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A Self-Destructive Web

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A Self-Destructive Web

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I’m finding myself more and more interested nowadays in content that self destructs, or rather: expires after a time and will no longer exist.

This post is more me dropping my thoughts on a page than having fully explored the idea (yet). Please note that this post is also unedited (which I may use to my advantage and edit over time … we’ll see).

Saving is “Forever”?

From an early age, I’ve played and worked with computers. I always understood that I was creating programs that would be saved.

That simple idea of saving, be it to a physical tape (I was a Spectrum user) or fast forward to the 90s when I published my first web pages – it was simply naughts and ones, and since it was stored digitally†, it could be copied over and over. When it was on a server, all it needed is the server to stay plugged in or even cached on another server and boom, you’ve just unlocked forever.

† Sure, the tape drive wasn’t digital, but you’ll forgive me.

But the simple fact is that we have to make an effort to preserve. Server drives crash, data gets lost, companies disappear (my first site was on lineone.net, if anyone remembers that – now long gone), domains expire and people die.

So what is forever? Maybe there’s an unspoken expiry? But when the expiry is in decades I feel like I conflate this with forever. I don’t feel like the web community has been going long enough to see that long expiry showing it’s face. Maybe we’ve got another 20 to 30 years to go.

Should it Last Forever?

I was just looking at Stef Lewandowski’s Tweet about their new hack Linkydin. A nice idea, but I was asking myself: surely these links have context in time.

If you’re sharing a group of links in a team, should that information expire? What good is it a year (or more) later to new team members, and in fact, could it share old and busted knowledge that’s been superseded by better information? I don’t know.

Then I read Paul Neave’s post “Why I create for the web” and he boils it down to the humble hyperlink. Except the way I found his post was through a tweet. A tweet that a) I will unlikely find again (because Twitter’s archive search is limited) and b) goes through twitter’s own link shortening service. If that service is shut down, then that hyperlink is sent to the grave (note that this isn’t the point of @neave’s post – but it got me thinking).

I recently looked at Snapchat. Content that purposely destroys itself, I can only assume, because it’s relevant for that moment †. I also remember someone having a blog that would slowly remove all the blog posts one at a time over a period of time (and it would look like the articles were fading out at the bottom of the site).

† Though Snapchat might not destroy the data on the phone, it is actually removed from their server, which, to me, means it’ll expire from existence somehow eventually.

I like these later two because they’ve thought specifically about time and how it should be addressed. My own blog, I haven’t thought about time. I haven’t thought about whether it’ll shut down after I die. I’ve long stopped posting to jQuery for Designers, but I’ll keep the domain renewed … but for how long?

Should sites be retired to the archive.org?

I don’t know. A lot of these questions are why I’ve asked Jeremy Keith to speak at Full Frontal whereby he chose the title “Time.” I expect he’ll add a lot of clarity to some of my thoughts, but no doubt raise a good deal of new questions.

Everything Ends

Everything has an expiry. Nothing lasts forever, but maybe my expectations need to adjust on the web. If something lasts a few years on the web, that’s a good thing. If I can get my data out of a web service, then that’s a good thing too (because I’m now responsible for my content, like photos, which I care about).

I’m just very interested in seeing more services taking advantage of expiry as a feature. Heck, we buy and own (small) pets because the expiry is a feature! Why don’t we use this more on the web?

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