Yahoo! succeeded in destroying the most amount of history in the shortest amount of time, certainly on purpose, in known memory. Millions of files, user accounts, all gone.
– Archive.Org (click through for the GeoCities archive)
As if it was a bad April Fools joke, April 1st 2013 saw the end of Yahoo! Messages. It was a pretty sudden end to a long-running, fifteen-year-old site and collection of threads and discussions. Notice arrived a month earlier, on March 1st, when they announced that the website would shut down in a month. The reason: “to help focus our efforts on core Yahoo! product experiences.”
Fifteen years. Fifteen years of largely non-commercialized voices of everyday people, discussing issues as varied as business, the Internet, government, hobbies, science, education, and so forth.
Fifteen years of history. Primary sources. Deleted. Why? Storage costs are falling. Digital preservation is a recognized field. Just removed from the web, without consideration for the future legacy of products, of our conversations, of our archives.
Well, it was saved. Archive Team, as they have many times before, stepped up to the plate and helped to preserve Yahoo! Messages. It was a tough-fought battle: Yahoo! limited the rate by which things could be downloaded, there was little time. Thanks to virtual machines, hundreds of people loaned bandwidth and time to the project (I like to think the very tiny chunk that I helped save on my crappy internet contribution earned me some good karma for the day), saving this piece of history. Thanks, also, to the engaged board editor over at the History of Science and Technology, who helped post a call for action when it looked like Yahoo! messages wasn’t going to be preserved.
Wake up, historians.
This stuff matters. If we want to be the profession that leads the way in understanding and interpreting the past, we should be part of this conversation, or at the very least learn and see how we can help out. I should note here, quickly, that I know there are historians who care. I follow them on Twitter and they’re awesome. But they’re a small minority of the profession, and that needs to change. This doesn’t just affect digital historians, it affects historians. Our very profession.
- When priceless documents seemed to have been burned in Timbuktu, historians were outraged.
- When Library and Archives Canada limits access, or gets rid of an old labour history website, we’re outraged.
- Cuts to library cuts in Canada, generally, worry us publicly.
I hope you get the point: historians care about this stuff, as we rightfully should. But when Yahoo! Messages shut down, barely a peep.
Let’s think of the digital issues that have the potential to reshape everything we do. Here are some chapters of this sad history, preserved and aggregated thanks to Archives Team and the Internet Archive.
- Geocities was shuttered in 2009. One of the most popular websites in Internet history, and still relatively popular as of its closure. This was millions and millions of user pages, non-commercial content, the voices of everyday people, shut down with again fairly little notice. As Archive.Org put it above, this was the destruction of “the most amount of history in the shortest amount of time, certainly on purpose, in known memory.” This isn’t hyperbole. Again, this was Yahoo! (sneaking a swear in here, and I hope I speak for most historians, but fuck them)
- I’ve written elsewhere about how hard USENET is to access for historians today, as Google Groups access has been considerably depreciated.
- Yahoo! videos was taken down.
- Local webhosts, such as FortuneCity.
- Blogging platforms like Posterous, currently in the process of being saved. You can help too.
- etc. etc. etc.
So when Google made a ‘funny April fools joke’ about YouTube shutting down, I wasn’t too amused.
What can we do?
First of all, we can start making sure that we demand that data be kept. This can crept into our daily lives, as university researchers (who if full-time, share in co-governance of pretty considerable and influential institutions), employees of corporations, users of websites, and so forth. Demand that data is kept. Question when deletions happen. Keep this on the radar. Use our clout as historians (and here I’m looking at those who are higher up in the food chain as I) to look at Yahoo, Google, and others, and say “no!”
We can start trying to educate ourselves about digital preservation, learn about these endeavours. A good place to start is the Library of Congress’ digital preservation blog, although there are others. I’d tell you to follow them on Google Reader, but that’s dying (see what’s going on here?!).
We can donate to the Internet Archive.
I’m not sure, and I don’t want to prescribe.
But we’re historians, and we should care about this. Let’s do something, as small as it can be, in our own lives.