Lost Blogs And Data, Lost History

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The phenomenon of lost blogs highlights a problem that’s becoming apparent with digital data collection in general. More and more details of people’s private lives are ending up online, whether they are posted in a personal blog, a social network, or even a site for uploading public photos. It’s well-known among data management professionals that it only takes three generations of new technology before they lose the ability to read anything from four technological generations ago.

The situation with digital data parallels earlier changes in music technology. Think of the progression from cylinders to flat vinyl albums to cassette and 8-track tapes to CDs, not to mention mp3s. Who can play those music cylinders now? Similarly, a person’s digital diary on a 5 ¼” floppy disk would now be almost unreadable, as technology has progressed through 3 1/2″ disks to CD-ROM to flash drives. All that music and all that data is simple gone. If a person writes data about their whole life on blog entries, and the hosting company goes out of business, then where are that person’s thoughts and reflections?

On a large scale, historians worry that whole chunks of modern history are being lost. People can still read cuneiform tablets or ancient Egyptian records, and America’s founding history is well understood because the participants kept personal journals, wrote extensive and detailed letters, and compiled personal accounts of the events. Is a blog an historical document of the same kind? If blogging software changes significantly two decades from now, will all the news, analysis, and personal reflections that blogs once contained vanish, leaving this historical epoch a complete blank?

On a smaller scale, blogs themselves are constantly vanishing, as people move them to new servers, start new ones, or simply stop updating altogether. Members of a blogging community, having no other way of knowing the person, lose touch and may never discover what happened to their friend. The blog posts sit there until the host site archives them or deletes them for inactivity, and the person is gone from online history.

As record-keeping continues switch to digital formats and away from paper that might still have been readable a century or two from now, the question of lost records grows in importance. The expense alone of continually upgrading records to new, technological formats is very high, so as people rush headlong into those technologies, they simply resign themselves to losing older data. With the disappearance of the weblogs of ordinary people, as well as those making history, and even people’s simple deletion of their own email, data is vanishing that might leave huge gaps in the future understanding of current world events.

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