The internet forgets
The web promised immortality, but we're watching it crumble every day
My wife stashed some of our old love letters in a vase with photos and notes that her friends passed to her in high school. We root around in the vase maybe once a year, and each year the people in those notes feel more like characters we invented.
Who was that earnest young sap quoting the Song of Solomon? I barely recognize him.
I don’t mean to say we’ve drifted apart. No one stays the same, but we can each love the person the other becomes.
Those old scraps take me back, but I also know that some of our earliest love notes have vanished forever. They vanished because we wrote them on Myspace.
Myspace, for the uninitiated, was the most popular website in the United States at its peak in 2006. It helped launch the careers of successful musicians, it paved the way for Facebook — and it catalogued the agony and ecstasy of the teenage years for a particular subset of millennials.
Myspace became a museum of youth after we all abandoned it. I used to log in every now and then to read old private messages, scroll through the in-jokes and comments on my profile, and remember who my best friends were when I was 15. I read my emo poems and obscure song references like a cryptographer. The rush of nostalgia was every bit as potent as reaching into a vase full of love letters.
Even my janky early attempts at HTML and site design were fun to revisit. But then hyperlinks started breaking, Photobucket imploded, and a series of site redesigns polished the glitz off until all that remained was as smooth and sterile as LinkedIn.
Myspace is a ghost town now. I reset my password this week and poked around in the ruins, only to discover that my backlog of messages with my teenage girlfriend had evaporated.
My old songwriting profile is toast now too. The company purged 12 years’ worth of posts and music uploads during a server migration this year, and the nonprofit Internet Archive was only able to salvage a tiny portion because researchers had downloaded a dump of songs onto a USB drive.
“The digital record is very reliable until it isn’t,” archivist Jason Scott told WHYY in an April interview. “It lets you have enormous amounts of reach, easy copying, easy access, easy sharing. But when things go wrong, they will go wrong utterly.”
Writing in the New Statesman this year, Sarah Ditum warned that we’re entering a “digital dark age.” Vast fiefdoms of the internet, from Myspace to Flickr to defunct web-only publications, will likely be lost forever and impossible for future generations to access.
Some of the losses won’t matter much to historians and archaeologists in the 23rd century. While some of the turn-of-the-millennium vernacular will be lost to time, maybe it’s a good thing that researchers won’t try to imagine our society through the lens of Xanga posts and Livejournal entries.
Other losses could be substantial. Ditum writes:
In 2007, Rocky Mountain News reporter Kevin Vaughan published a 34-part investigative story about a 1961 bus-train collision in Colorado that killed 20 children. The series, called “The Crossing”, was a triumph: not only was it a Pulitzer finalist, but it gave restitution to a traumatised community that had never had its loss truly recognised before. It was also a powerful example of digital storytelling, using then cutting-edge Adobe Flash software to create an interactive “experience”. “Somebody asked John Temple [the Rocky’s editor] how long the series was going to be on the internet,” recalled Vaughan in an interview with the Atlantic, “and John said, ‘Forever.’”
“Forever” turned out to mean about two years. In 2009, the Rocky went under – one of the many casualties of the internet’s advance. Then its website began to crumble and, within a few months, “The Crossing” had ceased to exist. The editor’s promise of immortality was hollow. Four years later, when Vaughan had finally secured the necessary permissions to restore his story to the internet from a CD-ROM copy (and who even has a CD-ROM drive now?), he found technical obstacles: Flash, once universal, was now an anachronism. “The Crossing” had to be re-created for an entirely new set of standards.
I was a journalist for eight years, and while my work never earned any Pulitzer nominations, I have already seen some of my best work lost or garbled through a series of content management system change-ups and website redesigns.
Damning investigations of local politicians and organizations are scrubbed from the first page of Google search results; this may well be the work of some overpaid reputation management consultants. Articles meant to be read as a series are no longer linked, floating around in the murk of newspaper archives. Sometimes I try to read my own work and hit a paywall.
In August 2016, my colleague Deanna Pan and I co-wrote a package of articles about South Carolina’s vaguely worded “disturbing schools” law, which police were using disproportionately to arrest African-American students. We found that although the 1917 law was originally meant to prohibit outsiders loitering on grade school campuses, it had become one of the most common criminal charges for students entering the state’s school-to-prison pipeline.
This week I found a reference to one of our pieces in a National Lawyers Guild Review article, “Arrested at the Schoolhouse Gate: Criminal School Disturbance Laws and Children’s Rights in Schools.” But the URL listed in the footnote is a broken link, spitting out a 404 error at anyone who tries it.
So I Googled the headline of the article and found it on the newspaper website, albeit without any of the original photos or infographics. Also, the internal links on the newspaper website to other pieces in our investigative package were — you guessed it — broken.
These articles ran three years ago. They are already disappearing.
By the time you read this, my lovingly curated map of public urination incidents in the city of Charleston will be lost to time.
In one of my cheekier projects for the alt-weekly Charleston City Paper, I combed through police reports and used Google Fusion Tables to build an interactive map of yellow dots showing the location of each public urination ticket written in the early months of 2015. (Mercifully, unlike similar maps of San Francisco, I never had to use a brown marker.)
That project meant a lot of different things to me. It was gleefully juvenile. It was my first foray into a new spreadsheet format and mapping technique. It also shone a light on a serious public health issue in a city where the few public restrooms (shown with green markers) locked their doors before bar closing time.
On Monday, Google sent me an automated email with the subject line, “Final Reminder: Download your Google Fusion Tables data and migrate your maps.” Fusion Tables, a simple tool I used for data visualization, officially went offline on Tuesday, Dec. 3.
Google helpfully suggested that I export my old Fusion Tables to non-obsolete formats and re-upload them as needed. But the account I used to create those tables was a work account that, as far as I can tell, no one can access now. And even if I could access the tables, would I bother? This wasn’t Pulitzer material. But it was my work, and it’s gone forever now.
“The internet never forgets” was more of a warning than a promise: Careful what you post; it might come back to haunt you.
It does forget, though. Researchers are currently struggling to rebuild websites with the .yu domain that vanished after the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Freedom of the Press Foundation is scrambling to archive articles from the sports site Deadspin and the political news site Splinter after vulture capitalists gutted those newsrooms this year.
For journalists and other media types, hard copies may be a necessity, at least for the purpose of posterity and personal reference. For the technologically savvy, the Freedom of the Press Foundation has released a set of PDF-saving scripts on GitHub called Gotham Grabber.
“This is a new problem,” journalist Jessica Wakeman told the Columbia Journalism Review in November, “but the answer might be that we as writers have to save every single thing we write as a PDF or that we have to print it out and put it in a binder and go the analog route, which seems crazy.”
Most people don’t do this stuff for a living, though. After we upload decades’ worth of memories to Snapchat, Facebook photo albums, and whatever app comes next, those companies will no doubt collapse or delete our archives or otherwise burn our digital bridges to the past.
When my daughters started sleeping in their own beds, they brought family photographs to bed with them. Those paper pictures of us all together, looking only slightly younger, have provided fascination and comfort.
Our children beg to see our old Instagram pictures too. But one day Instagram will forget we existed, and we'll need another way to remember.