Life Preserver

I think for many of us, the phrase “digital preservation” seems a bit of an oxymoron. Isn’t anything digital…already preserved? One of the many things we have established so far in this class is that the internet is hardly infallible. As such, when discussing digital sustainability and digital preservation, it is important to keep in mind that as easy as it is to add something to the internet, it can be equally easy to permanently delete something. And this is where our conundrum lies.

Sustainability and the internet is a major question we are facing not only as scholars, but as general users. Kaitlyn Tiffany’s article, “Yahoo, the Destroyer: How the historic company became known as a bumbling villain of internet culture,” demonstrates this quite succinctly. Yahoo has been a major company in our world for decades now, and, as Tiffany discusses, has not always enjoyed a sparkling reputation. Yahoo is a business above all else, and as such operates like one. It has shown no qualms about operating along the strategy of “if no one is looking at this, then it’s time to take it down.” While, from a practical standpoint, this strategy makes perfect sense, from a preservationist standpoint it is appalling. In the case of Yahoo Answers, we are being forced to reckon not only with the logistical problem of attempting to save the plethora of questions and replies (most of questionable value), but with the question of is it worth saving? This is, of course, a question asked regarding everything on the table for preservation, but when it comes to digital preservation we are faced with an inherently more nebulous source material. Just as easy to take down as it is to put up. So, the question becomes, “Who gets to decide what is taken down once put up?”

Yahoo has a specific notoriety for scrapping whole sites once the overlords decide it is not to their benefit to keep it up any longer. No notice, no requests from those that created the content, just…poof, it’s gone. I remember when Yahoo bought the social media site Tumblr. I was already deep in the recesses of Tumblr (hellsite [affectionate]), so I was 100% part of the outraged majority when the news dropped. Tumblr had never functioned particularly well, but now with Yahoo at the helm we knew that there was a significant chance the axe could drop at any given moment. Luckily, Tumblr has survived thus far (though perhaps “luckily” is not the word), though not without its setbacks. Yahoo has made some other pretty questionable decisions regarding that specific site, as well as the others it owns, even if it hasn’t dropped the guillotine blade yet. Yahoo’s rather cavalier attitude brings up the important question of should content creators have a say in whether their posted work gets preserved or deleted? Or should it remain up to the parent site?

I will fully admit that I still use Tumblr. It’s a unique culture that I haven’t truly found replicated anywhere else, and I believe that may be yet another reason for preservation. Inherently for-profit companies are looking to make money, not to watch culture develop on their platforms, and as such have no problem with shuffling said culture off this mortal coil. This, to me, poses not only a problem for us as historians, as it removes a potential wealth of source material on a given time period, but also as people living in this world, in this moment. In a world that is becoming increasingly more digital in nature, should companies have the final say in how we develop as a culture?

5 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I think your post hits on an important part of the internet, culture and nostalgia. It does matter more than some may realize. It can also be hard (weirdly enough) to find niche groups that you feel comfortable with talking to on the internet or have the same interest. I think that is why there was such an uproar over the Yahoo Answers. Imagine if Reddit were to go down…. no no no don’t imagine that haha

  2. You raise some really good points, Hayley. There’s always an argument regarding what has value to be saved for future use, but it’s way more complicated when corporations have the power remove swaths and categories of content without consent. There’s an element of feeling like individual agency is lost when heavy handed decisions are made regarding the sunsetting of an interactive website without the option of migration or backing up content in some format. On the other hand, I’m mindful that digital content is often ephemeral and sites that I thought would last are no longer around. On a sidenote, if I can remember the details I’ll share my quirky awkward turkey tumblr page with you.

  3. Great post I enjoyed reading it. I thought the same thing when reading that article. The biggest issues (probably among many) was who gets to decide what and when it is time to take something down. I also agree that preservation should not revolve only around questions of usability and how you preserve should not revolve around if it will be useful for historians, maybe useful for a variety of people. It is a hard question to answer and a lot to think about but it definitely should take a representative effort.

  4. You and I both stated in our intros that we thought the idea of digital preservation was an oxymoron! I find that too funny – I guess we were on the same wavelength!

    Anyway, the prospect of major players such as Yahoo scrapping entire websites with little to no notice is certainly fear-inducing to a digital historian. It only underscores the need for digital preservation – but as is always the question, how do we decide what’s worth saving?

  5. The phenomenon of just having a site just disappear with no warning rubs me the wrong way. To not even have a say in the matter or provide other solutions to prolong its activity, just to have it all disappear outright is outrageous. I hope to see more improvements made to keep data readily available and have less “because the higher ups told us to” moments in the future.

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