Went to IndieWebCamp this weekend, just for a little bit, mainly to listen to the keynotes and hang out with Ward Cunningham and Pete Forsyth. I love the work these people are doing, but I wanted to kick back against one myth there I see repeated over and over.
There are a whole bunch of reasons for running your own server in the age of platform capitalism, but the one I hear used the most often is “Well, you know what happens — you put all your stuff on a new service, and then they delete it on you as they go out of business!” This is followed by a list of things from Google Buzz to Bebo to Friendster that have gone away, taking your history with them.
The thing is this is primarily a first adopter problem. If you were a person in the mid-00s that joined every new social media site to see what the next big thing was going to be, the experience of losing your stuff when some San Jose company didn’t make their B round is probably achingly familiar. But it’s honestly not an experience most people have.
Most people join social networks when they are relatively established, and in general while these more established sites may still become zombified, they do not die. As an example, here is a post of mine from 2004, still available on LiveJournal.
Now the truth is I don’t think I have a single thing in my house that I’ve made that dates back to 2004, apart from my kids. Multiple moves and predictable breakage have grown us a whole new set of objects in the house. Likewise, I have been running personal servers since 1996 on which I’ve put blogs, political sites, wikis, photos, and the like, and none of that content has survived for 13 years. It’s all gone, rotted away, lost, hacked, or just left out by the curb.
Yet here on LiveJournal, immortalized for all time, is the fact that I not only listened to but liked Phantom Planet as an adult. It’s embarrasing, but isn’t that always the way? (At least it shows I was listening to Death in Vegas. And honestly, that Swift Boat prediction turned out to be correct in ways I had not expected. My Dad was brown water navy in Vietnam, here I was thinking that people would finally learn that these positions in Vietnam were the most deadly positions there were in that war).
Meanwhile, in that LiveJournal post I link out to my wife’s art site, and what do you get when you click that? Link rot — that site came down years ago. It’s gone, with all the artwork that was on it. It’s not even retrievable on Wayback, because the new site owner has a robots.txt block in place.
Why does this happen? Why are self-run sites so fragile? I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it was usually switched credit cards, missed payments, open source bitrot, forgotten subdomains, damage from hackers. The link above to caulfieldfamily was just a thing where we forgot to renew the domain registration after an email change, I think. As another example, this blog, which I’ve run under different names for a decade now, is still missing a bunch of posts that were wiped out by a hacker in 2011 or so, via an injection exploit that I didn’t hop on patching fast enough. After that experience I moved to WordPress.com, and I’ve taken a lot of crap for that, but you know what? I haven’t lost any posts, and I never get DMs at 9 p.m. saying, “Hey Mike, there’s something weird up with your site…”
There’s more. I wrote a statistics textbook in 2010 on WordPress — lord knows where that is. I ran a federated wiki site back in 2014. I don’t want to delete the posts that people have put up, but over the past couple years I’ve spent almost $500 keeping those 50 or so sites up on Digital Ocean. Eventually I’ll take that server down. The same with Wikity. Monthly and yearly charges add up.
The same is true for the students we graduate. Students that do something in Google or Microsoft platforms are likely to have that material long after they graduate. As an example, I worked with a faculty member in 2010 to have her students document fair trade projects they did in an introductory class on a Google Sites wiki. That’s still up seven years later.
But what if the students had put it on their own server? What is the chance that work would still be available to them and to the world? There’s five different sites up there — I think optimistically we’d be lucky if even one survived. A student just starting to pay off their student debt is quite likely to let that server lapse in the years after college.
This isn’t to say that students shouldn’t own their own space on the web. They should. But I am more sympathetic to Jon Udell’s vision of “hosted lifebits” on a big dumb server than I am to students running server software. And I think the selling points of not relying on things like Google Sites and Docs tend to be more around issues of tracking data, and hackability, not persistence. Around issues of what Amy Collier calls digital sanctuary — how do we minimize the surveillance to which our students are subjected to in the course of getting an education? And around issues of personalization — how can we make sure students and faculty can expand and customize these tools in ways that make sense for their communities?
Let me state again: these are good reasons to pursue non-corporate solutions! And on the whole, pursuing solutions outside the normal corporate offerings continues to be a noble goal. But we should be honest about the why of it, and for everyone but the early adopters, persistence isn’t it.