Digital Frailty

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March 10, 2020
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Digital Frailty

Digital Frailty is when digital assets are impermanent or easily compromised by technical glitches.

Key Insight

Digital Frailty is when digital assets are impermanent or easily compromised by technical glitches.

Why It Matters

Digital frailty is evolving from a flaw into a feature: This trend emerged as media was erased from the web because old sites were no longer maintained. It’s still problematic when information with archival value is lost, but more systems are being designed to encode impermanence as users adapt ephemeral tools like Instagram stories or messages that expire within a set timeframe.

Examples

MySpace announced in March 2019 that it had accidentally deleted all of the photos, videos and audio files uploaded to the platform before 2015, which included an estimated 50 million songs. The Internet Archive found a fraction of those, but the incident remains a cautionary tale for those who assume their uploads are stored forever.

Differentiating material with archival value from digital flotsam isn’t always simple. Twitter announced that it would delete accounts that had been inactive for an extended time in November 2019. That decision was meant to make unused usernames available to active Tweeters, but it neglected a major reason that accounts go stale: death. After backlash from folks who wanted to preserve their loved ones’ tweets, Twitter quickly backed off the policy shift, saying it wouldn’t move forward until it created a way to memorialize dormant accounts.

Most material disappears unintentionally, but that’s not always the case: Users post stories to Snapchat and Instagram with the expectation that their posts will expire. Platforms could remove posts that violate their terms of service, even if that information is newsworthy or relevant to a public debate. Twitter has said it will make exceptions to its content regulation rules for certain public figures but other platforms might act differently.

There’s also risk when organizations turn to external tools or services to manage their prominent programming. Storify was a popular tool for aggregating social media posts around a major news event. A team of journalists working for Reported.ly, a now defunct experiment run by First Look Media, won a 2015 Online Journalism Award for reporting on the shooting at Charlie Hebdo magazine in real-time. All that reporting lived on Storify but was lost when the platform shut down in 2018.

The Environmental and Data Governance Initiative estimates that the Trump administration removed one-quarter of all references to climate change on government web pages. This was an effort to support the Trump administration’s ideas and policies. The Trump administration also removed LGBTQ content from federal websites, scrubbed a lot of civil rights information off of WhiteHouse.gov and scrubbed the HHS.gov website of healthcare data. While digital deletions can be politically motivated, they aren’t always: An archive of administration-curated news updates (primarily from conservative outlets) was removed from the White House website last year as a matter of housekeeping.

And what about a president’s tweets? The U.S. National Archives says that posted tweets are considered presidential records and requested that the White House save deleted or altered tweets. The COVFEFE Act (a backronym for one of President Trump’s unexplained and presumably mistyped tweets) sought to reduce confusion by amending the Presidential Records Act to include social media posts, but it stalled in the House.

Some independent websites, including ProPublica’s Politwoops project, are now archiving President Trump’s deleted tweets. Other news organizations are following suit and applying the same standard to other officials—The Intercept, for example, reported on and preserved racist posts by Border Patrol agents to a private Facebook group.

What’s Next

Sometimes new technology obviates the old before anyone has had a chance to convert files or develop archives. The Internet Archive and others try to create snapshots in time, but the services can struggle with dynamic sites that rely heavily on JavaScript.

While there’s archival value to the files we post online, users are increasingly choosing ephemeral formats to share via Instagram Stories and Snap.

How will future societies learn from the past if they cannot study the first draft of our present history? Do we have an obligation to preserve the digital conversations shaping society? Should we be working harder to ensure that digital archives aren’t lost?

As we develop expectations for what should be archived, we must consider the risks of creating an indelible record: What should happen to posts shared by minors to social networks or student assignments posted to a school’s digital portal? Do young people have the right to a blank slate when they reach adulthood or should they be held accountable for ideas they try on for size on the way to maturity? (See also: Cancel culture)

The Impact

Future historians might look back at the generations alive today and wish we had done a better job of preserving daily life as it was unfolding.

Watchlist

Messaging platforms.