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The Internet is Not Forever

Since I was a young, I was told, “be careful what you post on the internet, the internet is forever.” Despite this, I know I’m not the first person to realize that it just isn’t true. Even a quick internet search for the title of this blog post yielded some articles that already document this epiphany. Nevertheless, I feel like it’s worth saying again since the idea that anything on the internet is permanent is just so ingrained in our minds (or at least in my mind) that it will take more than one blog post to shake it out. When I was a kid in elementary school computer class, we were constantly told to click on the little floppy disk often in order to save our work. Of course, even clicking on the floppy disk wasn’t always foolproof. Changes accidentally got overwritten, storage drives got lost, or computers just broke, bringing all of their contents with them into computer heaven (or computer hell, depending on your search history). As time and technology progressed, we were introduced to the advancement that would save us from such pesky physical limitations: the cloud! Back up your files to the cloud and no one could delete them, even smashing your PC to bits would do nothing to damage your data, since it lives on the internet. Of course, the internet isn’t a place, it’s a method of communication. As tech savvy folk remind us constantly, the cloud is just someone else’s computer.

To be fair, cloud storage is usually pretty robust, since big tech companies have lots of money and resources to spend on servers, backup servers, and backup backup servers. And if you do accidentally put a piece of information on a public-facing server (or “on the internet” if you’d prefer), it can be very difficult to take it down, depending on who owns the server you put it on, how many people have already seen it, and how many people want to make sure that other people will also have the privelege of seeing it. The Streisand Effect is real. It takes a lot more resources to remove something that has made its way online than it does to keep it around; the Pirate Bay still exisiting in the year 2023 is proof enough of that.

Yet, if no one is bothering to keep a piece of information around, the internet will eventually forget it. There was a time when Geocities was a very solid chunk of what people imagined when they said “the internet”. Despite this, when Yahoo! announced they were deleting Geocities in 2009, internet archivists had to scramble to salvage as much of it as they could and it is unlikely that they got it all. Things being forgotten isn’t necessarily bad, of course. I’m not sure it’s a good thing that between email and messaging apps most people have a record of every written communication they’ve ever had had with anyone in the past 10 years. Letters used to be special things, carefully written and crafted. No one puts that much effort into writing a text, but that doesn’t stop it from being saved on someone’s phone and the screenshots shared on Reddit if you said something stupid.

Some things should be saved at all costs, others are better left forgotten. We feel as though the internet has moved everything into the “remembered forever” category whether it deserves to be there or not, but that isn’t true. We have a choice of what things we want to be saved and which we will let slide into digital oblivion. Make sure to save backups of your personal blogs, social media posts, and family photos if you care about them. Don’t let your hosting provider or worse, Facebook, be in charge of saving memories you care about. But if you don’t care about it? Delete it with confidence instead of just assuming there’s a copy of it somewhere. Use disappearing messages on Signal or Whatsapp. Delete emails that you have no use for. By choosing the things you actually care about keeping, you’ll make your priorities in life clear, and you’ll save some money on hard drives and cloud storage services while you’re at it.