Have you ever lost something for good on the Web? In his technology blog titled Raiders of the Lost Web, If a Pulitzer-finalist 34-part series of investigative journalism can vanish from the web, anything can, Adrienne Lafrance laments that until you lose something that you treasure on the Net, the concept of this type of loss is difficult to understand. The problem is maintenance. As soon as a site ceases to be adequately maintained, then it starts to fall apart and the risk of loss is high. Downes (2015) agrees, if a large entity like Facebook decides to ‘pull the plug’ one day,‘*poof* it’s gone’. Worse still, he mentions that valued artefacts such as coursework, discussion posts and everything that is posted to third party sites online is at risk. He concludes by warning us to keep this in mind.
Lafrance’s article is a must read, he eloquently describes the work and effort put into a documentary of a tragedy in Colorado by Kevin Vaughan who was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize as a result. Desparingly however, over time the documentary was lost on the internet due to the very issue of lack of maintenance when the publisher went out of business. The story he cites is touching and the message is clear. As Lafrance puts it, ‘It is not just access to knowledge, but the knowledge itself that’s at stake’.
But what of all the valuable information that Governments store and share, surely that is safe? Think again, when Governments and their policies change, have you noticed that web pages are pulled down and their contents are often impossible to find? This happened to me recently when I was building an educational piece for my business. The information was not obsolete but because the Government had changed, it was no longer considered relevant (to them). I would imagine that most people could describe a similar example of this occurring with a favourite site.
We can be grateful for the forethought demonstrated by Jason Scott, founder of the not for profit Wayback Machine, an internet archive which is capable of saving tens of petabytes of data. Scott and others are busily archiving as quickly as they can and Lafrance has identified the cause of Wayback Machine as extraordinary, but it has not been able to keep up with the ever increasing growth of the Web. Remarkably though, they did archive the missing information that I required for my business and I retrieved it by placing the old URL in the search box. For a NFP that relies on donations to survive, this is pretty good!
What is the relevance to digital citizenship, especially for our young people then? Well, Lafrance points out that the Web was never meant to be a library, it was primarily built as a short-lived messaging system and now it is used as the main source of information. Further, he cautions that there are no ‘robust mechanisms for libraries and museums to acquire, and thus preserve, digital collections’. Now I’m hearing alarm bells, if much of the information contained on the Web is at risk of being lost and there are no clear guidelines or official archiving mechanisms, then what becomes of information access for following generations, shouldn’t this be included in Digital Citizenship?
As a component of digital citizenship, we counsel young people about the risks associated with publishing their material on the Web including creating digital footprints which ‘are forever’. In doing so, we elicit a false sense of security in that we are not also warning them that their treasured work, records and artefacts are at the whim of caretakers. Further, the work of authors, professionals and innovators who publish, store and backup information digitally may also be lost to future generations such as in Vaughan’s case. It’s true that in the ‘old days’ we were all encouraged to back up our work on secondary storage devices and that may still apply in some organisations, especially the large ones, but many of us rely on the cloud to backup up our work.
At the very least, we should update the narrative surrounding digital citizenship and permanency of information on the Web and for now we should also be promoting use of archiving sites such as Wayback Machine so we can capture as much as we are able until these issues are addressed.
Louise is an educational technologist and founder of CloudEd at cloudeducation.com.au.
Downes, S. (16 October, 2015) Raiders of the Lost Web, Commentary [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://www.downes.ca/post/64589.
Lafrance. A. (2015) Raiders of the Lost Web, If a Pulitzer-finalist 34-part series of investigative journalism can vanish from the web, anything can. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/raiders-of-the-lost-web/409210/.
Wayback machine http://archive.org/web/
Sand footprint http://summitcountyvoice.com/2012/02/10/morning-photo-sand/