The Danger of “Digital Decay”

Matthew Ingram on GigaOm has an excellent post on what’s been called “digital decay,” citing a study showing that as time goes on, substantial amounts of digital data (websites, tweets, etc.) are simply lost.

While there is certainly the consideration that not all information needs to be archived – see any random Facebook user’s wall – the tweets and posts of today’s protesters are the primary sources for tomorrow’s historians. In the past, people wrote things on paper: a soldier’s letters home, descriptions of important events for magazines, essays on current events to be handed out on street corners. These were the primary sources historians used to piece together more accurate and nuanced histories. Now that almost all our interactions are digital, our current primary sources are disappearing rapidly. I agree with Ingram that this could be a serious problem; future historians may only have “official” media to rely on, and as corporate entities, these media do not represent the full range of voices and perspectives even within the US.

The question is, which data should be kept indefinitely? Who would make that decision? I think, if we are to come up with a realistic archive, it should be user-generated. For example, there could be a button allowing you to send your tweet or post or what-have-you to this archive. Most people, I believe, wouldn’t choose to opt in with a post about their cat getting sick or how much they hate Miley Cyrus. Allowing we, the people, to choose what we think is important also tells something to future historians.


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