A Web That Forgets

Megan Garber writes about a new iPhone photo app that will only share pics for a certain period of time – Snapchat – and suggests that the persistence of the web has it’s downside in that it cannot forget, and so we can’t either:

Forget About It: Making the Internet More Like Our Brains – Megan Garber viaThe Atlantic

Anti-archival tools provide a countervailing force to one of the defining features of the Internet: that, with its nearly infinite space, “save all” is its default setting. Without even trying, the Internet remembers. And that doesn’t just mean that the comment you left on that Joss Whedon fan site that one time is still sitting there, emoticon-ed and gif-ed and captured for posterity within the all-knowing neurons of Google. It also means that the web, as a broad space, operates on both an assumption and an architecture of continuity. Within it, and all around it, archive is assumed. Even when we die … there, still, we are

So when we talk about the Internet, we talk about feeds and flows and rivers and currents – things determined by their dynamism and their lack of obvious containers.

And: That’s great! It’s what makes the Internet the Internet! The only problem, however, is that constant flux-and-flow is not actually how we humans are programmed to move through the world. We live in fits and starts, in cycles and phases, and we divide our time not just socially, in shared minutes and hours, but physically. We wake. We sleep. We have beginnings. We have endings.

I am intrigued by the poeticism of a time-stamped and eroding web, one that degrades and ages. Of course, unexamined in this piece is the truth that the web we have today *is* emphemeral and is fading all the time. Web sites go down, links get broken, domain names go unrenewed. Perhaps it isn’t happening fast enough for Garber, and its also true that some services on the web go to great lengths to fight entropy. That’s the sales angle of a Flickr Pro account, for example.

The way the web ages, though, is erratic and extremely heterogeneous. It’s like my recent 30 year high school reunion, where some of my compatriots could pass as 40 while others appeared to be septuagenarians. Time wounds all heels, as Groucho observed, but not at the same pace.

Garber mentions another service that is built around the notion on intentional transience, News.me’s new Last Great Thing, which sounds like fun, although the impermanent side of it may be more of an annoyance than high culture:

Last week News.me, Betaworks’ social news service, launched Last Great Thing, a time-limited version of Getting the News that asks participants to share just one worthy thing they’ve found on the web that day – permalinks not included. The product’s point is awesomeness-without-archive. But it’s also ephemerality-as-service. It allows us to do what our minds are, actually, optimized to do: to experience, to forget, to remember, and then forget again.

Not mentioned is the tiny webpage posting app, CheckThis, that formerly defaulted the expiration date to one month. They seem to have amended that to ‘never’ but the option to expire a post still exists. But clicking the button to select ‘one week’ seems like a form of asceticism, rather than accepting the ephemeral.

Might be better if I could simply sign up to a ‘erase.me’ service, with all my logins for all my accounts online, and to stipulate how I would like my web trails to be managed over the weeks, years, and decades.

I certainly would like a tool that would automatically sweep the files on my desktop into a timestamped folder every week, and to delete those folders several weeks later.

Sure, delete old calendar entries after a year (or maybe two?) Shred my email after five years (or maybe ten?). Retire my tweets after a few months? Keep anything I’ve favorited until I unfavorite? Keep all blog posts until I pass on, and convert into some version that is obviously the memoirs of a dead person?

It seems just as sensible as life insurance, and almost as sobering.

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