The ephemeral World Wide Web

This week, Jill Lepore enthralled New Yorker readers with a lengthy story about the permanence of the web.

The entire article is set around destroying the prominent idea that the Web is forever. Or, in Lepore’s own words:

No one believes any longer, if anyone ever did, that “if it’s on the Web it must be true,” but a lot of people do believe that if it’s on the Web it will stay on the Web. Chances are, though, that it actually won’t.

Lepore hits on a notion we’ve talked a lot about in class. Many times, I have heard my classmates say “once it’s out there, it stays out there.”

I just sit there shaking my head because I know how easy it is for the companies and organizations I cover as a journalist to write over old data. And I know the ease with which my sources can delete inflammatory (but juicy) Tweets and Facebook posts.

Lepore goes through several ways websites are deleted and how it’s tough for scholars and legal experts to maintain any semblance of organization in the footnotes of academic articles and court opinions. You can sense Lepore’s frustration as she exposes the different types of deletions.

In my (albeit, brief) time as a reporter, I, too, have grown to hate the way people, companies and organizations can manipulate the web’s storage to their own liking.

Link rot: This happens when links no longer bring you to the right web page. Lepore references the “Four oh Four” error message websites often return.

In reporting, this is what I’ll get when an organization deletes web pages. I almost always know I’m on the right track if a web page that was there has suddenly gone missing.

Sometimes, you can get these pages back if they’re available on the Wayback Machine (which Lepore spends a lot of time talking about in fascinating detail in her article).

Content drift: Lepore also talks about how some organizations will just overwrite data by storing new data in the old data’s place.

This is what organizations do with staff pages. Especially if the group isn’t particularly keen on talking about a recently departed staff member. Really important scholarship programs love this tactic.

Again, the Wayback Machine can sometimes help. It all depends on how high an organization’s turnover rate is. If someone came to an organization, was listed on the staff webpage and left before the Wayback Machine got around to archiving it, then that person’s time will go undocumented.

So whether its for scholarly research or old fashioned snooping, the web’s impermanence is actually an annoying thing.

I guess all of this is really to say that my classmates might fear the Internet’s permanence, but unless they have someone screenshotting all of their online activity, they are probably safe to delete Friday’s ugly bar photos for eternity.


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