Lost Media, and the Secrets of Digital Culture

Hidden levels, lost mini-games and forgotten scripts – contemporary media are full of secrets. Fans, journalists and hackers love to expose these histories of media, and unearth uncovered gems. This genre is also known as lost media.

This summer we saw a perfect example of lost media when a YouTuber recovered the unaired pilot of an Americanized version of Sailor Moon. Fans knew that this cartoon existed because the opening circulated online, recorded at a convention. They called this project by Toon Maker “Saban Moon”,  after producer Haim Saban from Power Rangers. There were many theories about the lyrics, character names and merchandise related to the show. YouTuber Ray Nova investigated the pilot as part of her series Tales of The Lost, but could not retrieve the footage itself. She describes her findings in The Western World Of Sailor Moon.

Soon after the episode aired in March 2022, Ray Nova was tipped by fans and professionals which led her to continue her investigation and create another video. In the sequel, Finding Saban Moon, she interviews the creators and reveals the pilot itself. It’s Saved by the Bell meets She-Rah: Princess of Power, and painfully delighted Moonies across the globe.

The lost media community is a testament to audiences and their involvement with media. It’s also a community full of secrets, fan theories and a touch of hacker culture. It is also a testament to digital culture today – the internet can still surprise and delight us, if we actively look for it. Just when you think you have seen it all, there is something in a game you missed, or rare footage of a show that you loved. But what is behind these communities? And why do we love lost media so much? 

Lost Media and Memories
The Lost Media Wiki defines the genre as ‘pieces of lost or hard to find media; whether it be video, audio or otherwise (of either a fictional or non-fictional nature), if it’s completely lost or simply inaccessible to the general public, it belongs here.’

Communities around lost media focus on salvaging software, music and other media. They often thrive on what is retro, such as rare music that was only featured on the radio, a commercial that only aired a couple of times on television or a game level from a demo that was only released at a convention or event. Of course lost media can also be about internet culture, and the things we lost there (a geocities page, a lost flash video from Newsgrounds), but it is more common to see theories or examples based on analogue media.

Take the example The Case of the Missing Hit by Reply All, produced by Gimlet Media. Reply All shares stories on digital culture, and often comes with fascinating examples. This is one of their best episodes, if you ask me. A film maker, Tyler Gillett, thinks about an old song, but when he googles the lyrics it doesn’t seem to exist. He contacts Reply All to track down the song. Host P.J. Vogt spares no effort and recreates the song from Tyler’s memory with a full band. He contacts musicians who produced similar songs, critics, and radio show hosts but no one recognizes Tyler’s ear worm. Did he combine several songs in his head?

Vulture describes the episode vividly, calling it “an instantly legendary episode” even: ‘It’s a glorious and unexpectedly thrilling caper, bringing listeners along for a wild ride as Gillett and co-host P.J. Vogt try to figure out the truth behind this spectral single. Is it real? Or is it just a mysterious creation of Gillett’s brain?’

At the end of the episode, listeners find out the song actually exists and was created by Evan Olsen. The podcast drew more than a million listeners in the pandemic in 2020 who found comfort in the quest for the missing hit.

It’s a mainstream example of our obsession for lost media, which combines nostalgia and memory culture. Sifting the fake news from reality, false memories from real ones, and truth from fiction is a large part of what the community spends their time on. Fans reveal themselves to be investigators, archivists and fact checkers, as they deep dive into these rumors and ideas.

The hosts of Reply All

Hidden Levels
In game culture, lost media have a prominent role as well. It is often about uncovering demo versions of games, mining code or identifying hidden levels. These lost media can be identified by hacking, but also by means of unorthodox or experimental game play, such as speed running.

For example, In 2019, Ocarina of Time modders discovered assets and code on the cartridge of the game that related to the beta version of the game. This version was shown at a Nintendo’s Space World conference in 1997. During SGDQ 2022, speedrunners played the game and managed to crack part of the code and confirm long-lasting rumors about the game. They identified what looks like the Unicorn Fountain, promotional images of which had circulated since 1998. Players found new elements, most particularly the Triforce which was long theorized and rumored about in fan communities. It was a great moment for this avid fan community and game culture at large.

To uncover these lost media and properties in games, players need to be experimental. The speedrunners of Ocarina of Time had a vast amount of tricks at their disposal that a casual player can only admire. They also used tools, such as TASBot to allow for what they call Arbitrary Code Execution, where they use flaws in software as an exploit. To really understand a game, and what is hidden in a game, expertise, tricks and software are needed.

Games are rich archives, and it takes a lot to master this software and deeply investigate it. Luckily, there are entire communities where fans help each other, and focus on reverse engineering these virtual worlds.

Nostalgia and Meaning
There are still many things that we are looking for, such as lost Doctor Who episodes and Britney Spears’ unreleased track Sacred. Lost media are indicative of a specific type of longing and nostalgia for something that once was, could have been, or may never even have existed. Memory and affect come together here in a deeply personal way. What if we had indeed grown up with an Americanized Sailor Moon? How would we feel about the original anime, and the Americanized characters?

In an era where we expect to be able to access anything and everything all of the time, lost media pose a challenge. Half of the time, we don’t know for sure if they exist or are a rumor. That makes them even more desirable though. Such ambiguous pieces of content are almost impossible to hunt down. They are the Moby Dicks of digital culture. It’s a fascination, an obsession even.

The thrill of the investigation is part of why we love lost media, and the stories in which gamers, fans or journalists uncover them. Each new step or lead is meaningful. These are the thrillers and whodunnits of fandom and subcultures. YouTube and podcasts are the perfect media to share these quests and hook the audience. No stone is left unturned! It is immensely satisfying when this content is found or its existence is confirmed. Of course, very often there is no real resolution, just more information. But even these minor breakthroughs are a success and delight for fans. Their collective intelligence and persistence prevail.

The Ultimate Secret
Lost media are an antidote to our current zeitgeist, where most content is preserved indefinitely. Even when something goes offline, you can always count on someone having a back-up. We live in a remix culture of copies. The fact that something cannot be obtained, and sometimes not even truly verified, fascinates us. It’s also, however, indicative of a problem. Creative properties have often not been archived or preserved well. Lost media are often unreleased also for a reason. They were a demo, an unreleased track, or a script that never aired. They have no cultural status yet. This is why fans need to investigate them in the first place. Lost media question what needs to be stored, and why.

For lost media searchers themselves, the appeal is in the quest itself, or the secret seeking. They thrive on the idea that games, television series and music have one last thing that we can still unearth and find. Lost media are like finding the holy grail in your subculture. This idea inspires players to explore every pixel in Shadow of The Colossus until they find a trace of the colossi that were removed from the game. It pushes fans to play Final Fantasy IX endlessly until, after many years, a new minigame is found.

Lost media are the secrets of the internet. They bring hope and a sense of community. What if there is one last thing for us to find?

Picture of an unused colossi or proto colossi from Shadow of the Colossus

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