Digital attics and service shutdowns23 Jan 2017
Electronic Dance Music is a big part of my life1. Unlike other genres, tracks and remixes are released at a breakneck pace. Because of this, artists tend to gravitate towards Twitter-esque services for music like SoundCloud, where (re)posting multiple songs a day is common. I’ve spent years curating tracks on the service to the point where my local music library is only a handful of albums—around four hours worth—that have attached themselves to memories. Recent news that SoundCloud posted a $53 million loss in 2015 caused me to reflect on how a potential shutdown would impact the dance community at large and me personally. Due to the centralized tendencies of the web today, entire swaths of digital history2 can vanish from record.
Vine is the latest reminder that we are creating a Digital Dark Age w huge gaps in the historical record (via obsolescence or deletion) 😩— jenny (@fvrmvn) October 28, 2016
I’ve been thinking about ways we can make digital “passings,” like that of Vine, less painful on both a macro and personal scale. Let’s start with the macro, by reflecting on the shutdown of our favorite six-second looping video service.
Under the safety net of Twitter, Vine opted to enter a read-only mode, release a version of the app that only allows local/Twitter sharing, and provide downloadable archives. Moreover, GIPHY pitched in and built a migration tool.
This seems like the “right” way to do it. A read-only period gives users time to brace for the shutdown and a write-only tool grants creators the ability to produce atomic units of the service, despite its (future) absence (and hosting). When it comes down to platform migrations—no matter how well-intentioned—it’s hard to look past the fact that they’re essentially passings of the torch. Of course, with any hosted service, this process can (and will) continue indefinitely as they rise and fall. Third-party mirrors[^3, 4] (preferably those backed by enduring institutions) will probably be our best bet. The challenge of preserving public digital records will be one I’m excited to see our generation(s) take on with the help of historians.
On a personal level, I’ve tried to approach backing up important files—photos, videos, notes, and journals—as creating a digital attic for my future kids to (potentially) climb into one day. Structuring the folders to be intuitive, yet allow for a meandering exploration of my digital life. My files range from the typical—screenshots, camera uploads3, 9th grade Algebra 2 assignments, and journal entries—to the intimate—voicemails from my parents4, notes on fun date spots/ideas, and failed attempts at a video diary. More concretely, I store these digital memories in formats that I think will stand the test of time—or at least be easily upconverted to their replacements. Plaintext (Markdown), PNGs, MP4s, and MP3s have been some of my picks. As an example, instead of keeping first-person memories generated by Snap’s Spectacles solely in their app, I’ll save each one to my Camera Roll—which, in turn, get backed up to my Dropbox5.
On the note of backups, I’ve also thought about how to hand off digital assets (most importantly my journal) when I pass, or in the case of an emergency. The last thing I’d want for my loved ones is trouble in tracking down files and critical account credentials. This may sound grim, but it’s important to think about as more of our possessions become purely digital.
People centuries from now will have the potential to tap into our global consciousness, view the world as we saw it, and experience lossless versions of our greatest creative outputs. To preserve this potential, we should mindfully sunset our products. On a personal level, think about that digital attic you would like to create for your relatives or (future) kid(s). Save digital content that could help them get to know you in ways you wish you could know your ancestors. Or, at least, let them uncover the dank memes you revined.
I’ve backed up every photo I’ve taken since 2011. ↩