should we be archiving our digital lives? and how?
We asked some experts.
When Myspace lost all content uploaded prior to 2015, including 50 million songs (!) earlier this year, we all collectively, nostalgically sighed. Similarly, when Tumblr blocked NSFW content in 2018, many of us worried that our memories would disappear. Time and time again, after pouring our attention into websites, posting content and carefully crafting CSS, our hard work is often lost either as a result of server migration or websites closing down. We are also often responsible: any accounts that I created in the mid-00s, even if they still exist, are completely inaccessible thanks to my ever-changing email addresses, passwords, and even date of birth. Many of us didn’t really think about wanting to access that data again in 15 years’ time.
As an exceptionally paranoid teenager who grew up straddling both an analogue life and a digital one, I believed that anything I put on the internet could be deleted anytime at the whim of some mysterious webmaster. As a child of the 90s and 00s, saving physical souvenirs felt natural, and I continued to keep paper diaries, photographs and hoarded tickets. As I began to make memories online, I would screenshot comments from boyfriends, MSN conversations and webpages I had created. Having them offline made them feel more real, and while there are still thousands of memories of mine lost to cyberspace, what I did manage to salvage has formed something of an archive that I now publish in a zine. Spread across several hard drives, 50-100 notebooks and 10-20 boxes that take up my entire wardrobe, I often consider shedding some, but ultimately I will never trust the internet to save my memories for me.
And nor should you – digital archiving is an issue that affects all of us, and there are some tools that aim to reduce loss, like the Wayback Machine by Internet Archive. I spoke to Tom Storrar, the Head of Web Archiving at The National Archives. He told me that we need to be aware of the ever-present possibility of data loss, be it through “vendors closing down, digital obsolescence, or data corruption”. He believes that young adults today are the first generation ever to have perhaps the majority of their collective memory stored in an online form, which means that this issue affects us and those younger more than anyone else.
There was a time when our most precious memories were only available physically, meaning that the things that meant the most to us were susceptible to theft, damp, fire, and loss. We are lucky in that our memories are both digital and physical, but as we now do pretty much everything with our phones, physical ephemera has become slowly phased out and replaced by vast digital footprints. This means that we’ve gotten sloppy with how we preserve our memories. I spoke to Elizabeth Minkel, who writes about digital archives and online communities. She says that where she used to sort photos into albums, now they sit disorganised on iCloud, and that “something is definitely lost in the process”. This is true for many of us, and while a strong digital archive won’t give you the same kind of warmth that actual physical souvenirs do, at least it’s something of a record.
Do these websites have a responsibility to preserve your memories? In 2012 Dailybooth, a daily image posting site, closed down. It did so with a fair warning and the opportunity to archive your images, but this is rare. Ian believes that they do have a responsibility, especially if “their business model basically depends on users creating data which they then profit off of”. He believes that, at the very least, when a website shuts down they need to “let individuals spring into action and download their data, and give notice to the Internet Archive or other groups that they should make sure data is preserved if possible”.
While teams like the Internet Archive do great work to preserve data of public interest, they won’t really care about whether you back up your 2017 holiday photos -- that is, for now at least, on you. Ian Mulligan, a historian who specialises in web archiving, agrees: “I don’t think many of us really realise the importance of our online data until it’s gone. A few of us are proactive in backing up our data, but services don’t make that easy.”
"We should avoid digital hoarding and ensure our archiving is intentional. This will also make the amount that you have seem more precious, less difficult to organise, and more pleasurable to flick through."
We don’t often think about what would happen if we lost our phone or Instagram shut down tomorrow, but we should. And while a lot of our memories are lost forever, there is the opportunity to preserve what is left. Thinking about the amount of data that we have is a terrifying concept, but to make it manageable, Elizabeth believes that the first step is sifting through what's on our phones and deciding what matters. Do we need every chat? A record of every like and reblog? “You might think every single thing is worth saving, only to be burdened with massive piles of content in the future,” says Elizabeth. We should avoid digital hoarding and ensure our archiving is “intentional”. This will also make the amount that you have seem more precious, less difficult to organise, and more pleasurable to flick through. “Unpacking what we truly want to save and why we want to save it is the link that's missing," she adds. "By asking those questions and making those choices, then it becomes a less momentous task to do that manual archive work."
But once you’ve decided what it is you want to keep, where should you actually keep it safe? Unsurprisingly, all of the experts I spoke to agreed that the best way to store your data is in several places, across hard drives and iCloud. That way, if one service fails, you’ve got another one safe. Elizabeth believes that analogue archiving is “preferable”, but that storing our data with Apple is often more reliable than a hard drive, which can be accidentally broken or lost.
When it comes to actually doing the hard work, Instagram offer an export option – in your privacy and security settings, just click on “request download”. This will admittedly give you a lot to sift through, but it’s a start. Twitter offers a similar service wherein you request an archive in your settings – the result might not be very aesthetically pleasing, but if your tweets matter to you, it’s something. You can also download your Facebook data, but none of these options are particularly intuitive. Otherwise, backing up phone photos on a hard drive and organising them properly is probably the most important way to keep an archive. Why not screenshot sweet or memorable texts and emails, too? That way you won’t have to keep and ultimately filter through the obscene amount of messages you actually send.
Exporting websites, backing up your phone and buying an external hard drive or two takes a lot of time and effort, especially if you’ve never organised your data before. Plus, assessing the size of it can be scary – as Elizabeth says, “The sheer volume of stuff that we accumulate online in a year exponentially eclipses the amount a person would have had decades ago.” She points out that, in the past, we wouldn’t have a never-ending conversation running at all times, so it was an easier decision to store a letter in a shoebox as it felt more meaningful. But, as anyone who has ever had an account deleted or a laptop breakdown suddenly can attest, backing up your shit is not a bad idea. The memories we make digitally are often the only records or souvenirs of the things we do, and it’s likely that that is only going to become more the case. That makes a lot of those digital souvenirs as priceless as your family photos, so archiving your data properly is, although long, very much worth it.