When an incoming freshman at Harvard enters her room in the Yard for the first time, she’s greeted with a little scrap of history meant to kindle her awe at her place in the college’s legacy. On her bed will sit an envelope containing a list of names and years of graduation of all the people who have ever inhabited her room.
It’s a little like that scene in Dead Poets’ Society where Robin Williams creeps around among a group of his students murmuring, “Caaaaarpe,” while they stare at a photograph of their forebears. But it produces its intended effect. Those students who will room with the ghosts of JFK and Oliver Wendell Holmes will mention this fact in conversation for the rest of their lives. And even the lists without famous names will convey a powerful message: It wasn’t so long ago that these ancients, who graduated before you were ever born, were in this very room, feeling these same feelings you are now.
I thought of this as I was thinking of another milestone that shaped my freshman year: my introduction to Napster. Although I was as awed as anyone else by the fact of being able to download any song, instantly, for free, it wasn’t long before another element of the service made it a killer app.
When you searched for a song on Napster, the service would present you with a list of computers carrying the tune (identified by their usernames), and you could select a user to try downloading it from. Unlike today’s BitTorrent clients, a Napster download was a one-to-one transaction between two pseudonyms, not an exchange of file fragments among a network of anonymous peers.
If you wanted to, you could peer into a user’s hard drive – this was the fascinating part. When you found a song you’d long forgotten, or a rare b-side you never even knew existed, you could peruse the rest of the user’s music library and sample their tastes. This is how I used to discover the best a cappella groups from around the country – I would scour for tracks from groups I knew were good, and then find my way to the desktops of the real a cappella aficionados (especially popular among discriminating listeners in the Napster days was the work of John R. Stephens of the University of Pennsylvania Counterparts, later known as John Legend).
Although there were chat rooms on Napster, you rarely chatted with the users you downloaded from, but they could sever the transaction if they liked. Because Napster worked on a now-familiar gift economy, the service made your download and upload directories the same – you shared the same directory your files were saved to. Some more private users would keep very few files in this directory, instantly transferring their music to a hidden place on their computer after it was downloaded, away from the prying eyes of strangers. Most, however, kept their full collections available for perusal.
Surfing Napster was a completely unfamiliar feeling, like walking into a giant library filled with the bookcases of strangers. It created a social space that felt (and still feels) unique to the Internet, a space where you’re interacting not with people themselves, or even with avatars of people, but with traces of them. This sensation suffuses the entire Web, but I’ve never seen it remarked on, and I’m curious if you all have.
In the offline world, of course, we encounter the traces of strangers all the time – borrower cards in library books, graffiti in bathroom stalls, gossip rags forgotten in the pockets of airplane seats. But these encounters rarely become anything more significant than a passing observation.
On the Web, we transact with these ghosts, communicate with them, and endeavor to understand them. If you’ve ever managed a website before, you probably know what it’s like to pore over traffic reports, trying to learn as much as you can about your visitors. You analyze paths through your sites, referrers, entrances and exits, like you’re watching the security tape of someone walking through your home.
Increasingly, I’ve found myself relying on auto-suggest more and more as I’m Googling and buying things on Amazon to figure out how others shape their queries. Since auto-suggest has come into mainstream usage, it’s now become a regular font of humor. I once heard a memorable quote to the effect that we’re never more honest than when we’re in front of the search box. How weird and fascinating is it to see this peek into that incredibly private space?
The first eighteen people who saw me disconnected immediately. They appeared, one by one, in a box at the top of my screen—a young Asian man, a high-school-age girl, a guy lying on his side in bed—and, every time, I’d feel a little flare of excitement. Every time, they’d leave without saying a word. Sometimes I could even watch them reach down, in horrifying real-time, and click “next.” It was devastating. … My longest exchange was with a guy who seemed to be wearing one of those protective cones you put on a dog after surgery. “LICK YOU ELBOW,” he typed. “Why?” I asked. He disconnected.
I call this the Internet of ghosts. So often online, we interact in ways that are intimate enough to feel significant, but so disconnected they’re essentially mysterious. Sometimes on Napster, you’d begin downloading a file only to see its owner sever the connection. For rarer files, I remember this being every bit as devastating as it must have been for Sam Anderson, watching these shades flit onto his screen and then, without a word, click away.
We Feel Fine made an art project out of this sensation. And recently, Kevin Kelly recommended a techno-apocalyptic thriller called Daemon, which features an actual ghost wreaking genuine havoc over the Web.
I can’t decide to what extent I love this aspect of the Web, and to what extent it creeps me out. And I don’t know whether this is a sense that’s baked into the Web, or whether it’s a momentary artifact of the state of the technology. It’s easy to imagine that pseudonymity and anonymity remain ubiquitous characteristics of identity online, but it’s also easy to imagine a more locked-down Web, where all interactions accrue to personas, and the mystery of these moments is lost.