Preserving internet culture

Preserving Internet Culture

24th February, 2017 by

The amount of content being published online on a daily basis is a staggering thing to get one’s head around. According to some estimates, “people post 300 hours of video to YouTube and watch nearly 7 million Snapchat videos every minute,” while in just sixty seconds “Facebook receives over 4 million likes. More than 2 million Instagram hearts turn red. Nearly 350,000 tweets join the birds singing outside your window.”

Where Does All The Content Go?

This astonishing amount of content begs an important question: where does it all go? It’s true that one of internet’s defining qualities is that there is no scarcity of space. That very fact changed the nature of publishing itself, as it meant that anyone with access to an online platform could post their own content, whereas before one needed to have access to an actual publisher or the means to print their own material in order to reach a mass audience, which hugely limited who could publish. Equally, newspapers and magazines are expected to publish more content than ever before to compete with the unbelievable amount of user-generated content that’s described above.

How Do We Preserve Online History?

However, just because there is an unlimited amount of space online doesn’t mean that all content can or will survive forever. What happens when websites shut down, such as the recent shuttering of Gawker, leaving its thousands of blog posts in peril? Or what happens when a social network folds? Or a social network user dies and their account becomes inactive? It’s somewhat surprising that despite all the energy and innovation that’s gone into the web, very little has gone into preserving its history and content for future generations.

In reality, when it comes to preserving content for posterity, it’s more of a sorting and organizational issue than a capacity one. In response to that need, there is a niche number of activists and organizations that are working to preserve the internet’s content and, by extension, its culture. One is Jason Scott who works for archive.org, the newest iteration of what used to be called the Wayback Machine, which is described as “an the online library that can show you what a given website looked like on any given day, now encompassing more than 279bn pages.”

To Infinity And Beyond

Scott told the Guardian that he believes “the internet’s systems have been designed as though everything goes on indefinitely. There are no agreed-upon shutdown procedures.” So, what kind of content might we miss when it’s gone? There are many early-internet communities or games that had a cult following which ultimately shaped how we use the web today. One of those is GeoCities, an early web hosting service that was the third most visited website in the world in 1999.

Geocities no longer exists, but as this 2013 post from Gawker displays, nostalgia for it certainly still does. “Because things on the Internet never really die and because old terrible things on the Internet eventually become wonderful and especially because Geocities was so hilariously awful, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age is my new favorite website. It posts screenshots of old Geocities pages in all their blinging, blinking, clip art, galaxy background glory. I can’t get enough of this.”

The thing this blogger doesn’t note, however, is that things on the internet can die if not maintained. Future protocols or web hosting norms might inadvertently wipe much of the content we post today if something like archive.org is not actively working to maintain it. So, while internet culture may seem ephemeral and not very high brow at times—do we really want to catalog every racist or sexist tweet ever sent?—the truth is that future generations will benefit from having a record of how the online world evolved over time, and we should applaud initiatives like archive.org for working towards that aim.

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