The Internet is a place of constantly shifting content and services. New sites are added every second, and more infrastructure is developed in the blink of an eye. But…
Rarely have we had to deal with the equivalent of a mass extinction of web content. To a great degree, we assume that anything that is placed on the Internet will be there forever (or what we narrow-mindedly view as “forever”). And as such we build trust into services that are deployed: Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, WordPress, Delicious, etc. (just to name a few).
Last week, the well-known design resource site Smashing Magazine made a move that was abrupt and unexpected. Visitors viewing their site on March 22nd were automatically redirected to a landing page with the title “Smashing Magazine Needs Use Your Help Today“. This page urged viewers to purchase a $10 copy of content articles collected in PDF, vaguely indicating that the site and its Smashing Network parent company were possibly maybe in some infinitesimal way on the verge of utter collapse and please, sir, give us some money?
Whatever the internal situation maybe have been, it was unfortunate because Smashing Mag is a good provider of useful and (more importantly) original content for creative professionals – specifically those in my area(s) of expertise. And as suddenly dire as the situation seemed to be, I began wondering what would happen if Smashing Magazine powered down the servers tomorrow and closed up shop forever.
Bookmarks have been a staple of web browsing since… well, forever? While physically possible, it’s highly impractical to store a local copy of all content you find on the web – defeating the purpose of the Internet and information sharing in general. The idea is simple enough: you’ve found something in the tubes you’d like to take note of but don’t want to keep a running spreadsheet somewhere, so just use the browser’s bookmarking options. In recent times, this has migrated out of the browser and moved to services like Delicious, Diigo, and Ma.gnolia (more on them in a moment).
Suppose that Smashing Mag simply ceases to exist. They would almost assuredly try and sell their existing content to cover their outstanding bills, which would then end up making its way into the archives of various other sites around the net. But by-and-large, a great many people who have saved references to articles will be set adrift. I can easily think of ten articles I have bookmarked from their site that I’ve referred to for help or a tutorial in the past week. If SM goes, so go those resources.
This brought back some of the thoughts I had at the time Ma.gnolia went under, for reasons much less sublime than the delicate dance of revenue vs. the bills that have to be paid. Ma.gnolia’s servers simply blew up. Ka-boom. Gone. All those bookmarks and bits of info someone thought were worth keeping? Not there anymore. Some lucky people were able to get partial data recovery, but the disaster wiped out most everyone’s information permanently and effectively ended Ma.gnolia’s service.
We’ve built up trust in a variety of services, services that we go so far as to place intimate information into and to store significant resources and (speaking metaphysically) important parts of our lives. But we tend to forget that these services are largely free and exist from funding because of third-party interest (most likely for your ad revenue), ignoring a sad reality that when the bill collectors (or worse, the database grim reaper) come calling all the userbase-loyalty in the world isn’t necessarily going to save your data – be it created or bookmarked. What happens if Yahoo! Decides that Flickr is too much a drain on their resources? What if Google suddenly scraps Gmail? Unlikely for companies that are so large, but the point is you don’t know because you don’t have direct control over it.
You can make the same arguments for brick-and-mortar providers. What happens if my utility company moves to another region? What if my bank goes under? What if my insurance company stops supporting me? These things happen all the time, and they would happen much more often on the Internet but for the fact that, despite its world-wide nature, there still exist relatively few major services on the web. When they happen in the real world they are potentially life-altering, and the increasing degree to which we store information externally means that the same result could happen on the web.
So what am I getting at? I don’t know – just musing I suppose. Events like this cause me to worry about this wonderful, magical online world where we build and share and ride ponies while petting kittens. It’s fantastic, and the fantasy can make us forget that the only truly safe place for your data is burned onto a disc in a fireproof safe. Just something to ponder.