The Disappearing Web

CompuserveSomeday you are going to click on the link to today’s blog and it will no longer be on the web. Let’s hope that it’s because I am retired and have stopped paying my annual fees to keep this blog on WordPress. But it also might be for another reason – that WordPress is sold, goes bankrupt, or just decides to get out of the web business.

We like to think of the web as a giant repository that is recording and storing everything that we are doing in this century – but nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority of content on the web is going to disappear, and a lot sooner than you might imagine. There is very little of today’s content that will still be around even fifty years from now, and most of it will disappear long before that.

And this is because somebody has to spend money to put and keep the vast majority of content on the web. In the case of this blog I would have to keep paying WordPress. A lot of web content is on private servers and is not dependent upon a larger company like WordPress to keep going. But somebody has to pay for the bandwidth to connect these servers and to replace and migrate the content somewhere else when the servers inevitably wear out and die.

I don’t know much about the company behind WordPress, but what is the likelihood that they will still be in business fifty years from now even if I somehow paid them to maintain this blog forever? I would think that over the next fifty years that most of today’s big web companies will be gone. It’s hard to think that even the largest content repositories like Facebook will last that long. In the fast moving world of the web, fifty years is forever and companies will be supplanted by something new as tastes and trends change.

And even should the platform that has your content survive for fifty years, what are the chances that the coding underlying your content will still be supported fifty years from now? In the short history of the web we have already obsoleted much of the earliest content due to its format.

Web content already disappears a lot faster than people might believe. I’ve seen several sources that suggest that the average life of a web page is 100 days. And links die regularly. Around 8% of links die every year for one of the many reasons I’ve mentioned.

What is sad about all of this is that a lot of the content on the web doesn’t exist anywhere else. There are many blogs and news websites that are the main chroniclers of our times that don’t exist in any other format. It’s certainly possible that future historians will look back on this time as a big black hole of historical data.

Even should content be stored somehow off the web there really is no off-line electronic storage medium today that lasts very long. There are a few storage technologies that have the possibility to last longer, but there is very little web content that people value enough to turn into a long-term off-line format. And even if you bother to archive content, being able to read anything electronic years from now is likely to be a puzzle. No matter the technology used to store your content, that technology will be obsoleted by something better. It’s already getting hard to find somebody capable or reading content from as recent as twenty year ago.

A few years ago I read the correspondence between John and Abigail Adams. That correspondence provided a great peek into what it was like to be alive then. As a whole we are even more prolific today than people a few hundred years ago. People blog, email, and tweet in great volumes. But I find it a bit sad that nobody in the future is likely to be able to read this blog – because, gosh darnit, this is good stuff worthy of the ages!



Leave a Reply