The other day, while feeling nostalgic, I remembered a YouTube channel I had loved to watch in high school. Created by a teenager from Connecticut, the videos were mostly lo-fi comedy sketches starring their young amateur director and some people I assumed were his closest friends. I wanted to rewatch the videos, to remember the feeling that came with streaming them on a loop from a bedroom I slept in a decade ago, but I couldn't. I don’t remember the creator's name, the name of the channel, or the titles of any of the videos. All I remember are frustratingly insignificant details, like how one clip featured a garden gnome and a song by Belle & Sebastian.
Finding this YouTube channel now feels hopeless, because the internet, as I experience it, has grown from a handful of aisles to a maze curving in endless directions. Unlike when I discovered that YouTube channel for the first time, I can’t hope to stumble upon the missing videos by aimlessly surfing. The number of people using YouTube between then and now has increased substantially — YouTube had an estimated 50 million users in 2006; now it has more than 1 billion. Last year, Tubular Insights estimated over 500 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube every minute. There’s just too much stuff to sift through.
There's just too much stuff to sift through
For all of the talk of innovation and disruption, sometimes the internet most closely resembles one of the musty institutions it displaced: the library. Like a library, the internet is an information management system, a bunch of stacked shelves storing images and videos, texts and sounds. As time has passed, these shelves have become increasingly dense with data. Like librarians, companies have intervened to better curate and index all this information. Facebook stores your photos from your birthdays, Twitter holds onto your daily thoughts, Google possesses any concrete knowledge you might have learned in the past or will learn in the future, and each offers some method for finding what you need within their endless corridors. But all these new, complex filing systems create a problem that didn’t exist at the outset: things are now much more likely to get lost in the stacks.
As the magnitude of available information jumps, one person’s ability to meaningfully sort through any of it is almost entirely paralyzed by the limitations of search tools. If the teenager behind this channel never added keywords or tags to his videos — or never added highly specific tags — searching something vague like "belle & sebastian gnome" doesn't get me anywhere. Even though platforms like YouTube allow for highly individualized user accounts (theoretically, if I were signed into YouTube, I would have a greater chance of finding these videos than someone who had never watched them before), I still have almost nothing to anchor my search.
And even if the videos were tagged, YouTube’s search function accounts for additional factors, like location, search history, and what other users have clicked on after similar searches. Tags, thumbnails, and titles will only get you so far. While I don’t remember, nor do I have any way to look up, how many views the Gnome Boy, as I will now call him, had, I’m fairly certain the number is not high. That means, with only shallow search terms to go on, Gnome Boy’s videos could be buried underneath a handful of illegal David the Gnome uploads and the complete music video catalogue of a Scottish indie pop band. The videos may not be technically lost, but they might as well be.
The videos may not be lost, technically, but they might as well be
"Our search and discovery team works hard to make sure our users can always find what they are looking for," explained a YouTube spokesperson over e-mail. "When you find channels that you like, subscribe to them. Once you do, you'll get a notification when they upload new videos. This makes it simple to keep up with the content you care about."
That feature's tremendously helpful if you have the foresight to subscribe. And furthermore, the search tools on YouTube and the internet at large do a pretty solid job of helping us find what we want from literally millions, if not billions, of available options.
But what these sites don't account for is the ease with which the things we love can be lost within them. In the past, we came in contact with so few things that they could be uncovered with research and patience. Now, while everything is technically more searchable than ever before, the things we love are more likely than ever to be "lost."
There’s a more ephemeral force working against me in this specific case: the clumsy, but persistent march of time. Gnome Boy is now at least a decade older, probably not living in his parents’ house in Connecticut anymore, and maybe not making YouTube videos. Without consistent updates to his almost definitely unpopular YouTube channel, he’s left his legacy to sink deeper into obscurity.
Scale and obscurity are also my enemies. Unlike a book or movie or album, I can’t hope to rediscover my lost YouTube channel with a 20th Anniversary remaster of Gnome Boy’s greatest hits. And unlike a television show or newspaper story, I can't count on some parent company's archive.
This problem isn’t unique to YouTube either. Take the Facebook group Useless, Unsuccessful, and/or Unpopular Memes, currently housing more than 154,000 members. Although members are limited to posting three memes every 24 hours, that’s still a lot of memes — dozens a day, not counting the reactions that get buried in the comments. Sheer mass makes the turnover rate remarkable; memes I saw 12 hours ago are already so buried underneath other memes that I must immediately bookmark one for the chance to ever find it again.
And then there’s Google Search, which might be the Dewey Decimal System to the internet's library. Its algorithms are supposed to understand your keywords and automatically present the thing you're looking for. Google Search might be the closest thing the internet has to a filing system, but even it can be ineffective in some cases. A website on the 23rd page of a search result might as well not exist — its only real function is as a space holder in a line of content. Search "dog," on Google, and by the 23rd page you’ll get a Seattle Times news story about the death of Chucky the cocker spaniel. It might not be close to what you wanted, but it needs to fit somewhere in a "dog" search. Google’s search rankings give the illusion of organization, but at a certain depth it just feels like chaos.
seriously help me pls: tryna find that really gr8 remix of Father Stretch My Hands but the only detail I have is I think it came out in June— sean d. henry-smith (@surrealsermons) August 11, 2016
Entwined with all this is the fact that even though YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are haphazard campgrounds of user contributions, we still, perhaps unreasonably, expect them to instantly surface what we want to see. Even Snapchat, an app that made us comfortable with the idea of loss, went and threw the whole concept of ephemerality out the window last month with the launch of Memories, a snap storage bin literally named after thoughts in the human brain. The one platform we never expected to hold onto stuff for us claims it will — at least for now.
Nothing will ever be lost, is the tacit promise. But it’s a promise that’s impossible to keep. The Verge’s Dami Lee knows the feeling that accompanies losing something on the internet. Her Twitter account was recently hacked, and all of her tweets — thousands of them — basically evaporated.
Also maybe the videos were deleted years ago
A recent episode of the Reply All podcast touched on this phenomenon of internet loss, when it told the story of a woman named Rachel who lost dozens of photos of her young children due to a glitch on a photo storage website called Picturelife. The site went down for several days, and when it returned, all of Rachel’s photos had been replaced with solid color blocks.
Rachel explained how the worst part of the incident was imagining the ways in which her own memory could fail her, since she had already handed off the task of remembering to Picturelife. "There’s this crazy thought I have," she said, "where I think, 'What are the photos that I don’t even remember taking, that are now gone.' I want it all saved, I want to be able to look at it. I want to be able to remember it."
We expect the internet, with all its power, to do the heavy lifting for us. We're not careful to remember the keywords that will help us locate memories in the future. Instead, we're left with the vague details — an outline of a picture rather than the picture itself. As companies add more stacks to the digital library of our life, even greater waves of stuff will get pushed to the sides, washing up in remote places. At this point, it's hard to say if there's a better way to organize it all, or if internet librarians with an encyclopedic knowledge of the stacks would make useful tour guides. The real issue here is one of misplaced confidence and forgetfulness, and there's no notification for memory loss.
Correction: The piece was updated with comment from YouTube on its channel subscription feature.