Searching for early queer web documents

I just handed in my last course paper ever. It’s a hasty history of the queer Internet from 1995–2000 that I approached as an early attempt to grapple with a topic that will eventually form a historical chapter in my dissertation. One of the hard parts of doing Internet history of any kind is the complete lack of an archive, or preservation standards for web documents, a problem that lots of smart people have written about at length (see, for example, Lisa Gitelman). You can try your luck with Internet archives like the waybackmachine, but you need to know the URL of the site you want to look at, which makes it difficult to study, for example, the beginning of the queer WestHollywood community on Geocities in 1995 (though this is a dream project of mine).

A fairly typical site from the early days of Geocities WestHollywood.

Working on this paper, I’ve noticed that the peculiarities of web archiving are a bit different in queer contexts, and I think this has something to do with the fears about representation, or lack thereof, that a queer media public traumatized by the AIDS crisis and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (1993) brought to the early days of the web. Another project I’m working on is a study of digital and online archival politics in grassroots queer archives. On a research trip to the Lesbian Herstory Archives a year ago, I sifted through vertical file after vertical file stuffed with printouts from various “born digital” documents, from simple, html sites on queer topics to email correspondence. The researcher in me was thrilled to find this stuff, but I also couldn’t help but think how strange it is that archive volunteers printed and saved all these documents when so many other archives didn’t bother. I’m wondering how the politics of queer media in general during this period might have inspired a different way of thinking about web documents.

A print archive of the web also raises all kinds of questions about studying online media in print form. Rather than get into these questions here, I’ll just put up two images to illustrate:

Planetout homepage from 1997, screenshot from waybackmachine.


Sreenshot of Planetout from 1997 taken from a black-and-white paper copy of Nina Wakeford's Cyberqueer, which was then scanned as a PDF and circulated online for a course reader.