Tuesday, April 1, 2008

what's the halflife of a blog?

In a section of the Lisa Gitelman reading I found particularly thought-provoking, she describes the complications that arise when we attempt to make fixed references to new media. “The fluidity of additions, deletions, and modifications to the Web has helped to put such commonsense notions of 'standing as' – of citing, and of public and publication – into confusion” (132). Let's say I find a really great description of that incomparable PBS show “The Magic School Bus” on a page titled “Favorite PBS Shows” on the PBS web site. I want to share the information with a friend so I send her the URL of the page. Sounds simple, right?

Gitelman's analysis reveals the infinite ways in which this simple attempt to share information could fail. First off, PBS could simply delete the web page from their server. Less drastically, PBS could rename the page or move it somewhere else in the site hierarchy. In these cases, my friend would receive nothing more than an Error 404 page. It would seem to her as if the information had never even existed. Even if the URL did link to the page I intended, PBS might have revised or completely cut their description of The Magic School Bus, likely without noting that such a change ever took place. My friend would read a completely different text from the one I referred her to. The appearance of the page might be totally different as well. Based on the settings of our respective browsers, monitors, and operating systems, the web page code might display neatly on my screen and look like visual chaos on hers.

This point ties into Gitelman's larger argument about the difficulty of archiving the Internet in any traditional sense of the word. If there is no “final version” of a web page, then what do you archive? Every millisecond, the Internet is reborn anew, with no acknowledgment that it has ever existed any other way. As Gitelman puts it, “Change itself is a paradoxically consistent feature of the World Wide Web” (132). Everything is about now and nothing is stable.

I personally find this lack of stability unsettling. I don't like the thought that every piece of information I have stored online could potentially disappear at any moment, leaving no traces. The first way I consciously attempted to fight the temporariness of the Internet was by saving my favorite AIM conversations in middle school. Otherwise, as soon as I would close a conversation window, that interaction would be lost forever. Once it delivers your buddy's message to you, the AIM server usually forgets that the message ever existed. I didn't want future generations to be deprived of the fantastically witty conversations I had with my friends, so I methodically copy and pasted entire hour-long IM exchanges into Word documents which I still have lying around somewhere on a backup disc. I feel the same way about photo-sharing services today. Most of the photo documentation of the lives of my friends and I is located on Facebook servers. Because there is no guarantee that Facebook will exist in 10 years, let alone for all eternity, I make sure to download onto my hard drive any photos that I particularly love and I back that drive up regularly. I simply don't trust the Internet to preserve my memories, so I do it myself.

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