When she began to research web history, Ankerson expected the Wayback Machine would be like other media archives where you could see exact replicas of what had originally existed online. Instead, she found it was filled with oddities and omissions. The archive was missing years of records for websites Ankerson knew existed long before the Wayback Machine’s bots had first plucked them from the web. Some archived sites had broken links or missing images. A single webpage could have multiple files that, confusingly, linked back to different periods of time. “It blew my mind because everything I had learned about archives and primary sources had been overturned by automation and algorithms, and this opened important questions about evidence and history and truth.”
When she interviewed people about the ways they used the internet, Ankerson was struck by the nostalgia that their digital history evoked. “At some point,” she says, “the conversations would start to become personal. People really liked to talk about their recollections of the internet, like, ‘The first time I went online it was with AOL and we had to use these disks.’”
Over time, Ankerson noticed that people’s digital nostalgia came in waves. In 2012, five years after the first iPhone and the year Facebook amassed its first billion users, she found people were longing for chat rooms and hit counters, artifacts from the internet of the past. “It was a simpler time when you weren’t tracked—or you didn’t know you were being tracked. You felt like you were alone out there and, when you stumbled upon someone or something else, it felt exciting and new,” she explains. “Nostalgia is partly an expression of anxiety and dissatisfaction with the present, which makes returning to a moment from the past more appealing.”
Historians tend to be suspicious of nostalgia, Ankerson says, because it is sentimental and conjures up an idealized version of the past. The official history found in textbooks, by contrast, is a single story that’s been distilled from the diverse and unruly evidence of the past. In order to settle on one version of history, everyone must recall the same events in the same way, even though we know, of course, that this is neither how history nor memory works.
Ankerson is interested in what happens when we swap official history with the idealized past. “I think the idealized past has gaps through which we can recognize the unrealized past,” she says. “From a narrative perspective, what does it mean that these histories have been erased? Now some of those narratives are being explored and experimented with through time travel.”
In 1895, H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine, a science fiction novella credited with introducing time travel to the popular imagination. “The Time Machine was published in the moment that cinema was emerging and photography was becoming more and more available,” Ankerson explains. “Because it was published after Darwin’s theory of evolution but before Einstein’s theories on relativity, time speeds forward from now into the far, far future, and then returns. There is only one timeline and one point of view. The time traveler never looks back; history is behind him. It’s very white and very male.
“Part of digital nostalgia is the politics of going back and thinking through really difficult parts of our nation’s history,” Ankerson continues. “Black characters who travel to a particular moment in time can explore a story that wasn’t previously available. I think that’s one reason why there are now more time travel shows depicting the Black experience. They are really, really important.”