The internet does forget

Although it may be very exciting to make new things for the web, it’s important to think about archiving what we have made before. This requires one to think about the long term, and about whom we trust with our content.

Last week, Jeremy Keith held a lecture about digital preservation at Amsterdam’s university of applied sciences. This is a write-up of his talk.

Why keep old websites?

“This is for everyone” is the message that appeared behind Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, when he made a surprise appearance during the London 2012 Olympics ceremony. The web is meant for everyone. It is there not just to consume, but also to create for, Jeremy said.

Geocities used to be where people with hobbies hosted websites to share with the world what they did. Over 30 million of them. Websites about pets, football clubs, fan sites, you name it. From a web designer’s point of view, they were not necessarily the most beautiful or user-friendly websites. But, Jeremy said, “an ugly website that we find ugly today, may be the first website made by the future president of the United States“.

When Geocities shut down, no backup plans were made. We were looking at the removal of over 30 million websites, to be gone forever. This was a threat. It would have been where archeologists of the 2090s would have found what we were up to in the 1990s.

Other than their cultural significance, existing websites can also break the web if they are removed from it. This is because links to them will break.

Luckily, in the case of Geocities, the Web Archive team stood in and managed to save a large part of these websites.

Third parties

If recent history is an indication, trusting your content to third parties only is not a good idea, Jeremy emphasised. Geocities was bought by Yahoo!, so was Tumblr. Many websites that offer to host your content for you are bought by some big internet company at some point. We trust our content to these start-ups. But rarely, when they close, they offer a way to export the data. They do usually thank you for being on their incredible journey.

Indieweb type of solutions can help here: there are tools that let you publish on your own platform as well as on third parties, so that you always have your own content.

Hard work

The good news is that the web, Jeremy said, is actually very suitable for being preserved. Apps you build now will likely not work on devices from 5 years in the future, whereas websites probably will (as long as someone pays the web hosting bill).

The saying “the internet never forgets” is not actually true, Jeremy explained. The internet does forget, a lot of things get deleted and are then gone forever. One has to work hard to keep things online, preferably on their own URLs (to not break the web).

Preserving your websites requires one to think about the long term: you will have to make sure to keep paying your hosting bills, for one thing. But what about when you pass, are there any hosting companies that will let you include hosting fees in your will? Some compelling questions to think about!

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Hidde de Vries (@hdv on Twitter) is a freelance front-end developer in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He loves to be involved with the web community and used to volunteer at Fronteers organising conferences, meetups and workshops.