What's ours is not ours
The cloud has a price
Art: The Aircraft in the Sky, Fernand Leger
Many moons ago, I kept all my music on an iPod.
The winter of 2005 was not easy. I was a sophomore in college, taking a heavy courseload, with a scholarship contingent on grades, and finals were right around the corner. I was also working two jobs. It was cold and dark in State College, Pennsylvania. My roommate and I didn’t get along - she wrote a public blog post detailing everything that annoyed her about me, including the fact that I was a loud chewer. And, in the dining hall, where I went to chew from that point on, they ran out of my favorite salad dressing. I was in a Very Bad Place. But there was a way out.
I called my parents and asked them for a $150 so I could buy an iPod. This was the 5th generation iPod Classic - the first one to have a colored screen. At the time, they were $299. But, I had a student discount, and I already had a whopping $80 saved up - I didn’t work two jobs for nothing. The unbridled joy and potential I felt holding the bag on the way home from the computer center was superlative.
The excitement of unboxing it, setting it up, and now having all of my music with me instead of having to carry around my Walkman and a case full of CDs, saved me that semester. The iPod had 30 GB of space, and I loaded over 20 CDs and whatever was on my laptop onto it. I used about 10 GB of it initially.
Then, I got a new iPod.
Then, I started putting music on my phone and computer.
Then, I switched phones and had to migrate all my MP3s.
Then, I switched phones and started to have playlists on YouTube, on SoundCloud, on Amazon Music.
At some point over the last two years, I stopped migrating music and started relying on app playlists and YouTube’s history.
But, some songs on YouTube go away. Some are made private. Some are withdrawn due to copyright.
Right now, my YouTube favorites playlist, which is about 70 songs long, and which I’ve been building since 2011, looks mostly like this:
My music collection, which used to be such a pain to manage on CDs, is now a pain to manage for a different reason: it’s evaporated into the cloud.
Even services that I pay for, like Amazon Music, like to shuffle around content. For example, one of my favorite albums of all time is Новый Йерусалим, New Jersualem, a live set that Chizh, a Russian rock group popular in the 90s, played in Jerusalem in 1998. I first heard it on a cassette that my dad bought at a Russian store in Philadelphia. I’ve now heard it on numerous different media, and have recently been playing it for my daughter.
Since we listen to it in the car, I was really excited to find out that Amazon Music had it. Then, after about a year of being able to play it there, it vanished, without any explanation whatsoever. One day I had the playlist saved, the next, the songs were quietly greyed out. What was mine, was suddenly not mine.
Right now, I play it on YouTube, but who knows for how long. I might as well buy the cassette again. (BTW, here it is. )
Now, maybe it’s just me and maybe other people have better strategies for dealing with this. (If so, I’d love to hear them!)
But I have a feeling that everything, from music, to movies, to work documents (remember that Google outage earlier this week?), to, hell, even memes, has become ephemeral, fleeting, somewhere else.
Earlier this week, I was looking for a way to manage the quickly expanding collection of reaction images that are, for now, in a folder in my Photos.
(check out all the replies, lots of good ones):
And the answers revealed that, for gifs, people were doing Twitter searches, using Giphy, or Gboard. For still images, (jpegs and the like), there was no concrete solution.
I was really surprised. Memes are, in an internet that’s been entirely corporatized and controlled top-down by Amazoogle and advertising, the People’s Content. They come from the bottom up, from message boards and reddit threads, from Photoshop and Powerpoint, and make their way online. And yet, we have no control over them, no way to save and catalog them, to search through them.
They merely pass through our content streams like a river, we see them once, and they’re gone.
On the one hand, maybe this is good. The lives of memes are so short that it doesn’t make sense to keep them, to preserve them, to - God forbid - curate them.
On the other, it’s not just the memes that are suffering this fate.
The people before us left behind vellum manuscripts and paintings, wrinkled photographs and handiwork, letters that smell of sealing wax - evidence that humans were here, doing human things, living.
What will be left of us when the servers are turned off and the last Baby Yoda gif disappears into the ether?
What I’m reading now:
Wacom is tracking you. This was a fantastic read, written in a really engaging voice.
How Polina writes her newsletter.
VC Twitter delivers
(BTW, if this question of ephemerality bothers you and you have some money to throw at the problem, I recommend donating to the Internet Archive.)
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.
Commenting a couple years late now, but this is something I think about a lot, and so it was very exciting to read your article! Re: the archival and retrieval of memes -- it makes sense that their shelf lives are short so there may not be a lot of value to preserving them (or alll of them maybe). But I've also started thinking about what other criteria could play into this decision of preserving (at least at the personal level that we can, e.g. by storing things we like on hard drives or whatever) vs. not. Other than longevity, I mean.
Over the last few years for instance, I've started downloading and keeping films I love on a hard-drive, organised by tags such as genre, film movement, etc. I think this is a little less because of the longevity of films as a whole, and more about how personally formative and impactful these movies have been. I used to try and keep e-copies or hard copies of the books I loved too, but I switched to keeping sorted lists of books I love instead. I guess I have some sort of trust that the institution of libraries will still be around in and after my lifetime. That trust changes my approach to archiving.
I'm curious if you also have some other criteria you think along the lines of when thinking about preservation!