We Didn’t Stop The Fire.

OUR LIBRARY IS BURNING. Copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap. Digital permanence is a tragically laughable ideal to anyone who remembers the VHS format wars or tries to view Joshua Davis’s 1990s masterpieces on a modern computer. Digital archiving is only as permanent as the next budget cycle—as when libraries switched from microfilm to digital subscriptions and then were forced to cancel the subscriptions during the pre-recession recession. And of course, my digital work vanishes the moment I die or lose the ability to keep hosting it. If you really want to protect your family photos, take them off Flickr and your hard drive, get them on paper, and store them in an airtight box.

Though bits are forever, our medium is mortal, as all but the most naive among us know. And we accept that some of what we hold digitally dear will perish before our eyes. But it irks most especially when people or companies with more money than judgement purchase a thriving online community only to trash it when they can’t figure out how to squeeze a buck out of it. Corporate black thumb is not new to our medium: MGM watered down the Marx Bros; the Saatchis sucked the creative life and half the billings out of the ad agencies they acquired during the 1980s and beyond. But outside the digital world, some corporate purchases and marriages have worked out (think: Disney/Pixar). And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased. Whereas we can all instantly call to mind dozens of wonderful web properties that died or crawled up their own asses as a direct result of new corporate ownership.

My colleague Mandy Brown has written a moving call to arms which, knowingly or unknowingly, invokes the LOCKSS method (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) of preserving digital content by making copies of it; she encourages us all to become archivists. Even a disorganized ground-level effort such as Mandy proposes will be beneficial—indeed, the less organized, the better. And this is certainly part of the answer. (It’s also what drives my friend Tantek’s own your data efforts; my beef with T is mainly aesthetic.) So, yes, we the people can do our part to help undo the harm uncaring companies cause to our e-ecosystem.

But there is another piece of this which no one is discussing and which I now address specifically to my colleagues who create great digital content and communities:

Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.

Don’t go for the quick payoff. You can make money maintaining your content and serving your community. It won’t be a fat fistful of cash, but that’s okay. You can keep living, keep growing your community, and, over the years, you will earn enough to be safe and comfortable. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money). By contrast, if you retain ownership of your community and keep plugging away, you’ll have financial stability and manageable success, and you’ll be able to turn the content over to your juniors when the time comes to retire.

Our library is burning. We didn’t start the fire but we sure don’t have to help fan the flames. You can’t sell out if you don’t sell. Owning your content starts with you.

25 thoughts on “We Didn’t Stop The Fire.

  1. Actually, burning your photos on proper archival cd/dvd media and storing them in a dark, dry place is a pretty good strategy for keeping them safe.

  2. I love hosted web services/communities for content archiving and sharing, but I certainly don’t trust them. The reality is that we’re getting more and more dependent on these things, and who knows when the switches will be flipped to “off.” Even just switching from Flickr to Picasa is a brutal and time-consumiong affair, with potential loss of comments, metadata, etc.

    If you care about your data, API capture tools such as ThinkUp are maturing. My personal tool of choice for recapturing my stuff is Symphony CMS. Here’s why.

  3. Bravo. I’ve never understood why someone would want to work so hard on something only to sell it. Even a great big pile of cash seems like meager compensation for something you had to pour your soul into. But then, I’ve already admitted to being an idealist once today.

  4. Are you including Mike Davidson’s Newsvine in the list of things that were f’ed up by corporate buyout? I thought he did a pretty good job of keeping it in tact after the deal with MSNBC.

  5. On a side note, I’m curious about the 2-year-$-squandering you mention. Is that your viewing experience or stats from somewhere (where?)

    Off to read Mandy’s article!

  6. Exactly why I was proud Groupon didn’t sell out to Google. I won’t get into whether or not Groupon is hurting the viability of small businesses, but they do deserve a kudos for not handing over the keys for a bag full of cash.

  7. Thank you for writing, for being right, for being loudly righteous, for fingering our collective greed (many of us would sell out for the right price). This is serious, mum. There’s a lot we will all lose, even those of us who create nothing worth keeping; we at least keep “worth” when we read what you guys write. Right.

  8. This, Mr. Zeldman, is of course only the logical consequence of the construction named “intellectual property”, in which you so strongly believe in. Which of course doesn’t exist, it’s only a propaganda term. Greed is more important then saving the cultural output of our times. There has to be a public effort to archive everything, regardless of the whining of some “copyright holders”. Otherwise of our times there will be nothing left.

  9. I’m on a backup of base computer plus Time Machine, plus Mozy, plus local copy to second PC every week, and occasional burning of DVDs to my parents in another country. Some data I can stand to lose; losing all my kids pictures would be heartbreaking right up until the point my wife gets hold of me. I don’t even consider Flickr or Picasa or Facebook or any of that (including Mozy) a single safe place.

    For community, I think the point is that when we’re talking decent money, no one knows what they’d say until it happens. Really. If someone waved a cheque in your face at the time you need the money, you might take it.

    One factor I think people ignore on the community concept is the aftermath – once you sell, it’s not yours, and even if the new owner is well meaning, it might go in another direction, and you’ll have to look at it every day potentially. I think this is why so many owners (hello Flickr!) leave soon after contractual obligations expire.

  10. My ex led a SXSW panel on digital preservation in 2003; all that remains of those 60 minutes are two short paragraphs in The Austin Chronicle, 14 March 2003:

    Personal Web journals or Web logs are good ways for writers to develop a voice and find and build an audience. But what becomes of all this digital production? That’s what librarian Carrie Bickner wants to know. As assistant director for Digital Information and System Design for the New York Library, she focuses on discovering ways to preserve digital culture for future generations.

    “How will we know [Web author Cory] Doctorow’s process years from now? What is the digital object, and what piece of it should be saved and stored?” are a few of the questions her work addresses. The answer? Just like new writing on the Web, it’s all a work in progress.

  11. Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.
    The internet has created a new level breed of distribution and what were once bloated corporate cash cows are now competing with Lulu, MagCloud, and iTunes for the attention of creators.

    Are music labels & publishers are finally relegated to the role they traditionally held before the advent of the modern corporation: a service to the creators rather than their corporate overlords?

  12. One of literature’s masterpieces–which, by Mandy’s definition has lasted longer than forever–is being censored (by an English professor, no less!) because its original form has become too challenging.

    If you and Mandy have identified greed and inaction as two serious threats to our “Library,” I see a third: good intentions. And to be honest, I’m not sure which scares me more.

  13. Two thoughts from this thoughtful article:

    1) Some years ago, I read a column by Andy Rooney where he grumbled about yet another corporate merger in his classically curmudgeonly way. One line sticks out every time one company buys another: [paraphrasing from my foggy memory] “They always talk about building a better company, but it never results in a better experience for customers.” I keep thinking of what a great brand Compaq was before it became part of HP. I could go on.

    2) Thousands of years from now, when archeologists sort thru the remnants of our civilization, they will find millions of shiny little disks, but no literature or artwork or anything to give an insight into the lives we lived. At the end of the 20th century, the archeological record stops, leaving the future to wonder what ever happened to our creative output.

  14. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money)

    Seems you could be suggesting that people may not be smart enough or responsible enough to handle the money or to resist those who wish to separate them from it. I’m not sure how a substantial payday is “not real” for some people, but I suppose it happens. It’s perhaps a worthwhile distinction to note that lottery winners didn’t work for their wealth, probably never had much to begin with, and therefore may have a very different psychology about its management and preservation.

    Creative integrity and community-serving are good and noble ideals, but for many people the practical realities of life – supporting a family, sending kids to college, quality of life, retirement, etc – can be quite persuasive. Sometimes a “sell out” is the wisest course a person can take.

    Just a counterpoint.

  15. “Toon said on 17 January 2011 at 2:45 pm:

    Actually, burning your photos on proper archival cd/dvd media and storing them in a dark, dry place is a pretty good strategy for keeping them safe.”

    Yeah, until whatever media you’re using becomes obsolete and you can’t find anything to read it. Anyone seen a computer with a 3.5-inch floppy drive on the shelves lately? Or an 8-track player?

  16. And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased.

    What about YouTube? They seem to be doing quite well. But, yeah, I get your point

  17. Firstly, never put your data in anything unless you can see how you are going to get it out again. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said this to people gleefully stuffing their important personal documents and photos into some proprietary bit of software with no way of exporting it again in any useful format.

    Secondly, although CDs won’t last forever, they are common enough that we will get fair warning before they become properly obsolete. (And something did happen that caused them to disappear overnight, saving your photos would be least of your worries.) Floppy disk drives aren’t so common these days, but if I really needed one, it wouldn’t be too difficult to find one even now. If it’s important enough, keep your backups current on readily available media.

    Thirdly, just because it’s written on something physical doesn’t mean it will be readable indefinitely. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs were completely illegible for thousands of years and they were written on big bits of stone in plain view everywhere. If it wasn’t for the Rosetta Stone, they might still be a mystery today.

  18. For years I’ve thought about what the future will know of us that are alive today if only because we don’t write letters on paper anymore let alone the massive amounts of other digital information we create.

    But, all that we know of the past is mostly accidental. For most of the past paper itself was so valuable that people used it over and over again. My family has letters to and from ancestors who wrote over the letter that was sent to them. In some cases it’s next to impossible to read today. What was saved and what was trashed was dependent on the norms and values of the times. What’s important to us about the past in many cases was unimportant then.

    Yes, I copy every thing at least three times, but to be honest it’s more of an attempt at some form of immortality than anything else. We all want to be remembered, but the reality is that the number of humans who are remembered long after their deaths is vanishingly small.

    “The future’s uncertain,
    The end is always near”
    J. Morrison


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