Ephemeral Web Real Estate

In an era when written letters are outright quaint, I still enjoy the tradition of the Christmas card. We started it when the kids were born1, and have kept it up with annual updates of the family growing up—usually a mishmash of photos I grab throughout the year printed at whichever online print shop that doesn’t appear outrageously expensive that year2.

As physical mailing addresses become increasingly rare—outside of inputting your address for online purchases—I go through my contact list just once a year to send out these cards. Within the  ecosystem, the Contacts app is a reasonable system default: it syncs across iOS and Mac with native apps across all the platforms, it naturally integrates with calls and SMSs, and modeling identities at a system level is subsequently useful for all other communication and chat and social media apps. It’s also dead simple: a context is just a name, a profile pic, and a bunch of semi-context-aware text fields like addresses and emails.

That integration with communication and social apps also means that iOS gets to scrape information and populate it back to the Contacts app. Since I’ve mixed both personal and professional uses on my phones, my contacts are filled with friends, family, and former colleagues: snapshotting their roles and emails and their oncall phone numbers, emblemed on Apple’s servers somewhere, years out of date.

In particular, a good ⅔rds or more of the metadata links out to sites that no longer exist, or social media profiles that have been long abandoned, sometimes with the usernames recycled. A handful of personal sites and blogs resolved, but they haven’t received any attention in a decade. I wasn’t about to call and text folks to confirm their numbers are active, but a lot of email addresses used defunct, undeliverable domains3.

It goes to show that, for how little we think about and use physical addresses in modern times in everyday communication, the “real” part of “real estate” bestows a level of persistence that digital abodes lack. Every couple of years, there’s a wave of virtual land grabs associated with product launches: in the 2000s it was getting memorable usernames on new social networks; for a while MMOs and persistent worlds like Second Life partitioned their worlds to sell to their users; more recently that idea evolved further to leverage NFTs and crypto transactions. Given how fast these platforms have come and gone, though, most of these properties are, at best, digital ghost cities.

This is perhaps another example of what happens when everything is content, and content on the internet is easy—at least, to start. The activation energy required to create out of the online æther is magnitudes lower than in the real world, but the commitment to maintain said creations over time becomes inversely correlated. Where I am in the Bay Area, the absurdly high costs of housing are a function of the fundamental constraint of limited physical space meeting outsized demand. Online, rare is the site that consistently stays active and useful—those are the true digital beachfront properties.

  1. It would have been weird had we tried to get something going as an unmarried couple prior.

  2. So I was sad when Costco shut down their print service, and redirected its customers to Shutterfly; and just in case you didn’t know, their weekly emails will keep it on top of mind.

  3. It did bring back some nostalgic memories of one lolapps.com, however.

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