The Semi-Permanent Internet

This week’s Spark included a piece on data longevity. These days, we’re posting a LOT of content online. Every minute, 72 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. In that same minute, the Internet gains 700,000 Facebook posts, 100,000 tweets, and 571 new web sites. Much of that is stuff we care a lot about. Nearly every photo I’ve taken in the last five years is on Flickr. All my videos worth watching are on YouTube or Vimeo. I’ve documented my personal and professional life on Twitter in 6,200 140-character pieces. And this blog now holds about 200,000 well-reasoned words that I’ve managed to string together over the last seven or eight years. And that’s not counting the private and semi-private stuff I have in Google Drive, Gmail, Dropbox, Evernote, Delicious, and a handful of tools I’ve probably forgotten about.

3567689465_97e414a22f[1]All of those services are free. The only one I pay for is Flickr, and, to be honest, I probably don’t use it enough to need the pro account anymore. At a moment’s notice, or without notice, any of them could shut down, and take my data with them.

So we really should worry, at least a little bit, about where our data is and how it’s stored, and how to recover it if one of these companies goes belly-up. And don’t think it hasn’t happened before. Take a look at Google Reader, for example, which is shutting down this summer. Or what happened when Ning changed their terms of service a few years ago and teachers had to find another way to host online communities for their students. The Spark story points out that Posterous is discontinuing its blogging service this month, and all of its sites will go away unless its users migrate their content to some other service.

There’s no reason to believe that this won’t eventually happen to all of the online tools I’m using now. Business models change. Services evolve. We move from one thing to another pretty quickly. I never had a Geocities web page, but if I did it would have disappeared when Yahoo turned out the lights in 2009. And speaking of Yahoo, at some point I’ll probably lose access to my Yahoo mail account when they finally pull the plug. So the state of the Internet is a bit more ephemeral than we’d all like to think.

Spark guest Meg Ambrose commented on public service announcements that warn kids about what they post online. She’s very critical of that approach, indicating that the information we post online is much less permanent than we’d like to think. She claims that only 10-15% of content posted online lasts more than a year, and that we need to be less concerned with the permanence of our digital output that we are.

I disagree.

I started using the Internet in October, 1989. For the first year or so, almost everything I posted online was in forums hosted at my university. They were never really on the Internet, per se. They were only available within the institution. But sometime in 1990, I discovered Usenet. For those with less gray hair than I have, Usenet was a global distributed discussion forum. It had thousands of newsgroups on every conceivable topic, and participants from all over the world could interact in these forums. I was active in a handful of newsgroups in the early 90’s. While I knew that I was posting things in a public forum, I did not think about the possibility that those messages would still be online, easily accessible, and completely searchable 20 years later. The software I used to post those messages is no longer maintained. The server I posted them on and the terminal I wrote them on were decommissioned long ago. Most Internet providers no longer even support the Usenet protocol or carry a Usenet feed. Essentially, the entire class of services is gone. But the messages are still there. If you care about what I had to say regarding Lou Marini in the newsgroup alt.cult-movies on February 25, 1991, just ask Google. It helps if you know what my email address was in 1991, but you don’t really need it.

Or maybe you want to see the first web page I ever made. Actually, I can’t find that anywhere. But the first web site I made for a class I was teaching is in the Internet Archive. That was in the late 90’s. Want to see the student projects my 8th graders posted online in the spring of 1997? Those are still online too. Lots of the links are broken, and some of the images don’t load, and the pages are NOT where we originally posted them. But they’re still online. Someone has preserved them.

Let’s get back to the 21st century. Sure, many of the things I post online now won’t be there in a year or 5 years or 20 years. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to be gone. Once I post something online, I give up control of it. It’s going to be archived somewhere. It’s going to be copied. It’s going to show up in other places. To think that I can magically go back and erase something I’ve posted on the Internet is foolish. To think that the Internet itself is going to purge it is crazy.

Obviously, the permanence of the Internet hasn’t scared me away. I’m putting more things online than ever before. But I’m always aware that everything I post will eventually be public (even if I don’t intend it to be). And everything I post is “out there” forever. It’s not up to me to decide what gets kept and what goes away.

Our students need to understand this, just like I needed to understand this 20 years ago.

Image source: Dolescum on Flickr.