Earlier this week, I asked, is our e-mail private? The evidence seems to be, no.

That said, items of great value to us can just disappear. It happened to a Colorado reporter, and his story, as told by tech reporter Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic, may serve as a warning:

In 1985, journalism student Kevin Vaughan was researching microfilm copies of the 1961 editions of the Denver Post when he came across an arresting though unrelated story:

“I was spinning my way through December,” Vaughan said, “and I stopped and I saw this headline that said 20 children had been killed in bus-train collision. I can remember just staring at the screen and thinking, ‘I’ve lived almost all my life in Colorado: How have I never heard of this?’”

By 1996, he was a reporter with the Rocky Mountain Post, and his editors agreed to let him research the aftermath in a series called “The Crossing.” The 34-part series, which appeared in 2007, enabled many of those affected to say to the community, for the first time, how it had affected them:

“I don’t want to overstate it,” Vaughan said. “But I feel like it was transformative for the people who went through that tragedy. I’ve had people tell me, for instance, that the series cut loose all this emotion that they had bottled up inside, most of them for their entire lives.”

Vaughan was a Pulitzer finalist in 2008. But the next year, the newspaper folded, the web site disintegrated, and “The Crossing” evaporated.

Fortunately, he had saved most of the site to a DVD, and was eventually able to put it back online himself. If he hadn’t done that, the story would have once again just disappeared.

LaFrance sums it up: “You can’t count on the web, okay? It’s unstable. You have to know this.”

Yes, digitization produces immense advantages, but secure longevity is not one of them.

There is, of course, the Wayback Machine, saving petabytes of Internet pages (439 billion) back to 1996, long after sites are pulled.

But the Machine is not insurance. One site I work at features well over 15,000 posts since 2005, but only 502 were captured. At least we could prove the site existed…but a person seeking something specific could well be out of luck.

Thumb drives are cheap and easy, and having a number of them in various places, with updated copies of all one’s work, are a much better idea than assuming that the internet is forever.

An interesting discussion between LaFrance and various techies may be found here.

Note: Some pages are intentionally removed from the internet as part of “reputation management” strategies. We discussed that here.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...