Ruby Thelot: A Eulogy for Checkpoints
From 2012 to 2021, the heyday of YouTube algorithm rabbitholes, if you spent enough time on AutoPlay, you might end up on a 59 minute video whose Kanji-spelt title and tantalizing subtitle “Recommended for you” might lead you to click. The video itself, at first, appears innocuous. White cumulus clouds move slowly as a foreground of green thorny vines obstructs the view. The elements bear a resolution reminiscent of yesteryears. You may recognize the music if you played Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES) in the late 90s or if, as a late millennial, you played the 2004 reissue on Game Boy Advance. The video falls into a long-standing tradition of videogame soundtracks on YouTube whose moody tonalities may have been missed during the gameplay but whose sonic and harmonic character are made salient when severed from gameplay and presented as standalone works of art.
Your internet spelunker spidey senses might be titillated by the 25,000 comments below the video. Opening the long comment list, you would have encountered comments such as this one:
“Checkpoint.I never thought I'd get recommended this video... I feel lost I'm working but that's all I have going for me at the moment I want to finish my studies and be independent but I find it hard to make an effort. I'm lost in the world I work get home and sleep in order not to think about how I feel or where I am in life. I feel like I'm in a loop. I no longer talk to people I just keep to myself. I constantly try to keep myself distracted in order to keep myself from overthinking about where I'm going where I've been and how I may have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I feel like this was a little repetitive but its how I feel.4-6-21”
Checkpoints are an emergent digital behavior which began in the comment section of a YouTube video. The main action is the posting of personal stories which begin with the word “Checkpoint”, a nod to video game checkpoints which save one’s progress in the story and ensure that should death occur, respawn happens at the last checkpoint. The posts are divulgatory, sometimes happy, sometimes sad, they expose the openness, candor and vulnerability strangers can exercise with one another. Interestingly, this custom did not occur in a space specifically designed for that purpose, rather it occurred organically through the reappropriation of an existing piece of internet infrastructure.
YouTube is a video sharing platform launched in 2005 by Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawad Karim. It emerged in the wave of Web 2.0 platforms which sought to get users to publish their own content. Web 2.0 was a paradigm shift in internet technology which pushed for more user-generated content and more collaboration. In comparison to the previous era of the internet, sometimes called Web 1.0, the new web put users at the forefront and allowed them to “broadcast themselves”, to use YouTube’s original slogan. Additionally, it allowed other users to opine on what was being broadcasted, this affordance is usually called “comments”. Comments on YouTube have unfortunately gotten a bad reputation over time for being toxic.1 Because YouTube is less profile based than social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, commenters are somewhat shielded by pseudonymity. This afforded users the possibility to say whatever they wanted and unfortunately oftentimes, this “whatever” veered towards the negative. Howbeit, this same affordance can also allow for positivity to emerge and for communities to build around videos, as with Checkpoints.
There are over a billion videos on YouTube, but only certain become Checkpoints. It is unclear who decides which videos become Checkpoints. They can be understood as an emergent digital behavior where internet denizens utilize existing semi-permanent digital infrastructure and use it as a mode of communication. This echoes Shannon Mattern’s essay on architecture, materials and memory “Of Mud, Media, and the Metropolis”2. In it, she details the longstanding history of infrastructural materials being used both for buildings and for writing. She writes, “These building facades and walls, doorways and courtyards—of fired brick or terracotta, concrete (whose content of volcanic sand pozzolana, has accounted for its longevity), tufa (a volcanic stone), limestone, or marble—were not designed to be used as substrates for writing, but through the Roman’s social practices, “the fabric of the city” ultimately served to record major laws, achievements, and legal transactions, as well as jokes, jabs, and private confessions”3.
Thus, when a user writes, “Checkpoint: My newborn son means everything to me, even if sometimes he’s a little shit and I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in months.”, it hints at the fact that YouTube has become our equivalent to a digital city and that the comment sections are its walls, a locus of exchange. These YouTube comment sections have become a “third place”4, to borrow the term from Ray Oldenburg, a locus of collection and semi-anonymous sharing. They’re the urban walls and overpasses where lovers sign their angst and leave the mark of their memories. Whereas direct messages represent what Oldenburg would call a “first place” (private) and their antipode the “Facebook Wall” a “second place” (public), checkpoints represent the emergence of a third which helps surfers build a sense of place in the infinite expanse of the Web.
The areas Mattern mentions have a public nature very similar to that of the comment sections. It seems obvious that this digital infrastructure is being utilized as a writing substrate in a world still reeling from the Fall of the Facebook Wall. This use of Youtube comments is an example of unplanned activity where a place’s design is transferred, and its visitors define a new function.
The implications for the loci of these checkpoints are major, by inference they are the buildings and doorways of digital life, the structural repositories of digital memory. However, these structures are fickle. One morning in 2021, the video which had been active for 11 years was suddenly taken down due to a DMCA by Nintendo. The story of the Checkpoints exposes the fickleness of these external digital infrastructures as repositorires for memory and that communities can lose their entire histories by relinquishing memory to these third parties. Technology presents itself as an ideal system of storage, its presentation is a lure leading to the evanescence of memory. Thankfully, user Rebane2001 saved the video and had scraped the comments before the video’s unexpected deletion. The video now lives on an archive hosted by Rebane. But what if they hadn’t? Another monument of internet history would have disappeared. 10 years of human emotional divulgations would have vanished. Thousands of checkpoints lost to oblivion.
The story of Checkpoints reminds us to be fully aware of the infrastructure we use in community building in digital realms. Are the structures sturdy? Who controls them? Who is responsible for archiving or providing additional fault tolerance in the community’s memory system?
Will these walls stand the test of time?
1 Amelia Tait, “Why Are YouTube Comments the Worst on the Internet?,” New Statesman, October 26, 2016, https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/2016/10/why-are-youtube-comments-worst-internet.
2 Shannon Christine Mattern, Code + Clay .... Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
4 Ray Oldenburg, The Great Good Place: Cafés, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community (Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2005).