Perpetual Frailty and the Ever Shrinking Internet

Recent image purges at BuzzFeed and G/O Media serve as reminders of the challenges of creating a cultural legacy in a medium designed for disposability

Ephemerality has always been a part of the news writer’s bargain where recency is valued over everything. But as we’ve left paper behind for pixels, the cognitive dissonance of being crucial one minute and forgotten history the next has become even more acute. Digital word counts have grown shorter. The pithy, irreverent “blog voice” evolved. Writers began to weigh in on the minutiae of lives famous and pedestrian as much, if not more than the big issues. Mediums like Twitter (not unlike the newspapers of yore) are appealing and feel vital because they are permanently attuned to the present. This might not matter tomorrow, but it matters a lot for just this second. (And if it doesn’t, who cares? It’ll be swept away by the endless scroll in 30 seconds.) We built a whole mode of journalism around the idea that work should be quick and current, but now the costs of those priorities are catching up to us.

Last week, Tarpley Hitt published back-to-back pieces at Gawker about the mysterious mass disappearance of images at BuzzFeed, which appeared to be responding to an uptick in copyright lawsuits, and G/O Media (current home to Jezebel, Gizmodo, The Onion, and others), which has yet to clarify the reasoning behind its image wipe. These are hardly the only examples of the dangers that internet entropy poses to journalism. 

On Monday, Abraham Riesman tweeted that “nearly all” the videos he’d made during his tenure at New York Magazine had been lost to a combination of server migrations and shifting distribution methods. “I’m not blaming nymag for that so much as I blame the tumult of journalistic ‘innovation’ circa the mid-’10s,” he wrote.

And last week, on October 28, Kelly Conaboy found that her 2017 blog for The Cut, “Best Halloween Candy, Ranked,” a playful post that nonetheless took many hours thanks to 55 unique illustrations, had been replaced but was still being promoted using her artwork. Conaboy explained to Off the Record that updating SEO-friendly posts—and even updating the byline if the original writer has left the publication—is pretty standard these days, but “to completely replace it, I had never seen that happen before. It was sort of bizarre.” (The Cut eventually gave her permission to republish her original piece on the current Gawker.)

Maria Bustillos, a founding editor of Popula, has long been aware of the fragility of digital storage mediums. “I’m old, right?” she said. “When I first started [using computers] in the ’80s, it was so easy to destroy your hard drive. The first hard drive I ever bought was like 10 or 20 megabytes, and in those days, nothing was stopping you at all from going ‘format c.’ It didn’t even ask, ‘are you sure?’ No, nothing. Just whoops, and there was no recovery.” She met her husband on the AOL competitor Prodigy in the late ’90s, and after it shut down, they lost the records of their early correspondence. “It was wild,” she said. “Those very traumatic early losses, I think, really taught people a lot.” 

Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, though, forced Bustillos to reckon with the consequences of digital fragility for journalists. “That was the pivotal moment where I really dedicated my professional life to these issues because it became evident that one vindictive billionaire who didn’t like being mocked was in the position of depriving millions of people of their reading material,” she said. 

Alex Belth, the curator of Esquire Classic and creator of the classic journalism archive The Stacks Reader, has made a career of rescuing yellowing pages from a fate that could involve flooding basements and dusty shelves. He agrees that even the most dashed-off thoughts can make for valuable artifacts.

“If you’re a historian, and you’re trying to document all of the wars that we’ve ever fought—like, the Civil War, Second World War, Vietnam—you have letters home as a record. It’s like now, in the last 10 or 15 years, the correspondence would be digital. It would be FaceTimes. It would be texts. Like, who’s gonna keep that record?” he said. “I wonder if there’ll be a movement of people who are like archivists for the last 15 years worth of blogs,” he added.

Bustillos might have an answer. Popula, which launched in 2018, two years after the trial, began archiving its stories on the Ethereum blockchain in December of that year. That meant that as long as that blockchain continued to exist, so would their work. “Civilization rests on our ability to preserve history as it really happened, not as various powerful interests would prefer us to see it,” the site’s about page explains. “And blockchain archiving will also keep us honest, and accountable to you, so that when we make a mistake, the history of our errors will not disappear; we’re in the business of keeping permanent receipts.”

But Bustillos isn’t entirely dogmatic about preserving every bit of writing on the internet. “I want to be absolutely candid and clear,” she said, “I delete my tweets. I have enemies. I delete them. It’s my choice, I can do that. I don’t know that I would be on Twitter if I couldn’t delete them.” 

Writers engage with social media and the web on their own terms and can be thrown off when those terms change. For instance, when work written for a particular moment has a second act. Conaboy, having worked at several now-defunct websites, is no stranger to her past work becoming inaccessible. When Alex Balk bid adieu to The Awl, he optimistically looked forward to its archives eventually degrading. “The archives will remain up, but I hope they degrade in the way everything on the Internet does and that eventually they sink into the vast sea of undiscoverable content,” he wrote, “so that a decade from now one of you can look at a young person who is ignoring you while she stares at her phone and say, ‘You can’t find it anymore, but the most amazing thing on the Internet was The Awl. It’s impossible to believe something that incredible existed.’ And since everything will have disappeared no one will be able to dispute it. If we wait around long enough our legacy will be legend.”

But Conaboy has mixed feelings on the subject. “I think if you ask individual writers, me included, it’s like, Oh, good, thank God. My past writing is not accessible anymore. But then like, when I hear somebody like Alex Balk, I’m like, ‘No, I want to be able to read the stuff that you wrote because I love it.’”

Even Popula has been subject to pragmatic revision. “I did one takedown at the request of an author in Pakistan,” Bustillos said. “She was talking about having been abused as a kid at a shopping mall, and she’s in her twenties. So she published the piece, and it got out on social media in her circle, and she was getting threatened and harassed.” Bustillos struggled with how to handle the situation, given her preservationist ideals. “I was like, ‘I don’t know! I don’t know!’” she said. “So I talked to like 25 million people, and I finally came down on the fact that I had no means of protecting my writer at this distance. I couldn’t offer her any kind of protection from what she was suffering, and so I agreed to take it down, and I did. That’s the only time in many thousands of pieces.”

In the cases of projects that aim for total permanence, Bustillos has also been thinking about how to deal with truly egregious mistakes and malefactors. “Say you have an absolutely permanent set of records and somebody puts illegal stuff on there, like child pornography or something terrible like that, and you don’t have a means of eradicating it,” she said, “then you’ve kind of made yourself vulnerable to the enemies of press freedom and speech rights. If you create an institution that is completely proofed against erasure or tampering that comes with a set of its own vulnerabilities that I don’t really think anybody has quite solved yet.”

“The fact that the internet will eventually just refresh and not have all of this horrible trash on it is probably a net positive for humanity,” said Conaboy. “But it is sad that so much stuff is going to be lost. But it is also, you know, what the internet is like. It is ephemeral.”