The Impermanence of Online Content

Many of us write out of some impulse to prove our existence. Who hasn't Googled themselves and come away reassured that yes, we do exist because we have the search results to prove it.

 I was born early enough to catch the tail end of the print era. When I worked for a daily newspaper, I'd toss each day's dead trees in a big box and periodically go through them to pull my best clips. I'd make copies of them so that when I was looking for my next job, I'd have something to show.

 Two decades ago, I went through all those old clips and threw out all but the ones that made me chuckle or reflected something significant about those times. I crammed them  all into one plastic bin that I've dutifully dragged along whenever I moved. I haven't looked at them once. My old clips are probably all yellowed, but I find it somehow reassuring to know that they're there.

I'm not one of those people who clings to print. I still have books and bookshelves and dozens of journals I've filled with my rambling thoughts. But I now read all my news online, and am increasingly buying books on Kindle.

Professionally, I've appreciated how much easier it's been to just send a link, rather than a print copy. I thought those links would always be there, but I've recently learned otherwise.

One trade magazine where I worked three years deleted its archive without me knowing. Another where I worked for three years abruptly closed its doors. Had it not been for a few print copies I'd included with my stash, I'd have no record whatsoever of six years of writing--including some good stuff, in my opinion.

I received further news of the great disappearing act when someone advised me that some links on my personal website weren't working. When I checked, I found that four journals that had published my short stories had gone under. The sites has error codes, were being used to hawk solar panels, or featured messages saying "This domain is now available!"

I'm not sure why I found this surprising, but I did. I guess I thought the Internet was vast and limitless, and that once something was online it would never go away.

But having worked on a couple of web redesign projects professionally--and witnessed the culling of hundreds of pages, including communities I toiled endless hours to build--I understand that this is the way of the future. These days, it's all just "content"--words that have limited shelf life in an ever-changing world. And as we move to responsive design--these sites with massive images and a mere handful of words--the content massacre is likely to continue.

We just have to accept that our words--like ourselves--live and die. Impermanence and change--anattaa in the Buddhist realm--are the undeniable truths of our existence. The older I get, the easier I find it to let go of things--of situations and relationships that no longer serve me, of material objects I no longer use. 

Letting go of my words is a little harder. I've let a lot of them go--words produced for marketing, scraps of paper with cryptic messages, excess words in short stories, even entire short stories and half-finished novels. They're after all just words. I haven't run out of them yet, and will keep producing them as long as I'm able.

 One takeaway from this might be not to submit to un-established online journals or work for publications that might go out of business--but when impressive sites like Gigaom are going under, how do you tell which ones will survive?

 Another solution is to take control of your content. Convert webpages that you care about to pdfs and host them on your personal website. Or if you're searching for pages of your words that have been sent to some online graveyard, check out the Way Back Machine. Maybe you'll find some of your words on the 479 billion pages this organization has archived. And if you can't, just write some more to replace them.