There's this strange adage among digital specialists, which starts any 101 lecture on social media:
"Your digital footprints are forever. The web keeps everything."
That's actually wrong: the digital lifespan is far shorter than what we expect. And the web does not care for history; despite all the things we read about big data, very few companies are able to keep a track record of users in the very long term. Technologies fade and so do social networks. It's a pity for citizens, but also for new generations, who don't seem to benefit from the past.
Have you ever tried to find a song which was played by a local band, but is now impossible to find? It happened to me with a band called "This is for Brodie." I attended a gig at UCLA in 2004. 10 years later, fans are lost, and now what remains are only some forum threads with no one able to share the precious MP3s, which used to be all over the place on MySpace. No social network will be able to feed my memory: it's now up to me to slowly get in touch with other folks and hope that somewhere on a hard drive, the lovely beats are saved.
Social networks die, and personal stories die with them.
In 2009, Geocities closed its doors to millions of users. What used to be one of the most popular "local" discovery tools suddenly stopped - destroying millions of previous interactions.
More recently, Orkut, widely popular in India and Brazil, stopped in September 2014. Beyond the business, how many personal stories started on these platforms?
It's hard to say, but a figure in the UK sums up what is at stake: approximately one in five relationships in the UK starts online.
So when a social network or digital platform stops, the impact goes beyond the simple URL. It's actually the whole user experience which goes to trash. Interestingly, we tend to consider social media as earned media. Additionally when a network stops, we tend to focus only on the owned digital property. But what happens to the blurry "earned" users? No one seems to care.
It is up to the users to keep memory alive.
Reading 'Terms & Conditions' is key to understanding that social networks don't care about history. When we scrutinize Twitter TCs, there's a strong emphasis on "now" and later... but nothing is said about the past, or about what will happen if Twitter was to close.
"We may modify or adapt your Content in order to transmit, display or distribute it over computer networks and in various media and/or make changes to your Content as are necessary to conform and adapt that Content to any requirements or limitations of any networks, devices, services or media."
The recent move of Twitter revealing and making all public tweets accessible since the microblogging platform's launch in 2006, is a good first move to bring people's history back to the users.
Nonetheless, there's a sort of legal black hole with social media; not many companies seem to focus on the emergency to maintain a track level of records of individuals' lives online. It might seem contradictory with claiming that privacy must be protected by tech businesses. But it's not: privacy is a dynamic, it's a deal between what communities agree to leave and what they get in counterpart. Privacy from the past can't be maintained if private property is then destroyed the day a social interface disappears. Imagine you're buying a house for local associations; it's very rare when suddenly someone or something gets rid of you. It's even conceptually impossible. In social media, it's like if there was an unbalanced relationship between the tangibility of our lives, the tangibility of our feelings and the servers that host them - with very short memories.
Whereas the "cloud" is supposed to keep a sort of magic track record of everybody, when it comes to real memories and real interactions, it's up to the user to save, host, and maintain them.
As a lot of hacktivists are focusing on the right to forget, it might be interesting to start thinking about a new set of laws: the right to remember.
Dictatorial regimes often start by removing history lectures from schools after all...