Golden Girls is one of my ten favorite TV shows ever. Recently, the entire series came to Hulu. I went to find the terrific oral history of the show, published just last year… and it was gone. The entire publication and its website had folded.
Luckily, the writer (Drew Mackie) had saved a copy, and published it on his own site after the magazine went under. So we still have gems like this anecdote from writer Winifred Hervey:
Bea was always my favorite. I left after the third season, and that’s the year she won her Emmy for Best Actress. I was at the ceremony, and after she gave her speech she came over and said, “Winifred, did you hear I mentioned your name, you little twat?” She was mad because I left.
That Golden Girls oral history is part of why I’ve been thinking about how we might save and recirculate the best parts of the web. So many good things have already vanished. The web is resilient, but fragile, too.
Big, splashy, gossipy pop culture oral histories used to be pretty rare, online or off. Vanity Fair would publish one every once in a while; in 2009, the magazine collected nine of them from the previous decade, including great features on The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Motown Records, and a galloping 50-year history of the entire internet, from ARPA to YouTube. Other magazines would do oral histories from time to time — GQ has had some terrific ones — but the real explosion begins in this decade, and it begins and ends on the web.
One of the first pieces Grantland published in 2011 was an oral history of The National, a writerly sports publication stacked with talent that could never make enough money and ended far too soon. (Message!) Right around then, a few really successful features helped kick off the boom.
Since then, my god — we have so many oral histories! Two years ago, Thrillist put together a list of 260 oral histories on music, movies, TV, and related pop culture alone. There are fake oral histories, “oral histories” that only interview two people, oral histories of things the writers profess to hate (trigger warning: autoplay), and oral histories of cult TV shows even more cultish side characters. (“In the end, I really liked Magnitude because I realized that the reason he calls himself Magnitude is because it stands for Magnetic Attitude.”)
But what are the histories you actually need to read? The Kottke Archives have links to and capsule summaries of no fewer than twenty-five oral histories, going back to 2008. These include histories of SXSW Interactive, the Challenger disaster, Freaks and Geeks, Cheers, Die Hard, and George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic.
With these alone, you already have enough reading material to get you through this week and beyond. But since we’re saving these for aliens, our grandchildren, and our alien grandchildren, I’m going to add a few more. These are just some of my favorite oral histories that (as far as I can tell) have never appeared on Kottke.org.
That last oral history in particular shows you how much the web has changed over the last twelve years — i.e., about half its life. In 2005, Yacht Rock was a show that me and a few thousand other people were really excited about, and that was enough to make it a web sensation. You couldn’t even get it on YouTube, because YouTube barely existed. Web video series were not getting loving write-ups in prestigious magazines. Yet here we are.
There’s an Achewood comic that I love where Ray, one of the strip’s deeply flawed but endearing animal protagonists, frustrated with browsing eBay, types “WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU GOT” into the search bar. This unlocks a special store called “eBay Platinum Reserve,” where Ray can buy items like “The Biggest Laser,” a real Airwolf helicopter, and Keith Moon’s head in a jar. Ray immediately buys Moon’s head and Airwolf, and the laser… well, eleven years later, like Chekhov’s proverbial pistol, it’s never been fired.
Sometimes I wish the internet worked like eBay Platinum Reserve, turning up the best stuff without us having to look for it. But for all that search engines, social media, and even artificial intelligence have given us over all these years, the closest thing we have to Platinum Reserve are still blogs like Kottke.org. Somebody still has to go out, concierge-style, to find the best stuff on the web and serve it up.
More than ever, what the web serves up on its own is the very worst things that have just happened. It’s an active shooter livestreaming a snuff film on Facebook — or something not as bad, but not much better.
And hey, focusing on very recent, very bad news makes a lot of sense. If there are awful things happening right now, I want to know about them. If some overpaid someone wrote something stupid and everyone I know is slamming it on Twitter, I want to get in on it. We’re only human.
But sometimes, I wonder, with all the abundance and ephemerality of the web, whether we indulge the opposite impulse enough. I don’t mean sharing more new things that are funny, or heartwarming, or relatable. I mean going out and finding or rediscovering the things that are The Very Best We Have to Offer, gathering them together, and saving them, forever.
This week, I am proposing an experiment. I am asking you — all of you: readers of Kottke.org, my friends, my colleagues, my strangers, my citizens of the World Wide Web, people who have known the grandeur of the best webcomics, the best YouTube videos, the best memes, the best stories and articles and entire blogs and games and nonsense with which we entertain and edify ourselves every day — I am asking you:
WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU GOT
We’re going to find the best things in the history of the internet, and gather them here, together, forever. And never to part.
Find me on Twitter at @kottke or at @tcarmody and tell me what you want to show your children and grandchildren; what you want to show the aliens when they arrive; what you showed your partner when you couldn’t believe they’d never seen it. Tell me what made your jaw drop open in awe like Ray’s when he saw Airwolf.
Imagine we’re making the world’s greatest time capsule, or the world’s greatest mixtape, of everything on the web. Tell me what’s worth saving. And then we will save them all. Here. Together.
Update: Twitter turned out to be the wrong way to handle this, so I created a Google questionnaire that could better manage suggestions. It also lets me ask a few more focused questions, like “what’s the funniest story you’ve read on the web?” or “what’s the best animal thing you’ve ever seen on here?” It also, importantly, allows me to ask for the URL of the thing of you’re talking about. So please, if you have the time, I’d love your help.
This week, with your help, I’m going to try an experiment in service of an idea.
Most popular blogs, like most popular media, regardless of genre, spend 99.9% of their time reacting to and arguing about something that’s just happened, or is about to (maybe) happen. Jason’s aesthetic has always been different, because he’s always been just as excited about older things that have just been uncovered or rediscovered, marvelous objects and ideas in weird corners of the web that nobody’s paid attention to, or that have only just made the transition from analog to digital to become part of the web conversation.
Last year, I called this approach “paleoblogging.” Like paleontologists, paleobiologists, paleographers, and paleoarcheologists, Paleobloggers dig up blogworthy material from the past to see what makes it tick. It’s different from “slow blogging,” which you might have heard about; as far as I can tell, that just promotes taking a really long time to write posts that maybe nobody reads. There’s nothing slow or private about paleoblogging. The whole point is to work the archive, work your sources, take what’s still and get it moving again.
You can also think of Bruce Sterling’s description of the Dead Media Project: “A naturalist’s field guide for the communications paleontologist.” Now we’re at the point where even born-digital projects have to be resurrected for the 21st century web. We’re making and living within our own history. If “Liberal Arts 2.0” means anything, it’s that.
So this week will be devoted to things you’ve either forgotten about or have never seen before. I’ll be highlighting posts, articles, and projects that do this well wherever I see them, and rummaging through some dusty card catalogues myself (including some right here at kottke.org) to find things that deserve to be back in circulation.
And don’t worry; it’s going to be really fun.