Ephemeral Media

Many things are changing with the new media. I remember a time when I was but a wee child sitting blank-eyed in front of picture box. When I wanted to change the channel, I had to stand up and manually turn a knob. That was about as interactive as it got, but now with the world wide web interactive is the name of the game.

There is a specific change I had in mind. It’s become increasingly apparent that the new media is simultaneously more permanent and more ephemeral. If you’ve ever posted, commented or uploaded anything on the web, you can try to remove it but you can never be sure it’s entirely gone. Someone else could’ve downloaded it or copy/pasted it. The web trawlers capture almost anything that has been up any amount of time.

That said, it’s easy for things to disappear or become inaccessible. I’ve noticed the fickleness of search engines. I’ve known something exists, but couldn’t find it in a search. Or you can know precisely what you’re looking for and yet look through hundreds of results before finding it.  Search engines only show what the web trawler has noticed and it only shows results according to equations of relevance. And if you live in China, much of the world’s internet would be entirely invisible to you. You can’t know about what you can’t see.

My thoughts, however, are focused on another aspect. A famous example is the Kindle book that was simultaneously removed from everyone’s Kindle because Amazon didn’t have the rights. That would be like if a bookseller did a recall and entered everyone’s home while they were sleeping to retrieve the book. Another example was a cellphone company that managed to lose all of its customers data (contact info and whatever else).

More pertinent to my own experience are examples related to online forums and websites. The first forum I was an active member of closed down a while back. The sad part was it just disappeared one day without warning. I had many wonderful discussions that were almost entirely lost… except what the web trawlers managed to save. Could you imagine if real life communities could just disappear instantly like that? In the case of the forum I mentioned, I did still have contact with some of the other members through other sites… but it still sucked.

Even more recently, the only other online community I’ve been active in also shut down. It was where my first blog was. Fortunately, I had a two week warning. I realized, though, that I wouldn’t have had a warning at all if someone hadn’t told me about it because I hadn’t visited the site as much in recent months. If someone hadn’t sought me out on my new blog, I might’ve lost all of my old blogs… and that would’ve really sucked.

The people from that community have mostly moved over to Ning and started new communities. That is fine. I wasn’t too sad about any of it, but I learned something about Ning that gives me pause. The Ning management has an absolute policy about every individual having the rights to their own material. So, any person can delete everything they wrote, but the messed up part is that all responses to the deleted material will also be deleted. That is just not right.

A similar thing has happened to me on the local newspaper website, but on a smaller scale. If a comment gets reported for breaking some rule (such as slander), then that comment is removed and all responses to it automatically disappear as well.

One last example directly related to blogging itself. I have many posts in this blog. I have some of them saved, but not all of them. If someone hacked my account, they could delete my blogs or even cancel the account entirely. I’ve heard of examples on other blogging platforms where blogs get accidentally removed or deleted by a system error. Sometimes they are able to be put back up and sometimes not. I haven’t heard of any problems with WordPress, but it’s always a possibility.

To be fair, all of life is ephemeral. A fire could destroy all my books in a very short amount of time. In the past, I’ve lost a notebook that had personal writings in it. Or a more odd incident involved a pile of printed material I was saving that one of my cats peed on. That is life. Things get lost and destroyed, but there is something about a physical book, newspaper or magazine that feels more real because you can physically hold it and possess it. Writings on paper can last for centuries and millennia. If the internet collapsed or was destroyed, would it be as bad or worse than the burning of the library of Alexandria?