Gone in a Flash: The Race to Save the Internet's Least Favorite Tool
Flash has been dying for years—what happens to all the websites it takes with it?
Navigating awful, 100 percent Flash-based sites is an experience many of us have had, and is unequivocally part of internet canon. And it's on the verge of going away forever.
Let's take a quick trip down memory lane. It's 2006 and you're wondering where you should eat tonight. So you fire up your Gateway, flick on Internet Explorer, and Google some local restaurants. You load up some Italian place's website, wait for Flash to load, listen to some blaring cello play in the background, and search for the tiny speaker button. You can't immediately find the damn place's business hours. Parts of the site are broken, but you eventually find, in a nested menu, written in some awful cursive font, that it is closed Mondays. Damn.
In the early 2000s, Flash was seemingly a hallmark of forward-thinking web design. It was inarguably a powerful program—it could play music and video, take inputs (Flash games!), link elsewhere, and do lots of other highly useful things.
And then, Steve Jobs didn't include Flash support in the iPhone. Everyone freaked out.
It got worse in 2010. Jobs called Flash outdated, proprietary, resource intensive, and bad for mobile. At the time, Flash was used in 28 percent of all websites, according to W3Techs, a company that surveys web technology. Today, it's used in just over 11 percent of all websites.
"When Jobs said no more Flash, that murdered it. It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen," Jason Scott, an archivist at the Internet Archive and a collector of rare internet files, told me. "Adobe killed it in their sleep after that, they seemed happy to step on it."
Flash is still limping along, of course. You'll rarely find a desktop or laptop that can't play Flash files, and despite what Scott said, Jobs alone isn't to fault for Flash's decline. Developers had been looking forward to widespread adoption of HTML5 and other Flash replacements for years, and subsequent moves away from Flash by YouTube and web designers in general have played an important role in its slow demise.
"In creating an emulator or other method of playing these, it's more like the performance of a play instead of the text in a book"
But this story isn't about how or why Flash is dying: It's about why we have to remember it.
"That was an extremely important era, Flash as a part of art, culture, gaming, and expression," Scott said.
And yes, awful, unusable restaurant websites are part of that. An important part, in fact. In the future, maybe you'll be able to read Farhad Manjoo's seminal takedown of the crappy restaurant website, but it's another thing altogether to experience it. Primary sources are ideal for class projects and research papers, after all. Playing a video game or watching a movie is much better than reading about it in a book.
It's impossible to save everything, but you've got to save some things. There's sites like Newgrounds and Ebaums World, which still live on and still rely on Flash. There's the Flash games that went viral, back when you had to use AIM and email to actually "go viral," back before going viral was even a thing. There are intros to countless thousands of websites; hell, there's countless thousands of websites that are made entirely of Flash elements. The thing is, none of this is terribly easy to archive.
"I think we're also deceiving ourselves if we pretend that digital technologies mean it's possible to save everything from everywhere, forever," Andrew Russell, an internet historian at Stevens Institute of Technology, told me. "But yes, it matters."
While the Wayback Machine and several other projects automatically archive HTML websites around the web, its robocrawlers don't do a great job of saving Flash-based websites. SWFs, the actual "ShockWave Flash" files that hold music and games and commands and images are easy enough to save, but understanding what's in them isn't done well by algorithms.
Many Flash website developers attempted to obfuscate where the files themselves are stored on a web server, and most websites from the era weren't entirely Flash-based or relied on several different Flash files that interacted with each other. Once you start messing with the parts, it often doesn't work well.
Case in point: The Wayback Machine has archived Newgrounds.com 5,123 times since late 1998. But try and use any Flash elements on these snapshots, and the site breaks. Separate archival projects have preserved Newgrounds itself, because it's so important, but less famous websites suffer from the same problem and don't have dedicated backups hosted all around the web.
But even those saving SWF files from around the web en masse are running into problems. There were many different versions of Flash, all of which had their own quirks, development problems, and security holes, which is one reason why Flash has been slowly disappearing from the internet. But as that happens, it's going to get harder and harder to piece a website back together using its original parts.
"More challenging than saving Flash sites is the replayability of it all," Trevor Owens, a digital archivist who worked for the Library of Congress and now is heading the government's National Digital Platform project, told me. "When you have a text file or an image or even a more basic video, it's a lot more transparent as to what the pieces are how they function in a website. They're not dependent on specific quirks, on getting a browser with the right versions to run it."
"In creating an emulator or other method of playing these, it's more like the performance of a play instead of the text in a book," he added. "You have all these elements that have to come together to be like originally was—the systems are almost drawing their own interpretations of what it looked like."
The good news is that, unlike earlier internet history, people like Scott, Owens, and various other internet archivists are thinking about these problems and are trying to save as much as they can. Whereas old-school communities and sites like CompuServe, AOL, and even Geocities shut down with plenty of fanfare but with little regard for saving things, amateur historians and collectors are downloading as much Flash as is possible from all around the web.
There are sites like SWFchan, which has 169,000 SWF files (along with lots of spyware, ads, and a pretty broken search engine). There are guys like Scott, who has thousands and thousands of Flash games and animations saved (and has backups of SWFchan as well).
There's also the hope that maybe these sites won't actually go away. As Adobe slowly distances itself from Flash, companies like Mozilla and Google are trying to find a way to play Flash files without actually requiring Flash on your computer.
"There's enough stuff lying around from Flash in the archive that the era won't be completely lost," Scott said. "In the large scheme of things, Flash is probably going to survive pretty well as an artifact, but it'll be bumpy for a bit. I'm bullish on it."