April 11, 2022

Suburban archaeology, 10 years later

I'm putting together in one place, all the various posts on this topic I wrote roughly 10 years ago -- which might as well be an eternity, lying on the other side of the dividing line, before the Web 2.0 era degraded into the social media era.

Below are the links, with brief descriptions. They're in chronological order, but you can browse them in any order without missing out on background. New posts on the topic will come when I get some old images cleaned up for presentation. Until then, reacquaint yourselves with the topic, or dive into it for the first time.

This is what you come to the ruins of the blogosphere for -- long trips wending through secret passageways of online, far from the beaten path of the 24-hour take-cycle. How fitting that the topic of decaying environments once part of vibrant living communities, can only be explored within a region of the virtual realm that is itself lying in ruins. But I am still here, tending the grounds, and serving as a guide for those curious souls who wander by.

* * *

Wet cement carvings

They're not an "I'm so awesome" display, but like signing the guestbook of a party, or signing a communal yearbook, to memorialize your social group. In the comments, newspaper articles on the police crackdown against the practice during the helicopter parent era of the '90s and after.

Suburban archaeology overview

Big-picture thoughts about doing archaeology in the suburbs, how much life has changed so quickly and how that is reflected in visits to functionally-ancient sites. Mostly about the social changes from the outgoing era of roughly 1960-1990, to the cocooning era of 1990 to present (or is it turning around circa 2020?).

Lamp post carvings

A site visit with pictures (taken with, I believe, a crappy early 2010s iPhone camera -- am trying to clean up the pics from that excursion, including a whole bunch on tree carvings and beverage containers, and will post those later). Since the early 2010s were still deep in cocooning territory, the empty desertedness of suburban spaces is on display in the shots of the location. I took those pictures on a sunny summer afternoon -- no way a public place with athletic fields, playgrounds, and open grass areas, would have been devoid of people back in the '80s or early '90s.

The school rock phenomenon

Schools used to have a school rock, which kids decorated, signed, and otherwise left their imprint on. Similar to carving your name in wet cement, or signing a communal yearbook. As communities collapsed, the practice died off, and nothing has taken its place, whether IRL or virtual.

Suburban woods reclaimed by nature

There was a trend in the late 2000s and early 2010s of documenting the reclaiming of urban ruins by wild nature, mainly focusing on the collapse of Detroit proper (not the 'burbs). This post extends the approach to the suburban woods, which used to be far more tamed due to people hanging out back there so frequently. But once everyone abandoned them, they became so overgrown that they're hostile to anyone wandering around there these days. I was really shocked wandering trails that I had been used to in the early-mid '90s, 20 years later. Part of what inspired me to make a part-time job out of DIY trail maintenance -- I couldn't stand seeing those woods getting so unwelcoming.

Follow-up on the above

Further observations on that change in the woods, after spending more time there on trail maintenance / reconstruction.

Families replacing friends in graffiti

Graffiti overall has plummeted off a cliff since the '80s and early '90s, but there is still some here and there. But in the 'burbs, where it would have been a group of friends leaving their mark before, now it's the nuclear family leaving their mark. As communities collapse, the only social group left standing is the nuclear family.

Booze and drug use at middle-school hang-out

Site visit, though no pictures. I was just passing through, not intending to do any archaeological documentary work, so didn't bring a camera. But committed it to memory to write a post about it. We all know high schoolers and college kids used to be more wild in the good ol' days, but for a brief time, that encompassed middle schoolers as well. Namely, when the late Boomers were in middle school, during the '70s. They would shortly become the Fast Times at Ridgement High generation, but they were already on their way there in middle school. Actual ancient beer cans present, plus tree carvings about being high on pot.


  1. Someone tried to make a sidewalk carvings website, and even plugged it in the comments to my first post in this series. "Once upon a sidewalk" -- website no longer exists. Then it moved to being a Twitter account -- no original content, that still shows anyway. Also tried to get a hashtag going #asidewalk, so others could upload their own content to the trend -- no such examples, at least that still show.

    It was a neat idea, and something I was pondering back in 2013-'14. That's probably why I took the pictures with that crappy iPhone -- I was thinking of using something to quickly snap pics, upload quickly to Instagram, quickly post a notice about a new upload on Twitter, etc. I think that 2013 site visit was partly to test out the tech side of things.

    Thank God I didn't actually go that route. For one, the tech sucks. You need a very recent iPhone to take good pictures. I'm sure my old 2000s-era point-and-shoot would work fine. Or do what I really want, shoot on film, have prints made, and then if they're worth it, scan & share online.

    But for another, that whole approach to the nascent social media platforms went totally out the window. A quirky little space to micro-blog quirky little items of interest, maybe organized into hashtags or something. Nope -- it's just new ways for aspiring media people to put their takes (or selfies) out there for junkies of takes / selfies.

    It reminds me of the pre-historic era of Tumblr, which I briefly revisited here:


    At first, Tumblr was just a place to upload content, usually visual, on a single theme, however general or narrow it was. And that theme was the tumblr's name, like a hashtag but owned by just one account -- so, it could have been:


    Or more appropriate to the vibe circa 2010:


    However, that didn't play into the burgeoning parasociality draw of social media. The owner of that fuckyeah tumblr account was not a clearly identified individual, or even a branded persona. The owner was not the point, it was the themed content, organized into a virtual coffee table book -- pizza, leaves on the ground, girls with bangs, etc.

    It's not like blogs hosted on blogspot.com are as thriving as they were 10-15 years ago, but here I am. I've been going this whole time, and so have some others. Crucially, this website, my sub-domain, my posts, and my pictures, are still up and viewable.

    Whereas the fuckyeah tumblrs were all dead and/or self-deleted nearly a decade ago, and so are their imitators on Instagram and Twitter. They tried to make blogging take root on a social media platform, and that doomed the whole approach to failure.

    Blogging belongs on a blogging platform. Streaming on a streaming platform. Take-meistering on a take-meister platform.

  2. Labelscar, the blog documenting the dead mall phenomenon, was the best of the whole Living Archaeology trend of the late 2000s and early 2010s.


    Few cities were like Detroit, where urban structures were literally becoming overgrown by nature, post-collapse. But Detroit is a city, so that single entry in the genre of "contemporary ruins" got almost all the attention from the media and pro photographers, who are urbanite navel-gazing bugmen.

    Malls are actually an all-American phenomenon, both during their heyday and during their collapse, so pro photographers, filmmakers, media-ites, etc. couldn't have cared less about them, by and large -- because they're a distinctly suburban phenomenon.

    The creative class wants to LARP like they're still living before the Midcentury ("pre-War building"), before suburbs became the main place Americans live, a time when they could ignore all things suburban and still be truthful to the external world. Now they're just ignorant, clueless, out-of-touch, or outright liars -- and therefore, boring, nothing to say, no views worth paying attention to. They don't even know what planet they're on.

    They don't have to have exacting verisimilitude in their work, but lazing around a straight-up copium den, fingers plugged in their ears, hands covering their eyes, walling themselves off from the real world, all while affecting a smug knowing smirk -- nothing could be more boring, pointless, and disposable.

    They don't even have to have a positive feeling toward malls or the 'burbs -- clinically neutrality would make their views worth something. They're just in coping dismissal la-la-la I can't hear you mode. Sad, but also pathetic.

    So it fell to those who were amateur photographers at best, and who had a basic fondness or enthusiasm for their subject matter, to document what was going on, what the history was, and weave things together into a narrative. Like the Labelscar blogger.

    As for the ruins of the blogosphere -- Labelscar's last post is from 2013, latest comment from 2017, and most threads in the Flickr forum have their most recent comments from 2-3 years ago.

  3. It won't be dead malls, but dead online platforms, for the Millennial and especially Zoomer generations. Hanging out with others is increasingly an entirely online activity, not IRL, so there are no physical structures serving as the location for social bonding, whether the structures are still in good shape or are in decay.

    I guess I was alluding to this with the talk about the ruins of the blogosphere, but blogs were rarely a hang-out place for socializing with heavily branded personas.

    For those whose socialization was mostly online, though, the disappearance of their former digital hang-outs will be felt like Gen X losing their malls.

    The damnedest thing about this shift is that online spaces vanish much more readily than physical spaces. I thought the whole novelty of online was to TRANSCEND the constraints of physical reality, to perhaps upload the digitized content of your brain into the cloud so that your consciousness could exist forever? LOL.

    You're much more likely to find a decaying mall still standing, albeit in a decrepit state, than a has-been website. Just look at MySpace -- at one time, the highest-traffic website in the world -- which has been a hollowed-out void for 5-10 years. The Detroit of online. IRL has the Rust Belt, online has the Web 2.0 Belt.

    And forget about someone's old LiveJournal, DeviantArt, Tumblr, or whatever account. Those are all zapped, too. Not even repurposed, as in a shopping center that gets a remodel, or new anchor stores. Just totally obliterated from existence, with the click of a button. No notice to the public, no visible demolition period when you can reflect or mourn, just all of a sudden it's gone forever with no traces left in the space itself. Only in the memories of people who used to hang out there, while it existed.

    And although you wouldn't know it logically, the majority of account-havers on those has-been sites were suburbanites, especially the ones catering to teens or college kids. It wasn't a 25-35 y.o. transplant to the city. In that way, the disappearance of these online sites is actually a part of the broader trend of suburban ruins IRL.

    Most of the account-havers on the new sites, during the social media era, are urbanites (mainly transplants). Twitter take-meisters, selfie-crafters on Instagram, Twitch streamers, and a fair amount of YouTubers. It's not just DeviantArt suburban teens growing up and moving to the city, where they promptly delete their old account and sign up for Instagram or Twitter. The entirety of the Web 2.0 era was far more suburban than in the social media era, whether young or old.

    Why are social media sites more urbanite? I think it's the pretentiousness of the platforms and the entire concept. It's about maxing your stats in a MMORPG status-striving contest, which naturally draws more from urban transplants -- they were so hyper-competitive, they had to move to Da Big City to join the biggest, highest-stakes contest they could find.

    Web 2.0 sites, and the concept overall, was way less pretentiousness. More down-to-earth, relatable, reflective, opening a window to life, etc. The goal was not creating content that would destroy all the other content out there, and level up the account-haver into the elite ranks of striverdom. Far more suitable to people who aren't defined by sociopathic levels of striving, i.e. suburbanites.

    If only the urbanites had anything to say or express anymore, I wouldn't mind social media content so much. Hyper-competitive people can, hypothetically, make works that only a high-stakes environment can foster. But it's all bullshit, from music to fashion to movies to fake news to everything.

    It's the most tedious form of decadent, digital courtier-ship, and most of Planet Earth would rejoice if the social media platforms were unplugged tomorrow.

  4. In case people forgot, there were no metrics on the Web 2.0 platforms. That's what I mean by those sites not being an MMORPG where accounts could level up, max their stats, and take part in a status contest.

    At best, there was "page views," but that was not publicly viewable, the way that the follower count is on a social media account. Not even "number of comments," which was publicly viewable. Some high-traffic places didn't generate much discussion, or didn't have a comments section at all, while other low-profile sites would generate reams of text due to endless flame wars between a handful of stubborn autistic losers.

    No likes / faves / up-votes, whether for a post or a comment. No shares / retweets / etc., for any form of content. Let alone were such stats publicly viewable at all times.

    Nor was there a Patreon-esque way to leverage your online status into financial status. Nobody paid for anything as consumers, and none of the creators had the pretension to charge for their content.

    It was the absolute Golden Age of online. It may never be coming back, but it can at least be preserved by digital archaeologists.

  5. Tying it all together, here's a popular Tumblr that is both about the decaying state of Web 2.0 (blogging), and dead malls (suburban ruins). Also an online digitization of earlier IRL physical media (her physical journal from her edgy teen years in the 2000s).


    The fact that no one will affectionately, wistfully look back on their "Williamsburg hipster phase," with an account named after that phase, whose content memorializes that zeitgeist, both the ups and the downs -- while there is endless such content about their "mall goth phase," reflects how artificial and boring the urban transplant stuff is, and how organic and intriguing the suburban homegrown stuff is.

    Suburbs vary in how rooted the adults are, but all of the kids are growing up there with each other. At least among their peer group, it's a real social and cultural community. There's some real, ongoing, indefinite narrative relating the cast of characters together.

    In cities, which are mostly inhabited by transplants, many of whom will be transplanting to a different city in less than 5-10 years, there is no real social or cultural community. They're not each other's peers, friends, neighbors, or anything like that. They're fly-by-night activity partners or warm-hole-openers.

    Other than that dehumanized abjection (boring), there is no compelling narrative to weave about this cast of characters, especially since existing ones keep leaving the stage and new ones keep getting introduced, before any attempted narrative has cohered and taken shape. Chaos, flux, and entropy are BOOORRRIIINNNGGG.

    That Tumblr author grew up in Florida, BTW, one of the most cursed places to be young or old. And yet the 'burbs of southern Florida still fostered more interesting material than whatever the author has plugged herself into as a transplant to New York. From mall goth journaler to Rolling Stone journalist -- how the mighty have fallen.

  6. Final note for now, another plug for Gossip Girl if you never watched it before. At least seasons 1-3 I can vouch for (heard it jumped the shark afterward, but whatever). It's set in New York, on the Upper East Side and somewhat in Williamsburg (just called "Brooklyn"). But it's not about boring transplant transients, it's about kids who've grown up there, whose families may go back generations in that location, and who are staying there indefinitely.

    How much more exciting an urban setting can be when there's an organic social community among the cast of characters! The physical structures are all very old and rooted as well.

    Rootless atomized abjection is boring, if you've seen one you've seen 'em all.

    And no, contrary to contempo trasplant LARP-ers, most of the "gritty Noo Yawk" from the Seventies, like Taxi Driver, was not a narrative involving transplants. The New Deal era was defined by people staying put. Rootlessness only took off during the neoliberal yuppie era, beginning in the '80s. Plus while crime rates were soaring, who the fuck would want to move to New York of all places?

    The occasional idealist, or self-destructive runaway like Iris, maybe. But most of them were locals -- and you can tell by the accent.

    But after several decades of yuppies transplanting, the only locale in New York that still had a local homegrown social / cultural community was the WASP-y old-money bastions on the Upper East Side.

    So much more fascinating than 26 y.o. lib-arts midwits from Wisconsin begging for unpaid internships at a digital media outlet that nobody reads because their content sucks, and is only propped up by central bank hand-outs (quantitative easing, funneled through Wall Street).

  7. Jonathan Haidt has an interesting explanation.



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