With Imgur and Twitter removing “old, unused, and inactive accounts and content,” it becomes apparent that the internet’s memory is fading before our eyes. It emphasizes the need for us to preserve what we can.
I signed up for Facebook in my senior year of high school, just as the service was branching out from its college campus confines. And even then, in those early days, the message from my teachers, my parents, and those talking heads on TV was the same: don’t put anything on the internet that you don’t want floating around forever.
To this day, that’s good advice. But it’s also clear the internet’s memory isn’t exactly the steel trap we were all told it was.
In (what else?) a tweet posted last week, Twitter CEO Elon Musk said the social media service would be “purging” user accounts if they lay dormant for long enough.
The period of inactivity that would prompt an account deletion is pretty long — Musk said the move would apply to accounts that have gone unused for “several years,” and that accounts would be “archived” in some way. But the lack of clarity around what “archiving” means is little comfort to, say, people who continue to seek a sense of closeness with Twitter-using friends and loved ones who have died or are incarcerated.
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Elsewhere on the internet, a brigade of digital archivists and historians were preparing for what feels like yet another extinction-level event.
About a month ago, a popular image host called Imgur said it was changing its terms of service. Under those newly revised terms — which went into effect this Monday — the service will begin removing “old, unused and inactive content that is not tied to a user account from our platform as well as nudity, pornography, & sexually explicit content.”
Imgur’s crackdown is concerning, but not much of a surprise. What’s more immediately troubling to me is the idea that image embeds and links to Imgur content across the internet could stop working entirely if those images weren’t specifically uploaded by a user with an account, and if they haven’t been accessed frequently enough.
One impassioned Twitter user even likened the change to burning the Library of Alexandria, which may be more apt a comparison than many realize. Sure, Imgur helped memes and visual jokes proliferate across the web. But it also housed (and continues to house) handy, user-made guides that unpacked everything from different forms of cognitive bias to the best ways to safeguard a chicken coop.
While many of those helpful images will survive, others — the forgotten ones — are headed for deletion, deprived of a chance to be rediscovered and shared again for our benefit.
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