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Digital archaeologist in Amsterdam unearths internet history05 April 2014, by Alexandra Gowling
In 1994, citizens in Amsterdam were using social media. It didn’t look exactly like your Facebook feed today, but people were able to sign in to a virtual public domain where they could chat to other members, read posts and do the sorts of things most of us do every day in 2014.
Twenty years ago, a small group in Amsterdam launched De Digitale Stad (DDS), or Digital City, one of the first online community networks to operate on a European scale.
History of De Digitale Stad
Inspired by the Community Networks movement in the US and Canada, DDS attracted international interest for the design it chose: a metaphor of a city to structure information and communication in cyberspace and turn users into "inhabitants."
The historical importance of DDS to the Netherlands is significant. For many people, DDS was their first introduction to the possibilities of the internet.
It initially started as a 10-week pilot, but stayed online to become a virtual space for independent groups, such as community or cultural organisations, and grew from 10.000 members in 1994 to 400.000 by 2000.
"DDS was a hit immediately from its launch. Soon after, all the modems in and around Amsterdam were sold out. Half a year later, DDS got its 100.000th user. It encouraged many individuals, cultural and social organisations and government agencies to take their first steps on the Internet." (From a 2004 DDS press.)
Then, DDS was privatised in 2001 and the community disappeared, while the software behind it was virtually lost. Now, a digital archaeologist from Amsterdam Museum has begun re:DDS, a project to resurrect this piece of internet history.
A new era in archaeology
Tjarda de Haan is the first official digital archaeologist at Amsterdam Museum and is leading the effort to rebuild DDS for future generations to tour.
"If we don't do anything, then an important piece of digital cultural heritage will be lost," she said. "Hopefully before the end of the year, visitors of the museum should be able to click through a reconstruction of the DDS."
Unlike traditional archaeologists who need to uncover evidence of our past in excavations, De Haan and her colleagues need to collect data stored on floppy disks and old computers from with which they will reconstruct DDS. In that sense, it is still definitely a sort of digging.
There is a limit, however, to what they can do. While visitors will be able to view the reconstructed DDS, they will not be able to interact with it further than just by clicking through it.
In a culture where new platforms are continually popping up and software upgrades happens ever more regularly, new disciplines like digital archaeology demonstrate the need for, and the challenge of, creating a method for preserving our digital heritage.