How Do We Save Our Digital Lives?

Mary Snauffer
Mary Snauffer



stock photosThis article is an adaptation of Mary Snauffer’s South By Southwest presentation, “How Do We Save Our Digital Lives?” presented on March 8th in Austin, Texas.

This past August, I received an email from Broadcastr announcing that the company was shutting down. Broadcastr was a niche, but fairly successful storytelling app that had been around since 2011. It allowed people to tell stories about their lives that were rooted in a specific place and geo-tag that location. This gave listeners of the app the wonderful experience of being able to walk around a city while listening to this invisible narrative of the place. Similar to when you get headphones at a museum to hear the history of the paintings as you explore, only the history of Broadcastr was the history of everyday people, a blend of the ordinary and the extraordinary.

In the email, Broadcastr explained that they had had a great couple of years running the platform; over half a million personal stories had been uploaded, they had partnerships with The Human Rights Watch to collect stories from Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, as well as a partnership with the 9/11 Memorial. But unfortunately, the company had run out of money and investors to keep it alive and continue development.

It occurred to me while reading this email that the story of Broadcastr represents the threat to our personal stories and to our personal histories in today’s digital age. I realized that we were about to lose half a million stories—each of which was important enough for a person to sit down and record. These types of personal archives, from what someone saw during 9/11, to the story of their first kiss, to where they were standing in Tahrir Square during a revolution, are the ingredients that make up our society’s collective history.

Last month, I sat down with Andy Hunter, the founder of Broadcastr. He told me that when he was originally thinking about the app there was a clear archival motivation to it. The idea of personal stories being housed and piled over the years.

“Imagine moving into an apartment in the Lower East Side of New York City,” Hunter told me, “and being able to hear the stories from the people who had lived in the apartment over the decades.”

The problem was that keeping Broadcastr up and running was expensive, and though they had investors who had funded the project, they couldn’t figure out a way to sustainably monetize the app. Right now, Broadcastr stories are currently being housed in a Google Data Store. This also costs money and soon in all likelihood these stories will be lost because no one can afford to host them. Broadcastr’s trajectory should be seen as a cautionary tale about the fragility of our personal archives in this time in history.

Over the last ten years, with sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google, we are documenting our lives and creating more personal archives—photos, videos, letters—than ever before.

People who, in the past, may not have been inclined to keep diaries or scrapbooks that can be found by future generations, historians or archivists are now essentially archiving their lives with more rigor just by being an active Facebook user with a good internet connection and a smartphone.

To put this in perspective, right now there are over five million Facebook accounts filled with personal archives. It took two centuries for the Library of Congress to fill 838 miles of bookshelves with over thirty million books, three million recordings, twelve million photographs and sixty million manuscripts. Today, it takes about fifteen minutes for the world to churn out an equivalent amount of new digital information.

But the problem is that we have no good way to preserve this content. There are three major obstacles here. One, you can’t preserve a multi-dimensional online document that you can click on, has comments, likes or shares in a one-dimensional way. For example, you can’t print out a Facebook post and maintain the true digital context of the document; where it ‘clicked’ to, or who ‘liked’ it.

The second, and arguably larger problem is that ultimately you don’t own your personal archives. The companies that house them like Facebook and Google do, and there is absolutely no reason to trust that these companies will be around in the next few decades.

The average Fortune 500 Company has a 40-year life expectancy. Recent history is filled with examples of huge companies that came around and changed everything—changed what is possible for us to do, create and capture in mass. Companies like Kodak, or Blockbuster, Compaq, Lehman Brothers, PanAm, Friendster, Standard Oil, Geocities, etc.

There is no reason to believe that the companies that are changing culture right now, in this particular moment in history, will last forever. Or will even last for a few more decades. And when they go, just like with Broadcastr, our archives will go with them.

The third problem is how quickly technologies—hardware and software—are currently evolving. Think about how many iPhone models you have owned for example. When a technology format becomes obsolete, the documents that we created with these technologies will become obsolete right along with them.

Imagine, for example, holding a record in your hands that you really want to listen to, but you have no record player. Right now libraries and universities around the country are trying to figure out a system to preserve our archives in a way that is truthful to their full digital context and don’t risk going extinct with the technology that can read them.

In 2010, Harvard University received John Updike’s archives, which included fifty 5 ¼ inch floppy disks. The curator of the library admitted that Harvard didn’t have a methodology to process “digital born materials” other than storing them in climate-controlled stacks. It is invaluable for historians to understand how technology impacted the creative process, it’s how we study important works of art and creators of the past, and right now we have no good process in place to preserve our artifacts along with their original formats.

So why is this so important to us?

Because we understand humanity by personal stories and artifacts, like photos, letters and diaries that were left behind and saved. Popular history will always be preserved. We will not lose President Obama’s memoirs or the articles of The New York Times, but what is popular and right within this space and time in human history, often changes with time and perspective.

The collective history of everyday people like those half a million Broadcastr stories is where looking back, you will find truth and depth and human complexities. This is what we are going to lose.

So how then do we save our digital lives? Speaking to several university archivists, they all pointed me in the direction of the recommendation of the Library of Congress, which is cumbersome advice at best. The LOC recommends for people to create a digital archive folder. Select the images, e-mails, videos and documents you want to save. Make at least two copies of your archive folder, and have at least one saved on external media such as a DVD or portable hard drive. Check this once a year to make sure the folder can still be read. And migrate your archive folder every ten years to a new storage system to ensure the technology doesn’t become obsolete.

This is a really tall order. Especially for most of us, who aren’t really thinking about our personal archives in the first place.

The most user-friendly advice I got wasn’t from an archivist at all, but was from a photo-historian. It is the same advice she gives her children. Every month go through your pictures or documents, pick just a few and print them out. Use high-quality paper, don’t print them cheaply. And caption your photos. (You think you will remember but you won’t.)

This advice, though by no means completely solving the problem, does at least allow us the chance to preserve and own our personal archives, in a way that isn’t controlled by a third party corporation, device or software.

Ultimately, I want to inspire you to be mindful of this. To take the time to pull out and preserve the pieces of your life that you feel for some reason, you ought to save. And I encourage you to try to save it, whether by simply printing it out or making a digital archive folder. Because these are the pieces of your personal history, and your personal history is just as important as any history in the world.

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