The persistence of information
In the modern digital age we are facing a threat of losing information at an unprecedented scale.
Internet in general, and World Wide Web in particular, is a one-of-a-kind place accumulating tremendous amount of knowledge. Ever since the WWW was conceived in 19911 it has helped millions of people to share various pieces of information, from favourite pasta recipes to books reviews. If not for the web, we would not be in the place we are now, both socially and technologically.
90’s and 00’s were, in my opinion, the golden age of the Internet. People were discovering what the Internet was all about. It was an uncharted territory and everyone of us felt like an explorer in the middle of an unknown jungle. There were plenty of treasures to discover, but it often depended on one’s abilities to look for the right thing in the right place (that’s also why in the early days it was called “surfing the internet”, not simply “browsing”). Web catalogues were popular, grouping pages in thematic categories (i.e. “sports”, “motorisation”, “cooking”, “gardening” and so on). Search engines were not a thing yet. You could not simply type your keyword, press Enter and get results a second later. It was more like looking through a phonebook (although I’m aware that this comparison might be lost anyway for the younger generation). Websites were not added to catalogues automatically. For each catalogue one wanted their website to be added to, they had to undergo the process manually, by either filling a form or contacting the webmaster. And there were a lot of catalogues to choose from.
The websites themselves were not perfect, by any standard, simply because there were hardly any standards to adhere to. Everyone tried to make their website look pretty, and for some it meant adding sparking GIFs as the background, for other it was bars with coloured moving text, for others — clip arts, etc. Digital cameras were not as popular, so photographs were not omnipresent, and videos were virtually nonexistent till the mid-00’s, mostly because many people still used dial-up connections, which had very limited speed (and by saying “limited” I really mean that: 56 kilobits per second was the maximum speed of a standard dial-up connection, which correspond to a total bandwidth of 8 KB per second (upload and download combined).
Still, despite the obvious shortcomings, the early web (sometimes also called “the web 1.0”) was inherently personal. People shared their thoughts, knowledge and opinions not only through their personal websites, but also on various internet forums and, in certain cases, even beyond the web itself (e.g. via newsgroups, which used usenet protocol). While every internet forum was an independent entity, the whole community of the early Internet shared similar attitude. It was a social place and a sharing place. Forums were ran by private individuals, whose goal was not to monetise or track the users to sell their data, but to simply maintain a discussion in a semi-public space. Informations posted on forums, newsgroups or personal websites were widely available to almost everyone. Even if a given forum had privacy settings requesting guests to log in in order to view discussions or download attachments, etc., it was usually only a brief obstacle, as anyone was free to register and to make use of the knowledge and informations provided. And those informations remained unobstructed, easy to search for, easy to use. It was even easier with personal websites, since they didn’t require any registration at all in order to access their content, making the knowledge posted there available. And the knowledge available was sometimes so specific or niche, it was unobtainable in any other way.
I still remember one time when I contacted the owner of a website devoted to hamsters, because I had one that seemed to be allergic to regular food and the vet I went to was unable to help me due to their lack of experience with small pets. That website owner had published an incredibly detailed article on what and when she was giving to her hamsters in order to keep them in good health and prevent allergies. Keep in mind it was 2001, and one could not simply find such informations easily. After I contacted her she gave me some helpful tips on what to do and thanks to that I was able to make my hamster healthy and happy again. I would have not been able to do that, had the access to that website been restricted somehow.
Unfortunately, we are long past that point in the history of the web and Internet. The rise of giants like Google and, later, Facebook has forever changed the shape of the Internet. Now private, personal websites are few and far between, and the vast majority of informations is being shared via social media. Instead of private, people-oriented internet forums we have Facebook groups, instead of personal websites and blogs we have tweets, status updates and shorts. This causes a multitude of problems, including:
- walled garden: content being only accessible by people registered to the given social network (e.g. Instagram forcing people to log in in order to view public profiles)
- content already accepted being subject to later removal/alteration/censorship due to a shift in company policy (e.g. Tumblr NSFW content ban)
- users being tracked while browsing content on a platform (basically any social media right now)
- unexpected restrictions or various type due to changes of the ownership/policy/goals (i.e. Elon Musk blocking Twitter users from linking to other social media)
- content not being available on older hardware or software, or via privacy modes restricting ad targeting or user profiling
These problems are merely the tip of an iceberg. The whole shift towards social media as the primary space for sharing, well, basically anything, caused a great websites extinction. Long gone are private websites where the owner shared precious knowledge on a niche subject, there is hardly anything left of internet forums where people passionately discussed miscellaneous topics. Usenet groups are totally obsolete now. Many of my web bookmarks saved 10, 15 years ago are dead now, and link rot is spreading and may be even a bigger problem in the future. Although we live in an age of information, we are losing incredible amount of data. Some of the websites of the old Internet have been archived in a bare-bones form, but it does not preserve how the website looked like when it was alive. It can give us a glimpse of a lost past, but nothing more.
Naturally, there are many reasons for why certain websites or articles are no longer available. Some of them have been hosted under a free subdomain, and the service providing free subdomains has ceased operation. Some were located on personal computers that acted as servers, and were lost when the computer was no longer online, perhaps too old, too loud, too power hungry. Some were removed when the owner did not pay for their hosting on commercial servers. Some people have inevitably lost interest in maintaining their website or being an admin of an internet forum. Many simply passed away, and their websites eventually succumbed to lack of maintenance or failed payment for another hosting/domain renewal period. Whatever the reason, it all ultimately leads to the loss of information. We loose knowledge from people who can no longer share it, we loose stories from people that cannot tell then anymore. We loose many precious things before we even realise how precious they were. This is why the persistence of information is so important.
We cannot afford to loose information. The knowledge published online should be preserved whenever it is possible. What has been lost cannot be recovered, but we may take action to make sure that the current state of the web knowledge in its general meaning is preserved. First and foremost, own your words! This catchphrase simply means that one should primarily post their content, regardless of its type (articles, photos, drawings, etc.) on their own website. Whenever you upload your work of art, that art being old Grandma’s recipe, a National Geographic-worthy photograph or review of a book you read, upload it to the part of the web that belongs to you. If you post your content on Twitter, or Facebook, or Tumblr, or any other website, it is subject to the website’s terms of service, and can be deleted or banned on a whim. If the website goes down for any reason, all your stuff goes down with it. If you decide to leave that social network (like during the Twitter exodus last November), you leave your content behind. Of course you can re-publish it in a new place, but people who had the link to your original post won’t be redirected to the new place. By sharing your content, knowledge and information on your own website you retain full control. You can change servers and hosting providers as many times as you want; as long as you keep your domain up, the URL will always be the same. I, myself, have changed hosting providers five times since 2015, while this website still remained operational.
There is a concept that describes this premise in a greater detail, called POSSE — Publish [on your] Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. While keeping information on one own’s website does not eliminate the risk of deletion due to abandoning the project, or one’s untimely demise, it makes that knowledge more accessible to people on the Internet. I know that one could argue that social media have much further reach than a personal website, but the whole affair is not about the reach, views or impressions. It is about persistence. I believe that owning your own words is a key to information persistence on the Internet.
technically, Tim Berners-Lee shared his vision of what we now call the web in 1989, but the web itself only began its public existence two years later ↩