We are the first people in history to create vast online records of our lives. How much of it will endure when we are gone?
NOT long before my wife died, she asked me to do something for her. “Make sure people remember me,” she said. “Not the way I am now. The way I was.” Having spent most of her life as an assertive, ambitious and beautiful woman, Kathryn didn’t want people’s memories to be dominated by her final year, in which the ravages of disease and continual chemotherapy had taken her spirit, vitality and looks.
To me, the internet seemed to offer an obvious way to fulfil Kathryn’s wish – certainly more so than a dramatic headstone or funerary monument. So I built a memorial website to celebrate her life through carefully selected pictures and text. The decision was unorthodox at the time, and I suspect that some in our circle thought it tasteless.
Six years on, things are very different. As the internet’s population has grown and got older, memorial pages and tribute sites have become commonplace. But when you and I shuffle off this mortal coil, formal remembrances won’t be the only way we are remembered. I manage myriad websites and blogs, both personal and professional, as well as profiles on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and more. All of those will be left behind, and many other people will leave a similar legacy.
We are creating digital legacies for ourselves every day – even, increasingly, every minute. More than a quarter of a million Facebook users will die this year alone. The information about ourselves that we record online is the sum of our relationships, interests and beliefs. It’s who we are. Hans-Peter Brondmo, head of social software and services at Nokia in San Francisco, calls this collection of data our “digital soul”.
Thanks to cheap storage and easy copying, our digital souls have the potential to be truly immortal. But do we really want everything we’ve done online – offhand comments, camera-phone snaps or embarrassing surfing habits – to be preserved for posterity? One school of thought, the “preservationists”, believes we owe it to our descendants. Another, the “deletionists”, think it’s vital the internet learns how to forget. These two groups are headed for a struggle over the future of the internet – and the fate of your digital soul is hanging in the balance.
As the internet has become seamlessly integrated with all our experiences, more and more of our everyday life is being documented online. Last year, two-thirds of all Americans stored personal data on a distant server in the cloud, while nearly half were active on social networks.
Today, that data is hoarded by internet companies. Google and Facebook are dedicated to storing as much of your data as possible for as long as possible. Even your “digital exhaust”, such as search requests and browsing history, is often recorded by companies who want to target you with personalised advertising.
All this data will prove fascinating to sociologists, archaeologists and anthropologists studying the dawn of the digital age. For them, everyday life can be just as interesting as epoch-defining moments. Whereas researchers have hitherto had to rely on whatever physical documents happen to survive, our vast digital legacies mean their successors could be spoiled for choice.
Nothing is definite, though: it’s far from certain that this information will endure. “Digital records are more like an oral tradition than traditional documents,” says Marc Weber of the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. “If you don’t copy them regularly, they simply disappear.” He is concerned that we are not doing enough. “If we’re not careful, our period could end up as a bit of a Dark Age. Everyone is putting material into digital formats, but not putting much effort into preserving it.”
A movement is now emerging to make sure our legacies persist – with amateur enthusiasts in the vanguard. One of those is Jason Scott, a film-maker who recently staged an effort to save Geocities, a vast collection of personal websites dating back to 1994.
Geocities allowed anyone to create a home page of their own, usually using cheesy clip art, excitable text effects and templates that look endearingly amateurish to modern eyes. Antique charm doesn’t count for much in the marketplace, and as slicker competitors emerged Geocities became deserted and spam-laden. After a decade’s forbearance (or neglect, some would say), the site’s owner, Yahoo, decided to pull the plug on the vast majority of pages in 2009.
The threat of the impending axe horrified Scott. He and his supporters hastily “scraped” as many Geocities pages as they could, creating a 641-gigabyte archive that initially circulated on file-sharing networks before being reposted at reocities.com.
The one question that gets asked most often, says Scott, is “Why bother to save this junk anyway?” His answer is that it’s not junk: it’s history. Geocities is a huge time capsule from the infancy of the World Wide Web. Its design values speak to the limitations of dial-up connections; its structure captures a time when no one had figured out how to navigate the web, where people built online homes in themed “neighbourhoods” called Hollywood or EnchantedForest. Its users’ interactions with each other – via email addresses and guestbooks published openly without fear of spam – offer valuable insights into the birth of online culture.
The fate of Geocities is relevant because the odds are that more sites will go the same way. History shows that even the most prominent technology companies can be rapidly overtaken by competitors or deserted by customers: think of IBM or Microsoft. Companies like Facebook provide you with free services and storage on their servers. In exchange, they track your online activities and sell advertising against the personal information you provide. But one day they may choose – or be forced – to look for new ways to make money. Those might not involve hosting pictures of your cat.
Last December, Yahoo announced plans to “sunset” more well-known services, including the pioneering social bookmarking service del.icio.us. Rumours soon began to circulate about an impending demise for its giant photo-sharing site Flickr. Yahoo has brushed aside suggestions that the site’s future is in question, but Flickr users remain concerned about what they see as a lack of commitment.
When such sites disappear, many users feel they are losing more than a photo album. Years of my personal photographs are stored on Flickr, and it is woven into Kathryn’s memorial site. I have backups, but the photos on Flickr are surrounded by a rich history of social interactions, from groups to which I belong to comments that friends have left about my photos. That feels just as much part of my digital soul as the images themselves. The same goes for anything we share on social networks: our friendships, likes and links are what’s really important.
Many preservationists feel that it is not safe to entrust information of sentimental value to companies with fickle agendas and fortunes, and are working on ways to give us greater control of our digital legacies. Over the past year, there has been a proliferation of tools that allow us to extract our data from the big social sites. There’s also a cottage industry that aims to ensure that our legacies are assembled and apportioned according to our wishes after we are gone. Many of those involved, including security specialists, virtual undertakers, data storage companies – and, inevitably, lawyers – will be meeting for a “Digital Death Day” in San Francisco in early May.
“Think about the appeal of family history,” says Jeremy Leighton John, curator of e-manuscripts at the British Library in London. “The idea of creating a personal archive for your descendants is very evocative.”
But assembling such a legacy is not simple. Facebook and its ilk put a lot of work into keeping your information neatly organised and readily accessible. That’s not something most of us are good at. John says around a third of us report having lost a digital file of personal value. “Imagine losing your memories of your children growing up,” he says. You might not be doing much to mitigate that risk, he says, but it’s no doubt a concern for many people nowadays.
A new breed of social networking services might help us organise our data while also ensuring that we maintain control over it. Diaspora, based in San Francisco, is a fledgling social network which runs on servers maintained by its users. That’s in contrast to Facebook, which has its own servers and therefore controls everything on your profile. The downside with Diaspora and other “DIY” social networks is that you have to keep your server running; if you stop, your legacy could evaporate overnight.
Still, it might eventually be possible for us to assemble and bequeath our virtual estates with a few clicks – the internet equivalent of donating our personal letters and papers. The San Francisco-based Internet Archive, which has been curating a public collection of web pages and multimedia since 1996, hopes to accept such donations in the near future. Founder Brewster Kahle says he hopes it will inspire people to “endow a terabyte”. If that happens, our digital legacies may be preserved for posterity after all.
Yet should we be so quick to give in to the urge to preserve? “Forgetting is built into the human brain,” says Viktor Mayer-Schönberger of the Oxford Internet Institute in the UK, who studies internet governance and regulation. “So for thousands of years we’ve developed ways to preserve special memories.” Today, though, it is quicker and easier to save every bit of our vast digital trails than it is to sort and discard what we don’t want. In other words, we might be producing more memories than we can cope with.
We are often ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of total recall. For example, Facebook has been sporadically testing a “memorable stories” feature: every now and again, it will show old status updates written by you or a friend. The general reaction has been bafflement, with users unsure what to make of these blasts from the past. Sometimes it’s hard to tell what the vintage update is actually referring to; at others it’s unwanted, like a reminder of a bad break-up.
Occasionally, the resurgence of memories from long ago can be devastating. “A woman called in to a radio programme to tell me that her long-spent criminal conviction had been inadvertently revealed online,” says Mayer-Schönberger. “It had instantly destroyed her standing in the small community where she lived, the fresh start she had worked for years to achieve. This wasn’t even something she had posted: it was someone else.” It’s hard to forgive and forget if you can no longer forget.
There’s another persuasive reason why we might want to embrace online forgetfulness. If personal internet sites really did last forever, the web would start to fill up with “dead data” – a reflection of the truism that the dead outnumber the living. My memorial site for Kathryn is currently Google’s first result for her name. I’m not sure how her living namesakes feel about that.
In his 2009 book Delete, Mayer-Schönberger proposed that we should build technology that forgets gracefully. Files might come with expiry dates, he suggests, so that they simply vanish after a certain point. Or they might “digitally rust”, gradually becoming less faithful unless we make a concerted effort to preserve them. Perhaps files could become less accessible over time – like consigning old photos to a shoebox in the attic rather than displaying them on the wall.
A few firms have put these ideas into practice. In January, a German start-up called X-Pire launched software that lets you add digital expiry dates to images uploaded to sites like Facebook. After a certain date the images become invisible, so your friends will be able to check out your debauched photos on the morning after the night before, but you won’t have to worry about them appearing when a potential employer looks you up a few years later.
The problem with such schemes is that if something can be seen on the web it can also be copied, albeit with a bit of effort. Human nature being what it is, that’s most likely to happen to something really exceptional. If we’re lucky, our finest achievements will be replicated; if we’re not, it will be our epic failures that become immortal. Another difficulty is that the providers of “forgetting” services are minnows in a very big pond. How likely is it that a plucky start-up will be able to pry your entire legacy from Google and Facebook?
Even if we can’t erase data, we might be able to hide it. This February, after a number of individuals complained to the country’s data protection agency, a Spanish court ordered Google to remove nearly 100 links from its database because they contained out-of-date information about these people. The links were mostly to newspaper articles and public records, and Google refused to comply, but with the “right to be forgotten” enshrined as a key objective of the European Union’s 2011 data protection strategy, more and bigger cases are likely to follow. The EU has a track record of changing the way that the internet is used: forgetfulness may be the next big frontier.
Right now, though, we are living through a truly unique period in human history. We have learned how to create vast digital legacies but we don’t yet know how to tidy them up for our successors. The generations that went before us left no digital trace, and the ones that go after might leave nothing but sanitised “authorised biographies”. We will be defined through piecemeal and haphazard collections of our finest and foulest moments.
The memories we are leaving behind now, in all their riotous glory – drunken tweets, ranting blog posts, bad-hair-day pictures and much more – may become a unique trove to be studied by historians for centuries to come. In fact, today’s web may offer the most truthful and comprehensive snapshot of the human race that will ever exist.
And perhaps, deep within that record, those historians will find an online memorial built by a grieving widower to a woman who died too young, at the dawn of the digital age.
Read more: “Forever online: Your digital legacy”
Sumit Paul-Choudhury is the editor of newscientist.com. He is happily remarried.