12 Copies

It’s becoming increasingly clear that some things never go away. The Internet has always been that nebulous sort of place, where things change all the time. Sites pop up and disappear and reinvent themselves, and it’s never the same place twice. But it’s largely just an illusion.

We’ve been converting to a new email system in our school district this school year. One of the things I talk about when preparing staff members for the switch is the permanence of email messages. Our district archives all inbound and outbound messages. So, if my technician Dan sends me an email message, there’s a copy of the message in my inbox, and in his sent items, and in the archive of messages he sent, and in the archive of messages I received. That’s four different copies of the message. Since our mail and archive servers get backed up to different sites on alternating days, two backups of each of those four copies are made, for a total of 12 copies. If Dan decides that maybe it wasn’t the best idea to send that message, he can remove it from his sent items. But the other 11 copies are still there, and will be there for five years. With our backup scheme, it would take five complete, simultaneous server failures to remove all of the copies of that message. And that’s not including the cached copies that may be on my computer or his.

But five years is nothing. I started using the Internet in the fall of 1999. In those pre-web days, we did a lot of online asynchronous discussions using things like usenet and email. The first system we used, CoSy, is long gone (I think — it may actually be archived somewhere). It was just a university-wide thing, and it was a pretty small community. We soon moved to usenet, though, and suddenly the whole world was involved.

I went to Google Groups the other day. Google archives usenet, and includes just about everything posted there within the last 15 years. I searched for my old email address and found 26 hits. The oldest was a message I posted on February 25, 1990 about Paul Shaffer being in the Blues Brothers band.

A search for my wife’s old email address shows that her first message was March 9, 1990, almost two weeks later than mine. She’s been trying to catch up ever since 🙂

Over at Worldbridges, they’ve been having a bad couple weeks. Their servers were hacked, and they lost most of their content. Their backups were not umm… shall we say…  not what they are now? One of the methods they’ve been using to reconstruct the site is to use Google’s cached pages. Simply search Google for content you know isn’t there anymore, and look at their cached copy. Or, if you need older stuff, hop into the Wayback Machine over at the Internet Archive.  Here’s a web page I made in 1998 (though the graphics weren’t archived).

It never goes away. So what implications does this have for what we’re doing now? With in increase in popularity of blogs, messaging software, and other ways to express ourselves online comes the enormous responsibility of timelessness. Anything you say can be used against you, even if it’s decades later.

Be careful what you say. Even if you’re a middle school student, your children may be listening.