and inactive content” that is not linked to an account. The wording was so vague that no one knew exactly what it meant. But the worst-case scenario was obvious: a ceremonial purge of images from one of the longest-standing communities on the web. A frantic discussion thread started, and soon the solution also seemed obvious. Using a spreadsheet as a home base, with a tight deadline of May 15th, Something Awful’s members had to help download the source images for as many Imgur links as possible—preferably everything ever posted on the site.

A few weeks later, Something Awful’s owner – who goes by Jeffrey of YOSPOS – is feeling confident. “We’re rock hard,” Jeffrey shared The border via forum direct message. While there’s still much work to be done, he says site members have secured multiple copies of a roughly three terabyte collection of images and short videos, which now reside on both users’ hard drives and Something Awful’s own. He plans to have them host by the end of May, leaving a minimal gap if something is deleted. But what has been internally dubbed the Great Imgur Download Caper is not a one-time averted crisis. It is part of a constant struggle to prop up the digital culture and to convince people that it is important.

“There are many people who started writing on this site as children who are now raising children of their own.”

Something terrible has a long and infamous past, and much of its nearly 25-year history is told through pictures. The site is one of the sources of our modern visual internet, and is responsible for, among other things, the modern-day cryptic Slender Man and the rise of cheeseburgers-loving Happy Cat. It’s a place defined by the constant remix of weird and funny images, encouraged by traditions like Photoshop Phriday, a recurring showcase for creative digital manipulation. “There are a lot of people who started writing on this site as kids who are now raising kids of their own,” says Jeffrey. (Jeffrey is not the site’s first owner; he bought it in 2020 from founder Richard “Lowtax” Kyanka, who died in 2021.) Sharing their visual creations is what has kept many of them coming back.

But the existence of these images has never been exactly stable. As with many forums, Something Awful has historically relied on external hosts like Imgur, which promise free uploads with just a few clicks. That’s a lot until, almost invariably, services start picking out old photos and leaving behind thumbnails: a broken flickr linkImageShacks lonely yellow frog. Imgur isn’t the first time the site’s members have tried to back up a service. A previous project saw them download and restore a smaller amount of files from waffle photos — some held onto images for a full decade, Jeffrey says, before the site could officially restore them.

The Imgur Download Caper was organized by Jeffrey and a couple of Something Awful admins, and it basically involves three steps. The first step was to scrape Something Awful itself, analyzing its decades of threads to identify and extract links to Imgur. These targets were identified and compiled into giant text files, each containing 100,000 Imgur URLs. From there, the site’s members (known as goons) went into action in the second step: splitting up the pieces and mass-downloading them, using scripts that are shared and tweaked by other posters.

These first two steps were time sensitive. Not only did the goons have to beat Imgur’s mid-May deadline, but they also had to factor in the possibility that Imgur would treat the download as some kind of attack and throttle it — a possibility that, it turns out, never happened. They’ll have more leeway for the third and final step: hosting the images from servers paid for by Something Awful itself, then rewriting the original posts’ hotlinks to point to them. “We have to coordinate to get everything in one place and validated, but we can take our time and get it right,” says Jeffrey.

Jeffrey says he has also been in contact with the Archive Team, the self-described “rogue archivist” community committed to preserving cultural artifacts like SoundCloud music and Google Plus posts. The Archive Team is working on its own full-scale Imgur project — says team member Arkiver The border that it backs up links at a rate of about 600 submissions per second, adding up to hundreds of millions of downloads. It offers a reserve as a last resort for Something Awful. Regardless of who backs up the images, forum moderators will have to do the work of updating posts to ensure they link to archived images, so their original context is preserved.

“Websites that promise to ‘host your photos for free’ will never stop running out of money”

It’s possible that even without any of these preservation efforts, many of the Imgur links would remain healthy given how little detail Imgur has provided about what it’s removing. (The company, acquired by MediaLab 2021, did not respond to a request for more information from The border in April.) But Jeffrey says the search for an answer is a “losing proposition” for the site. “It’s obvious that we have to have our own images. Sites that promise to ‘host your images for free’ will never stop running out of money – it’s almost impossible to make money from such a site,” he says. “We has an opportunity here to get us out of that cycle for good.” Expanding hosting is a project that was already on the site’s radar, he says, but one that Imgur’s impending changes have made more pressing.

Something Awful has the advantage of being a paid forum – there’s a $10 fee to sign up, plus more for perks like private messaging or an ad-free site. Jeffrey estimates the Imgur files will cost between $80 and $100 per month to store in addition to an undisclosed cost for the initial filing, a price he says the registration fees will help cover. On other sites, administrators may face the same challenges without the same support. “A lot of the modern internet is treated as transient and ‘okay to delete anytime,’ and that’s a real shame,” says Jeffrey. “Does no one on Reddit care that fifteen years of Reddit posts will suddenly be full of broken links?”

Actually parts of the internet have moved towards deliberate casualness and obscurity. People have flocked to disappearing messaging platforms and closed forums like Discord, which have few meaningful archiving options. European privacy laws have created a “right to be forgotten” that allows people to remove potentially embarrassing information from the web. And many of Something Awful’s images are silly, obscene, offensive, or all of the above. As a Twitter voyeur highlighted, opening any of the downloaded files means risking an eye on the internet’s most infamous shock images. When the Imgur news first broke, at least some members thought the purge might not be a bad thing. Some scared jokes about finally saying goodbye to their younger selves’ scary uploads.

But history is made of silly, embarrassing ephemera. “If anyone is ever to look back at our society, they won’t be able to understand it without understanding the Internet. Anyone who spends any significant amount of time online will experience both the best and the worst that humanity has to offer,” says Jeffrey. “People put much of themselves in their internet presence and that’s reason enough that it should be recorded, warts and all.”

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