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I signed up for Facebook in my senior year of high school, just as the service was branching out from its college campus confines. And even then, in those early days, the message from my teachers, my parents, and those talking heads on TV was the same: don’t put anything on the internet that you don’t want floating around forever.
To this day, that’s good advice. But it’s also clear the internet’s memory isn’t exactly the steel trap we were all told it was.
In (what else?) a tweet posted last week, Twitter CEO Elon Musk said the social media service would be “purging” user accounts if they lay dormant for long enough.
The period of inactivity that would prompt an account deletion is pretty long — Musk said the move would apply to accounts that have gone unused for “several years,” and that accounts would be “archived” in some way. But the lack of clarity around what “archiving” means is little comfort to, say, people who continue to seek a sense of closeness with Twitter-using friends and loved ones who have died or are incarcerated.
Elsewhere on the internet, a brigade of digital archivists and historians were preparing for what feels like yet another extinction-level event.
About a month ago, a popular image host called Imgur said it was changing its terms of service. Under those newly revised terms — which went into effect this Monday — the service will begin removing “old, unused and inactive content that is not tied to a user account from our platform as well as nudity, pornography, & sexually explicit content.”
Imgur’s crackdown is concerning, but not much of a surprise. What’s more immediately troubling to me is the idea that image embeds and links to Imgur content across the internet could stop working entirely if those images weren’t specifically uploaded by a user with an account, and if they haven’t been accessed frequently enough.
One impassioned Twitter user even likened the change to burning the Library of Alexandria, which may be more apt a comparison than many realize. Sure, Imgur helped memes and visual jokes proliferate across the web. But it also housed (and continues to house) handy, user-made guides that unpacked everything from different forms of cognitive bias to the best ways to safeguard a chicken coop.
While many of those helpful images will survive, others — the forgotten ones — are headed for deletion, deprived of a chance to be rediscovered and shared again for our benefit.
Granted, this isn’t a new problem. While jotting down thoughts for this edition of the newsletter, I opened up my web browser’s bookmark folder and started clicking through saved items to see which bits of the internet I loved still existed. The results were … pretty grim.
Long, self-indulgent essays from a writer I idolized, a gorgeous online portfolio of photos taken by a photographer in Japan, a repository of old State Department language learning resources, all gone. Link rot is real, folks, and with it comes a slow, steady sloughing off things on the internet we once loved — or still love, in absentia.
Even things you’ve chosen to save online for your own use or convenience can come with an expiration date. Just today, Google announced a new policy under which personal Google accounts — not ones you may use for work — that haven’t been accessed for two years will be deleted. That includes “content within Google Workspace (Gmail, Docs, Drive, Meet, Calendar), YouTube and Google Photos”.
Google’s clarity here is somewhat comforting; it won’t start deleting accounts until December 2023 at the earliest, and says it’ll send multiple messages to affected accounts before they get purged. Still, the message is clear: online, most things won’t last forever.
Preserve your digital history
The lesson? Don’t just wait for the worst-case scenario. Preserve those fragments of your digital life that really matter to you. If you’re not exactly sure where to start, here are a few suggestions.
1. Save bits of the web: If you’ve landed on a website with an image you’d like to hang on to, right-click it — or long-press, if you’re using your phone — and save it. (Since not all websites allow this, you may need to take a screenshot instead.)
If preserving individual webpages is more your concern, there are some easy options: On your computer, you could save the page as a PDF, or use a browser extension such as SingleFile to produce a near-perfect copy you can view in Chrome, Firefox, and Safari. And if you’re trying save full versions of entire websites, tools like WAIL and ArchiveBox can help — they’re not for the faint of heart, but their results would make an internet preservationist proud.
2. Back up your devices: Between messages, photos, documents, emails, and downloads, gadgets like your smartphone and tablet contain loads of information you’ll probably want to hang on to. We’ve made some quick visual guides for backing up most of this data — you can find them here.
3. Don’t just rely on the cloud: Sure, Apple and Google probably aren’t in danger of imminent collapse. But that doesn’t mean you should trust your personal content to live on in just one place. It’s much better to embrace redundancies, so keep any important files or documents in the cloud and locally, say, on an external drive you can safely store at home.
4. Download those tweets: It’s not entirely clear when — or even if — Twitter will really start deleting people’s old, unused profiles. If the idea of someone’s profile vanishing fills you with dread, there are steps you can take to make sure those tweets and images continue to live on somewhere.
5. Archive voice mails: There are a few ways to do this, like exporting high-quality audio files from your smartphone, or recording from a more basic phone with a speaker feature and computer with a microphone. Either way, don’t let the sound of someone’s voice disappear before you’re ready.
Earlier, I mentioned a trip down memory lane by way of my browser’s collection of bookmarks. What I didn’t mention in that moment is how my attitude toward those links has changed over time — many of them are so old that they’re more an archaeological monument to the person I used to be, and I kind of like it that way.
These days, I’ve come to rely on Raindrop.io, a free service I can easily tap into from whatever phone or computer I’m using. Saving bookmarks is a breeze, as is categorizing and tagging those links so none of it mingles unnecessarily. (Recipes I like shouldn’t live anywhere near tantalizing fashion suggestions from Instagram, after all.) And while you can pay for extra features and niceties, the free tier is clever and usable enough that you could easily get by if you won’t or can’t pay for software.