The Temporary Web and Digital Histories

Jeff Jarvis recently voiced some concerns about the temporary web:

Twitter is temporary. Streams are fleeting. If the future of the web after the page and the site and SEO is streams – and I believe at least part of it will be – then we risk losing information, ideas, and the permanent points – the permalinks – around which we used to coalesce. In this regard, Twitter is to web pages what web pages are to old media. Our experience of information is once again about to become fragmented and dispersed.

My own worry is that I’m twittering more and blogging less. Twitter satisfies my desire to share. That’s mostly why I blog – and that’s what makes the best blog posts, I’ve learned. I also want to store information like nuts underground; once it’s on the blog, I can find it. But when I share links on Twitter, they’ll soon disappear. I also use my blog to think through ideas and get reaction; Twitter’s flawed at that – well, I guess Einstein could have tweeted his theory of relativity but many ideas and discussions are too big for the form – yet I now use Twitter to do that now more than this blog.

I don’t relate very much to the idea that the temporary web destroys the ability to read and write in longer form. Maybe it’s because I started blogging only shortly before I started microblogging, but I can still be pretty long-winded. Jarvis notes that Twitter conversations have the “half-life of a gnat,” and that they “go up in smoke.” Sure, that’s a limitation, but it’s also a lot like regular in-person conversation. I think it has just as much to do with the nature of informal conversation as it does with the fact that Twitter lends itself towards that type of communication, yet we don’t worry about day to day conversations going up in smoke. That’s why we have other types of communication. I get Jarvis’ point, and it’s important and useful to be aware of the nature of the medium, but it doesn’t bother me too much.

What does bother me about “streams” is memory. I’m a digital pack-rat. I have important MSN conversations saved from the past 8 years (which is nearly forever for someone who hit the age of reason 10 years ago). I have tons of long emails with close friends filed away (and backed up) for safekeeping. I don’t take the ease of record-keeping with digital communication for granted. Memories of important and meaningful phone conversations fade, but I take advantage of the fact that I can revisit a conversation that happens online.

Except, Twitter is lousy at that. Ever try digging for a message you posted a year ago? Facebook has become the same way since it adopted a stream-like interface. I get the focus on real-time, but it drives me nuts that results disappear from Twitter’s search engine after only a few months. Real-time can be the default, but what about offering a sort of search that taps into the history of conversation, rather than solely what’s trending?

I welcome the move to a more stream-like web, but what about taking advantage of our ability to store and access our history? Real-time is cool, but sometimes I’d like to search the past.

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