Are we losing our digital memory?
As digital media, especially social media such as Twitter, become an integral part of historical events, are we risking the loss of an important part of our historical memory?
A recent academic study (http://arxiv.org/abs/1209.3026) showed that a significant proportion of the digital information - Facebook entries and tweets but especially websites that they link to – is disappearing at an alarming rate. This study focused on the Arab Spring and found that 11% of all sites linked to about the uprising had disappeared completely after 1 year and that another 20% had been archived. And after 2 and a half years the figures were 30 and 41% respectively!
There are ways to access historical tweets but for the most part they are not easy to use and usally cost money - but that still doesn’t resolve the problem of the missing links. At the same time initiatives such as Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive project (http://archive.org) keep copies of many websites but it is it is very incomplete and in any case linking the 2 sources is difficult.
Long term digital preservation has been recognised as a serious problem for a long term now but usually there we are talking about time scales of decades. But with the massive uptake of social media and their increasingly important role in public events the timescale is of months or at most a few years! This is a problem for future (and present) historians but it is also a problem that can have political and legal implications.