We are constantly telling our students to be careful what they post online because "nothing ever goes away on the Internet." That photo of them at that Keg Party posted on Facebook could come back to haunt them later when they try to get into a college or apply for a job. Theoretically, this is definitely true. We have created a "collective" memory on the Internet. A photo can be copied --- an endless number of times --- and might never go away. To all intents and purposes, it's permanent.
I remember this idea of permanence hit home for many people when DejaNews made it easy to search archives of Usenet posts. Google later acquired DejaNews and other archives, allowing searches to reach all the way back to posts created in 1981. Quite simply, many early users had not thought about their posts having such longevity and there was an outcry of loss of privacy and control upon the realization that the content could now be "owned" and available through a search engine. Online discussions changed as Usenet users shifted from the perception that their posts had a shelf-life of one or two weeks to now having immortality.
This idea of "Internet-permanence" is now more expected than it was in the early days of the Internet, perhaps so much so that it is startling to see how easily a large part of it can be obliterated literally overnight. This Time article reports on how Yahoo! is wiping out 7 million websites created in the early days of the Internet as it kills off its GeoCities. Why should we care? These sites have much to tell us about those early Internet days and are an essential piece in the story of its evolution. Culturally, these sites are part of our collective narrative, and whether you care about them or not, many of them have just disappeared forever. Think planet Alderaan being blown up in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. There's no getting this back.
The Archive Team at archiveteam.org has attempted to save as many of these pages as possible before their obliteration. They state their purpose and justification on their website:
While the natural urge by some would be to let Geocities sink into obscurity and death, leaving nothing in its wake but bad memories and shudders of recognition at endless "under construction" GIFs, the fact remains that Geocities was for millions of people the first experience dealing with the low-cost, full-color, world-accessible website and all the possibilities this contained. To not at least have the option of browsing these old sites would be a loss of the very history of the web from the side of the people who came to know it, not the designers who descended upon it. For that reason, Archive Team thinks Geocities is worth saving.
Geocities is a cautionary tale for all of us. Now that we've come to expect permanence from the Internet and move deeper into cloud computing, it's tempting to think that everything is safe and backed up. But, as the Archive Team reminds us, all that data, writing, photos, movies, etc. are at the mercy of corporations. The lesson to our students can't just be "be careful what you post on the Internet because it will be there forever," but must also include, "BACKUP what you've posted on the Internet, because it may not be there forever!"
This lesson doesn't just apply to an individual's personal Internet offerings, but must be appreciated on the "bigger picture" of collective-cultural, preservation. In a world where much of our story is being told digitally, it is important to realize that those digits must be protected, archived, and backed up.
For more reading and investigation of preserving our Internet history, I direct you to the work being done at the Internet Archive, whose mission is to offer "permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format" as well as one of my favorite books: Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity by Lawrence Lessig.
"Deja News - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. .
"Google Acquires Deja.com." Information Today, inc. - NewsBreaks. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. .
"Usenet - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. . "Yahoo! Pulls Plug on GeoCities, Erases Internet History - TIME." Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews - TIME.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2009. .