A different history


By Kate Jackman-Atkinson

The Neepawa Banner

Almost 20 years ago, something dramatic happened that will change history, but not necessarily in the way one might think. 

In the early 1990s, the Internet was gaining momentum as a series of advancements, such as user-friendly browsers and standard protocols, opened the world wide web to those outside of the sciences and academia.

By 1996, most companies were recognizing the importance of the internet and regular citizens were going online and making themselves known through personal websites, blogs, forums and chat rooms. 

No one can deny that the Internet has changed the course of history, but it has also changed “history”. In the future, the history told of our time will no longer just be about the rich and famous. Or the winners. The Internet has allowed ordinary citizens to document and publish their thoughts, opinions and daily activities. Whether it’s on social media or personal blogs, there has never been more information published and readily available about the ordinary lives of ordinary citizens.  

Each day, with our posts, pictures and comments, we are essentially publishing our own autobiographies. This has lead to a number of questions.  

The major question is whether or not this information is valuable. If it is, the question becomes “How do we want to protect this data?” Both Britain and France treat any digital publication as it would a paper publication– they become part of the national library archives. In Canada, there is no such protection.

There is also the question of permanence.  When a book is published, unless damaged, it more or less sits there indefinitely.  In contrast, much of our digital history is in a more precarious situation.  Many web sites delete the profiles of users who are inactive for a certain period of time.  This means that whole portions of people’s histories are vulnerable to permanent deletion if they move away from a social media site, let their blog languish or don’t renew their domain.

Part of this problem is that most of our Internet auto-biography is held by private companies. Facebook ultimately decides what it will do with each of our profile pages– how long they will be kept active, who can gain access to the data they contain and at what price. Ultimately, the data isn’t really ours.

With this in mind, a debate has been brewing regarding the archival of digital publications. Should we be more like Britain and France? What is the value of this information to both our future selves and society at large? We have put that information out there, but do we really want all of it saved?  

Recently, I searched the Internet to see if my first website was still around.  It was hosted, for free, on Geocities and the last time I updated it was some time around 2001. As far as I can tell, it’s gone.  I’m not sure if I’m happy or sad about that.

While there is no legal regime or requirement for archiving Canadians’ websites, Canadians can voluntarily archives their pages by participating in the Internet Archive. It has recorded the history of over 430 billion pages, going back to about 1996. My website isn’t on there either, I guess it’s really gone.