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?