Services centred around content creation and sharing come online with some frequency. Sometimes they are going after particular topical niches, or attempt to enable an altogether different form of discourse. These efforts are admirable, as they seek to provide the means for more people to put their work online, in ways that are increasingly frictionless. The basics1 have not really changed, as much as their implementation and execution has.

Participation in these services can be useful for both the individual and the society that fosters them, since they are proxies to community and enablers of new behaviours and possibly of new forms of expression. There are some caveats with respect to ownership of the data, or the benefit that service providers derive (hinting at their motivations as well), but one of the biggest issues to be mindful of is loss.

Anything worth publishing deserves a local copy, one that can endure the service going offline, or accidentally deleting all of the data, or corrupting it in subtler ways. There are technological efforts to make such local copies an “included battery” sort of feature for as many services as possible, and I am a strong supporter of such approaches; but until they are commonplace, the creator-user has to manually ensure they hold on to a copy of their outputs. It is sometimes true that the format of the online medium influences the things created, perhaps in ways that are difficult or impossible to translate to local copies2, even of lower fidelity. While such a risk may be entirely worthwhile, it needs to be understood up-front; while technologists are comfortable understanding this trade-off as a natural part of doing business online, it is important that all users are (made) aware that the service might go away or the data could end up corrupted/deleted at some point.

Let us not forget format-shifting as a possible alternative to that last issue. A blog post is a more useful use of one’s time and resources in making some bit of knowledge public than a thread in some closed-off forum would be. Photos and music can be shared out of personal storage pools (i.e., servers) that double as archival, rather than entrusting them to a social network or similar service. This is not a knock against web applications of a particular nature, but rather an observation that so much important data exists outside the user’s control, and is subjected to the providers’ ephemerality or interest in the service.

Either way, keep local copies.

  1. Creation, followed by critical recognition of merit, have been around in a form or another since the earliest days of human artistic expression.

  2. It is unsurprising that this property translates so well across formats, from the physical to the digital realms.