The Internet is Ephemeral

November 15, 2015

Well, not the internet itself, but rather the content within. I spent some time today at a local zine library that provided an awesome opportunity to explore various subcultures through independent publications. By the nature of zines, most of these publications had extremely limited distribution with just a few printed copies. However, as they are physical objects, print materials are easily collectable. That is to say, they cannot be removed from the library by the creator arbitrarily1.

Although new zines are still being created, many subcultures now have a predominately online presence. While it is easy today to find antiwar pamphlets, joke Harvard newspapers, and anarchist guides from decades ago, it is unclear how much of the content produced today will still exist online 30, 50 or 100 years from now. Websites disappear frequently and with them their content is lost. This is entirely different from the print world where a publisher going out of business has no impact on their publications already in circulation. Although the loss of publishers or limited circulation can make some content hard to find, it does not completely destroy it.

Of course, I’m not the first person to think of this. The Internet Archive catalogs web content like a library to preserve content long after it is removed from its original location2. However, the web is so large that many interesting works will still slip through the cracks. It is not obvious where effort should be focused to capture as much interesting information as possible. Moreover, it is impossible to know what we will find interesting about 2015 in the future.

Rather than casting a wide net, some have begun archiving smaller portions of the internet. One of the best examples of this is which catalogs text files from old bulletin board systems. Like physical zines, these files offer interesting insights into various subcultures from the mid-1980’s.

So, what should we do, and how can you help? Saving everything is impossible, but I recommend saving some things you come across on the web that you really enjoy. Blog posts, videos, music, even insightful forum posts and comments can be saved with little space on any modern computer. Then, if that content is removed for some reason you can always re-upload it to an archival site like the Internet Archive. It may be small, but it is better than nothing and future generations will thank you for it.

  1. That’s not to say that physical medium doesn’t have it’s own problems. A fire could completely wipe out the library’s collection, permanently erasing a lot of content. As a side note, if you know of an online archive of zines (or want to help me create one) please drop me a line

  2. Unfortunately, a copyright claim could wipe the information from the internet altogether.