After some back and forth on the issue, it was recently concerned that the tweets of president Donald Trump constitute “official statements.” Mark another landmark down for the social media revolution. It’s just one more way we’ve had to fumble with the concept of a permanent record in today’s digital age. Meanwhile, an advocacy group has argued that Trump can’t legally block users from responding to his Twitter account. That’s a new problem: How to interpret the US Constitution when applying it to the concept of social media?
For that matter, someday we’ll have to create a Donald Trump presidential library – and at the rate he’s going, a closet might prove to suffice. But if tweets are official statements and important enough that blocking access to them constitutes a violation of the First Amendment, then aren’t they destined for a library as well? Do we print these out in a log? Or will Trump’s library ultimately be a file server and a mounted touchscreen interface? That’s the exact idea The Daily Show had.
In not just the US but the entire world, governments are in a constant state of temporal whiplash as they struggle to apply old laws and practices to digital media. Even when you don’t consider media, the pace of the world’s technology progress has surpassed most government’s abilities to legislate standards. The founding fathers of the US Constitution set up a system of checks and balances specifically to stop radical, sweeping changes from happening too fast. Yet these ideas were formed back when the standard of document storage was a parchment scroll and the fastest way to transmit information was the Pony Express. Given the current capabilities we have, it’s amazing the old laws have kept up this long.
Preserving Digital Cultures Before They Vanish
The Library of Congress has given us another landmark. They’ve now started an archive for preserving webcomics and web culture, which includes memes. That’s right – memes. The next time you pass around your funny LOLCatz photo on Facebook, your post could make history. Andy Warhol did have the foresight to say that we’d all be famous for fifteen minutes, but even he didn’t foresee that even all the cats would be equally famous. As for the present author, there’s a whole five-year webcomic project I did back there which will in all certainty not be honored in the archive, but Longcat will be preserved for future archaeologists to puzzle over.
As fast as digital communications have developed, cultures within media bubbles grow and die off as rapidly as bacteria fighting for domination of a Petri dish. Consider the forever-gone GeoCities, 43 Things, Del.Icio.Us, and Club Penguin. All the time people spent on these sites, the things they talked about, the in-jokes they shared, the culture they created, are as if they never were. All these moments will be lost in time like tears in rain.
Textfiles.com gets it. The owner, Jason Scott, is one of the few people to step forward and try to preserve some Internet culture history. Back before there was a web, dial-up connections and Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) were the standard. We think of this time as backwards and dauntingly difficult to use, but at the time, people burned just as many hours trading ASCII renderings of memes, posting creepypasta urban legends, and jovially insulting each other as they do now. This culture is preserved by people like Jason Scott, who also works for the Internet Archive, another digital library for all things electronic media.
The Constant Problem Of Preservation
At least by one metric, IBM estimated way back in 2012 that the world’s population produced 2.5 exabytes of data per day. That completely outpaces all known big data storage solutions, no matter how many phone conversations the NSA wants to snoop on. For that matter, even if we all stand back from the Internet for the day (on the count of three, ready?) the bots on the web will continue to churn through millions of minuscule operations. Some estimates say bots outnumber humans on the web already. With new AI and the Internet of Things picking up steam, the time when the distinction between a human and a bot online will be negligible