Unravelling Internet Decay

This article stems from my Master’s thesis and subsequent doctoral proposal on ‘Internet decay’, a concept I propose to define the specific characteristics of content loss on the Web, its aesthetic potential, and critical significance. It started by noticing a lack of linearity that is different from the chronological process of decay in analogue media, where the passage of time usually determines a gradual, predictable deterioration. In a digital context, however, the relative newness [1] and the many “layers of abstraction” [2] – interface to code to binary numbers to electronic signals – turns digital decay into something much more unobtrusive and opaque. It does not require a specialist to notice the crumbling of a monument, but one may be required to inspect a webpage’s source code packed with deprecated functions or a faulty server on the verge of collapse.

A deeper exploration into those online wastelands bears a timely significance now, as the COVID crisis has caused the disruption of a significant number of daily tasks and their subsequent migration to a complete online environment. When a significant part of the world population is more dependent on the Internet as ever [3],  the possibility of its collapse could be devastating, which creates a good momentum for further exploration and awareness of Internet fragility. Rather than offering a definitive route to save Internet from its high entropy-level, here I will briefly explore the main causes of this phenomenon and lay down some points to encourage further discussions, inviting for a reflection on the possibilities brought by digital ruins gaze.

In the specific context of the Web, content decay is mostly intensified through the lack of interest in preserving information or the deliberate interest in eliminating it, rather than following the usual linearity of degradation processes. As a result, certain contents from the Vernacular Web [4] of the late nineties can remain intact, whereas a hyperlink from yesterday’s news page could already lead to a dead-end.

To analyse it further, here I will divide the main causes into two categories, the code-level, relating to the internal software processes; and the structural-level, encompassing computer hardware materiality and external causes. On the code-level, ‘link rot’ is the most common manifestation of Internet decay, as the one-way system of web links results in an unstable environment without version control. The original unavailable content of a 404-error page could have been deleted or just transferred, what is called ‘content drift’.

On top of that, the usual link lifespan is alarmingly short. Already in 1997, Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive, estimated that the average URL lasted only around 44 days [5].  

In the last ten years, the average website size has increased 348.7% [6], while only 1.11% of links [7] on global news homepages last longer than 3 months. When these problems massively affect online scientific publications [8] and public governmental information [9], the results can gradually become catastrophic. ‘Reference rot’ is the name given to the inaccessible citations that affects 1 in 5 academic articles[10], turning many of those papers’ sources into an untraceable, unprovable evidence of new knowledge.

Legacy programming languages and deprecated code also contribute to Internet decay as sometimes a webpage is reliant on a third-party library, web hosting platform or software that is not maintained anymore. It can be a veiled problem, passing unnoticed until something important breaks. The recent official discontinuation [11] of Adobe Flash, once the ubiquitous software for powering online media, was an emblematic case. Even after the date of its support termination had been officially announced years before, it had some unexpected consequences to the railroad system in Dalian [12], northern China.

On the structural level, there are many factors that may seem unrelated to Internet materiality, but are responsible for serious disruptions. Political tensions can seriously affect Internet access, as governments are increasingly imposing shutdowns or strict firewalls to prevent their citizens from accessing content and communicating freely, as recently seen in India [13], Myanmar [14] , Sudan [15], Uganda [16] and in many other countries.

There is also the ecological aspect, as the environmental toll of the huge amounts of waste caused by ever-increasing Internet traffic [17] and big tech’s data centres [18] allied to a hasty obsolescence cycle cannot be ignored. The infrastructure, resources and energy needed to maintain the current flow of online information and consumption is untenable for the long-term, leading to resource depletion [19] and climate crisis [20].

There are many initiatives to make the Web more permanent, such as the pioneer Internet Archive Wayback Machine [21] and the recent Perma [22]  focused on the academic community, but it has long become evident that their laborious, never-ending task is impossible – for technical, legal, economical, or ecological reasons[23].

The preservation and restoration of websites from GeoCities [24] by Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied is also noteworthy. Together, they have managed to scavenge 1 terabyte of amateurish web design from a past era before they were completely deleted in 2009. From a purely functional point of view, their pursuit may seem a nostalgic futility, but from a cultural standpoint that is a comprehensive documentation of the already-vanishing early Web.

In a way, reconciling with the indeterminate, embracing the fact that some ruins are inevitable and could even lead to something beautiful and positive on its own presence, could be a way out in this delicate, paradoxical relationship – where losing part of our personal and collective memory is imperative to not endanger the possibility of future. The Internet, in its constant process of (un)becoming, defies a single aesthetic unity [25], opening an opportunity for a new kind of aesthetic appreciation of digital space and a change of posture in dealing with the indiscriminate accumulation of the past as the only way to value and acknowledge it [26].


[1] Sterne, J. (2007) ‘Out with the Trash: On the future of New Media’, in Acland, C. Residual Media. London: University of Minnesota Press.

[2] Hui, Y. (2016) On the Existence of Digital Objects. London: University of Minnesota Press

[3] Branscombe, M. (2019) ‘The Network Impact of the Global COVID-19 Pandemic’, The New Stack. Available at: https://thenewstack.io/the-network-impact-of-the-global-covid-19-pandemic/ (Accessed: 4 January 2021)

[4]  Lialina, O. (2005) A Vernacular Web. Available at: http://art.teleportacia.org/observation/vernacular (Accessed: 05 January 2021)

[5] Kahle, B. (1997) ‘Preserving the Internet’, Scientific American, March 1997. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/preserving-the-internet/ (Accessed: 4 January 2021)

[6] HTTP Archive (2020) ‘State of the Web Report’. HTTP Archive. Available at: https://httparchive.org/reports/state-of-the-web?start=earliest&end=latest&view=list (Accessed: 5 January 2021)

[7] GDELT Project (2019) ‘A Look at Frontpage Link Lifespan Through 10 Months of The Global Frontpage Graph (GFG)’, The GDELT Project Blog. Available at: https://blog.gdeltproject.org/a-look-at-frontpage-link-lifespan-through-10-months-of-the-global-frontpage-graph-gfg/ (Accessed: 5 January 2021)

[8] Burnhill, P. Mewissen, M. Wincewicz, R. (2015) Reference rot in scholarly statement: threat and remedy. Available at:  http://hiberlink.org/Insight.htm (Accessed: 4 January 2021)

[9] Liptak, A. (2013) ‘In Supreme Court Opinions, Web Links to Nowhere’, The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/us/politics/in-supreme-court-opinions-clicks-that-lead-nowhere.html (Accessed: 4 January 2021)

[10] Klein M, Van de Sompel H, Sanderson R, Shankar H, Balakireva L, et al. (2014) ‘Scholarly Context Not Found: One in Five Articles Suffers from Reference Rot’. PLOS ONE 9(12): e115253. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0115253  (Accessed: 02 January 2021)

[11] Adobe (2021) ‘Adobe Flash Player EOL’, Adobe. Available at: https://www.adobe.com/uk/ /flashplayer/end-of-life.html (Accessed: 10 February 2021)

[12] HKT (2020) ‘As Adobe Flash stops running, so do some railroads in China’, Apple Daily HK. Available at: https://hk.appledaily.com/news/20210117/FLXATT4LKVBGVEBRLAECJPTCHM/ (Accessed: 10 February 2021)

[13] UNHR (2019) ‘UN rights experts urge India to end communications shutdown in Kashmir’, United Nations Human Rights. Available at: https://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=24909 (Accessed: 5 January 2021)

[14] Jalan, T. (2021) ‘Myanmar Military Blocks Internet, Social Media Amid Protests Against Coup’, Medianama. Available at: https://www.medianama.com/2021/02/223-myanmar-coup-internet-social-media-blocked/ (Accessed: 10 February 2021)

[15] Moore, J. (2020) ‘Anatomy of an internet shutdown’, Rest of World. Available at: https://restofworld.org/2020/sudan-revolution-internet-shutdown/ (Accessed: 10 February 2021)

[16] Kafeero, S. (2021) ‘Uganda has cut off its entire internet hours to its election polls opening’ Quartz Africa. Available at: https://qz.com/africa/1957137/uganda-cuts-off-internet-ahead-of-election-polls-opening/ (Accessed: 10 February 2021)

[17] CISCO (2020) ‘Cisco Annual Internet Report (2018–2023) White Paper’, CISCO. Available at: https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/solutions/collateral/executive-perspectives/annual-internet-report/white-paper-c11-741490.html (Accessed: 10 February 2021)

[18] Jones, N. (2018) ‘How to stop data centres from gobbling up the world’s electricity’ Nature, Vol. 561. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-06610-y (Accessed: 09 February 2021)

[19] Stolz, S. Jungblut, S. (2019) ‘Our Digital Carbon Footprint: What’s the Environmental Impact of the Online World?’, RESET Editorial, August 2019. Available at:  https://en.reset.org/knowledge/our-digital-carbon-footprint-whats-the-environmental-impact-online-world-12302019 (Accessed: 10 February 2021)

[20] The Shift Project (2019) ‘Climate Crisis: The Unsustainable Use Of Online Video: Our New Report On The Environmental Impact Of ICT’, The Shift Project. Available at: https://theshiftproject.org/en/article/unsustainable-use-online-video/  (Accessed: 11 February 2021)

[21] Internet Archive (1996) ‘Wayback Machine’, Internet Archive. Available at: https://archive.org/web/ (Accessed: 11 February 2021)

[22] Harvard Law School Library (2013) Perma. Available at: https://perma.cc/ (Accessed: 11 February 2021)

[23] Day M. (2003) ‘Preserving the Fabric of Our Lives: A Survey of Web Preservation Initiatives’. In: Koch T., Sølvberg I.T. (eds) Research and Advanced Technology for Digital Libraries. ECDL 2003. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 2769. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

[24] Lialina, O. Espenschied, D. (2010 – 2021) ‘One Terabyte Of Kilobyte Age’, Rhizome Net Art Anthology. Available at: https://anthology.rhizome.org/one-terabyte-of-kilobyte-age (Accessed: 5 January 2021)

[25] Simmel, G. (1965) ‘The Ruin’ Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics, ed. Kurt H. Wolff, Harper and Row, New York.

[26] DeSilvey, C. (2017) Curated Decay: Heritage beyond Saving. London: University of Minnesota Press