A recent blog post from my brother on social media led me to think of online networking before social media giants like FaceBook and Twitter became popular. In those days, the main source of online networking was through blogging, internet forums and sites like Flickr which catered to a fairly niche audience (in Flickr’s case, photography). And those days, people rarely used their real names online. Most people went under a pseudonym, also called a “handle”. While in the case of blogging many chose to blog under their real names, on web-based forums and pre social-media networking sites, people usually chose a pseudonymous handle. There was basically no compulsion to reveal your real name or identity unlike on modern social media which strongly encourages you to link you to identifiable details like mobile number, your first name, middle name and surname and also associate your identity with all mutual friends, friends of friends and so on. All this contributed to something of a mystique around an online identity without any revealed real-world connections.
The point of this post is that pre social-media online identities made it almost impossible to find out why a person suddenly disappeared from an online existence, which is disconcerting especially if you have interacted with that person a lot. I had a lot of blogging friends back in the day who simply stopped blogging and disappeared after a few years, completely removing themselves from any traceable online presence. Even those with real names are near impossible to trace if they have no social media presence. I don’t think a lot of the old-school bloggers and those who were prominent on internet forums have a social media presence these days, at least on the popular mainstream ones. I think I am one of the few rare bloggers who maintain an online presence from 2005 till date. I am not sure of percentages but I would hazard a guess that around 90% of the blogs/forums I used to follow back in 2005 have disappeared, either completely or probably resurfaced on social media without any connection to their earlier online presence. And of the people I knew who stopped blogging, very few recognizably resurfaced on social media.
I am not sure of the reasons for sudden online disappearance, which could be varied. Maybe people chose to remove themselves from the virtual world for privacy reasons, maybe they lost interest, their life situation changed, career pressures took over, family responsibilities came in the way or (sadly) just passed away. Such is life.
In so far as the internet is concerned, the disappearance of a person from online activity does not always mean complete removal of all traces of the person — it’s not rare to find long-dead blogs/websites still preserved on free services like Blogspot or WordPress and in the case of paid domain names which have expired, it’s even possible to retrieve an archived copy from services like the Wayback Machine.
From another angle, it may actually be a good thing to have the option to totally and completely wipe out an online identity and associated content permanently. As of today, I doubt whether this is technologically feasible, what with all the massive archiving of content by different web services and providers. As they say, once it’s on the internet, it’s probably there forever, even if the creator has long since disappeared, mysteriously or otherwise.