Sensing the passage of the blessed and narrow holiday-assisted window in between old projects wrapping up and the necessity of bearing a swath of new ones, I spent the entirety of last Friday revisiting some older web content I’d let fall into sad disrepair. I expected some attention upon these websites by certain people I’d like to impress, you see, and so cleaned up the place. In retrospect, the fact I needed a motivation like impending guests seems quite selfish, my present self begrudgingly getting around to honoring an implicit but long-ignored contract established by my past self. He had poured so much time, attention, and talent into these sites under the expectation that they’d last for more than a few dozen months, and today I feel like I really bungled the hand-off.
To wit: for much of this past year, the navigation links on The Gameshelf, my shared and now-retired ludological blog and video series, just didn’t work; articles older than the handful on the front page had essentially vanished. Long story short, this happened because the open-source CMS it uses became abandonware almost as soon as I eagerly adopted it several years ago, and I must now actively apply programming and system-administration knowledge to keep the increasingly system-incompatible thing propped up via handwritten patches. My semiconscious dismissal of yeah, but they’re old regarding the several hundred stories this made invisible allowed me to ignore the problem for a long time. But I finally put a little R&D into it, and as of Friday you can once again nose around the whole site and its ten-year history.
Similarly, all the constituent audio files of Play of the Light, my not-officially-retired conversational podcast about games, had been wholly inaccessible ever since Dropbox abruptly deactivated all its user accounts’ public-access directories, an act that broke countless media URLs all across the web. This broke image links all over Fogknife too, and I took the trouble to bang out some Perl code within hours to fix that, since this blog retains the favor of my current attention. Not so for the podcast, which I let default into the yeah well it’s old bin until now. On Friday I took the trouble to shuttle the whole lot of them over to my personal Linode, and manually updated all the posts’ URLs while listening to other peoples’ podcasts.
It would have seemed strange to say this at the turn of the century, full of assumptions about the new digital permanence, but I have since come to accept that the default mode of the web is forgetting. This applies equally to every source, whether corporate new-media giant or scrappy open-web homesteader. Yes, social-media sites that today seem to host the majority of new online work will, when their fortunes change and they go dark, pull all user-submitted content down into the gloom with them. But we cannot lay all the blame there! Anyone who manages their own content — myself included — knows how quickly websites can can start to decompose as soon as we no longer give them our active personal attention.
Sometimes we change hosting providers; sometimes we change focus of interest. Sometimes individual bits and pieces of our multi-dependency setups stop working, as with Dropbox with my podcast, or my old blog’s CMS. Sometimes we run out of time for our online projects, and sometimes we straight-up die (and don’t leave behind clear digital preservation instructions). In every case, our older online work becomes a ship with no pilot, staying both online and discoverable for no longer than luck allows. The moment either its technology or its search-engine accessibility fails, it all vanishes in utter silence.
And everyone who writes online has a sense of this, I think, making it far too easy to take a shrugging oh well attitude to the thought of one’s own work sinking away forever, even though we cared so much about it when we made it. Eh, it’s old, it’s not me anymore, we tell ourselves. As if we take our definition only from what we’ve written in the last year or two! As if we harbor some sort of resentment towards the voices of our younger selves.
I know that I sometimes do feel that way, perversely. It’s the easier route, certainly, to keep our eyes locked to the future, and let all our past work succumb to gravity! Pushing back against that takes real and conscious effort, at least a little bit applied at regular intervals. As this labor doesn’t feel like making anything new and worth announcing, it can be hard to summon the necessary attention for it.
And yet I do feel its important for everyone who makes things on the web, and who claims to care about their work, to take that sort of upkeep seriously. Our past selves poured their passion into this work with the expectation that their future selves would at least care enough about it to preserve it — or, when necessary, to bury work we truly want forgotten with dignity, scrubbing the web clean of broken links and outdated references.
I’m happy to have given my past self this little Christmas gift, in retrospect, and I humbly hope my future self will remember the favor and repay it in kind.
The title of this post refers to this timeless poem by John M. Ford.