Admittedly, I’m a bit of a pack rat. I’m not talking hoarders-style, but I do have trouble parting with little things that are memorable for me. Not just the special toys, books, and photos — I’m that person who keeps every movie ticket stub, boarding pass, and concert ticket neatly in a scrapbook to reflect on every now and then.
My tendency to hold on to memories has naturally crossed over into the digital world. I keep all e-mail conversations, I rarely delete tweets, and I have extensive archives of photography and artwork. Even MP3s of songs I’ve grown sick of are more likely to end up backed up on a CD than thrown in the Trash.
The physical scrapbook of travel memories sits on my bookshelf and belongs to me — it’s in my control. But what happens when we entrust our memories to a service on the Internet?
It seems we’re reminded about how volatile digital data is all too often. A few days ago, one of my favourite social networks, Gowalla, was permanently shut down after being acquired by Facebook in late 2011.
If you aren’t familiar, Gowalla was a popular location-based iPhone app that would allow users to “check in” to any type of place, whether it was a shop, office, landmark, airport, or anything else you could think of. Once checked in, the user would receive a “stamp” — comparable to a digital passport. And, if it was your first time checking into a new state, province, or country, you’d receive a stamp for those, too.
Gowalla, and other check-in apps, aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. People have often wondered why I would ever use it, but it all boiled down to one thing — it kept a detailed history of my travels. They were my memories.
While Gowalla is no more, the people behind it understand that we want to keep those memories and they’re working on making a tool that will allow us to export our data. I’ve since switched to Foursquare as my primary check-in app. But how do we know where Foursquare will go? Will they also be acquired by the great Facebook vacuum, or will popularity fade? Of course, the benefit outweighs the risk and these things don’t stop me from using new services, but they do make me think about how I use them and how to preserve my data if they too disappear someday.
At the web conference An Event Apart in Boston last year, web developer and author Jeremy Keith discussed the topic of long-term design challenges in his talk titled All Our Yesterdays. Here’s an encore of his talk from Build Conference in Belfast in December 2011. It’s long, but worth it — Jeremy touches on some incredibly important topics including web hosting, file formats and media, domain names, and DRM licensing issues and restrictions.
Jeremy also talks about one of the largest and saddest shutdowns of an Internet service: when Yahoo! closed Geocities in 2009, losing at least 38 million user-built pages.
A quote Jeremy referenced, from designer Phil Gyford, says it best:
“GeoCities is an awful, ugly, decrepit mess. And this is why it will be sorely missed. It’s not only a fine example of the amateur web vernacular but much of it is an increasingly rare example of a period web vernacular. GeoCities sites show what normal, non-designer, people will create if given the tools available around the turn of the millennium.”
Just last week, through a combination of some clever googling and the website Archive.org, I was lucky enough to find the remnants of one of the first websites I made and hosted on Geocities. It’s ugly and embarrassing, but what it contributes to the story of my design career is priceless.
Can we really continue to depend on third party services to entrust our data? As Jeremy said so well in his talk — nobody’s too big to fail on the web.
Publishing on the Internet is not just about blog posts, news articles, and Wikipedia entries. It’s about what everyday people do in their everyday lives. How we go about solving this problem is daunting — but acknowledging that it is a problem is a good start. If we don’t change our mindset about how we treat our data, we could look back on this time with very little of our digital history preserved.