Save yourself from the Ephemeral

As users of the Internet, we change a lot. We move email IDs, we jump from one social networking fad to another, we change bookmarking and read-it-later sites and even crash, delete or just forget blogs that we write on.

Most of the stuff I’ve done in the past 10 years or so on the Internet has been pretty personal. Emails, Orkut or Facebook where privacy settings allowed me to block external users or bookmarking sites that were private by default. But recently, most of my contribution to the Internet has been public – twitter and App.net, my blogs and even my bookmarking has been public. So is true for most of us out there. With the shift in social networks’ view of what data should be totally private, there’s a lot of data that’s in the public domain. This also means that there’s equally that much data that can be lost or can stagnate when an eventuality occurs – a web service shuts down because of acquisition or drying up of funds, your blog crashes and you have to start from scratch, you leave a social network and even though you download all your data and invite all your connections to the new one, some don’t join or you can’t upload any of that data anywhere else (how many social networks out there are interchangeable? None.) or maybe you just stop using a site or service and that data just sits there, alone and forgotten (just ask my bookmarks on del.icio.us).

This creates loopholes in the Internet. It’s not a bad thing. Data comes and goes. But that data isn’t just some random text you spewed on the Internet. It’s all about your thoughts, actions, feelings, discoveries and likes and dislikes. In fact, Documentally puts it rather aptly when he says –

A tweet is not just a tweet. It’s a part of our digital heritage. A fragment of our culture, digitized.

via A tweet is not just a tweet – Linkrot and our digital history.

In fact, it’s not just our culture or heritage, it’s a lot more personal. It’s a part of who I am. It’s not some concept or joke that I uploaded, took to completion and forgot. It’s a part of my thought process and the path to my becoming every day, who I am today. Further, it’s not a one time thing. It’s a work in progress and we should treat it that way.

Are we limited to tweets as commentators on the Internet? No, we are not. But a tweet is, as of today, the most ephemeral thing we put on the Internet. Think about it. You can access all your Facebook and Instagram posts. You can certainly access all your blog posts or the blog posts of all 56 million blogs on WordPress.com. Then why can’t you access all your tweets? Pretty soon, I am going to cross the 3200 tweet mark. That means that my 3201st tweet will make my 1st ever tweet inaccessible to me.

Looking at history, we’ve lost a lot of work of art, literature and culture over the thousands of years that we’ve been humans. But we’ve done a pretty good job of preserving what we can and as of today, we can claim that our libraries and our online book portals have so much information that we can commend ourselves as a race that loves our past. But the same is definitely not true for the Internet. Some of the oldest blogs and websites are dead, changed our written over. Most of the social networks alive five years ago are dead now and if it were not for the Internet Archive and it’s Way Back Machine, about 10 PetaBytes of data, including 3 million public domain books would have been lost.

We’ve got to step up to this indignity with which we treat our thoughts and ideas today. We’ve got to learn how to back up, preserve and be able to search and associate our thoughts. We need to build local services that replicate online services, so that not only do we back up our data, we actually use it as well, instead of just keeping zip files in some dark corner of our disk drives. We need to ask, rant and rave to ensure that our online services let us download all that is truly ours. We need to hunt down every comment that we’ve ever made and note down in our diaries how we felt about it so that we remember who we are and where we’ve come from.

Here are some resources that are useful in backing up your remarkable journey as humans on the Internet –

1. TweetBook – Create a backup PDF of your past 3200 tweets.
2. Internet Archive – Look for older versions of publicly available pages.
3. WordPress Backup – Backup your WordPress Blog to Dropbox, so that you don’t need to start from scratch if it crashes.

Apart from backing up everything, how else can you make sure that your social interactions are preserved and owned by you, no matter what platform you’re using?

Here are two radical ways –

1. This is by a developer named Sham. He explains in this post that everything you do on a social network like Twitter or ADN is akin to a blog post. Thus, any posts are paragraphs in that blog post, any thread is the post in its entirety, any replies you get are comments, any reposts that are done are reblogs and  every reply you’ve made is an update. Combine them all together and you’ve got yourself a blog which records yours ideas and puts them in context. He’s currently doing this manually here but we’re sure that something will come up that’ll allow you to automate the process.

2. The second is something that I’m experimenting with. Many blogging platforms are realizing the value of live blogs and WordPress is the latest one to join the bandwagon. They’ve created a plugin called the LiveBlog which you can install on your blog and start using to add your thoughts and ideas or perhaps the day’s events on the blog. I’ve setup a LiveBlog over here so that whatever memorable ideas I post on other social networks, I circle back and post them back over here too. It’s an experiment which I’m sure will stand me in good stead because all of my thoughts are being recorded on a single page where I can search, index and remember them.

I’ll leave you with a quote I paraphrased from someone famous –

Don’t just tweet about it. Put it in a blog post and put that online so that when people comment on it, you’ll have it with you.

I don’t remember who said this, perhaps Dave Winer (if someone knows for sure, please let me know)