From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

August 30, 2002*: on erasing an online forum

I have books on my shelves that haven't been opened in years. Some of them sit there because they're my friends, because the fact that they're within my reach reminds me of their contents and gives me direction in my thinking and musings. Sometimes it's their content, other times simply their sentimental value. I like having them close by. Others, with which I'm less friendly, sit there because I think that perhaps I'll want to refer to them, perhaps reread them, one day. Yet others sit there because I don't like the idea of throwing books away, and I know of no library that wants to have them. I've been known (to Tzippi's great dismay) to salvage books from throw-out bins I come across, even though I have only marginal interest in them, simply because the thought of their being thrown out rubs me the wrong way. Thus it perhaps shouldn't come as much of a surprise that when I was asked to erase a few no-longer active forums that I'm responsible for in one of my jobs I found that I met that rather simple task (that basically consisted of taking a look at the forums and saying "okay, throw them out") with hesitation, consternation and trepidation. Throwing anything out is not something I do lightly.

Almost from its inception, the World Wide Web has teetered between two extremes. On the one hand, people saw it as a transitory, even evanescent medium. Users enjoyed the fact that there was always something new or different to glimpse before moving on, and they quickly understood that today's click, if it brought up anything at all, might bring up a page completely different than yesterday's click on the same link. On the other hand it offered a promise. The web would be a permanent repository that allowed access to anything that had ever (or would ever) be digitzed. Having already admitted to my difficulties with throwing things out, my attraction to the latter possibility should be obvious.

Hard disk space has become very inexpensive. A whopping 20GB of memory costs less today than the original miniscule 20MB that came with my first computer. And though it's become incredibly easy to fill up a gigabyte, if all we're dealing with is text, that's still an awful lot of space. That being the case, it's not really clear why a dormant online forum has to be erased. Who cares if it simply continues to linger on a disk somewhere? If links to the forum are erased, and the specific URL resides only with a select few, then the forum becomes inaccessible anyway, and it's as good as gone, with the added advantage that if someone, sometime, wants to take a look at what was written, that still remains a possibility.

Though I find myself suffering over even a few sentences that might have to be thrown out, there are others who are probably relieved to see them go. Some of the participants in the forums in question hardly took an interest in the subject in the first place. More than just a few were probably simply trying out forums for the first time, and I have no doubt that many of these people would be happy to know that their first (and perhaps only) attempts in this medium are no longer available.

Actually, there shouldn't be any problem with withdrawing a forum from its online presence, because saving the contents shouldn't present a challenge. Forums reside on databases, and saving the data is what's important. In "normal" circumstances, copying the data to a CD, along with a simple retrieval system, is a rather simple procedure. After doing this, removing the forum from where it resides online shouldn't cause any qualms or feelings of discomfort. To my dismay, the organization with which the forums in question were affiliated claimed that they didn't have the technological ability for copying the data - the circumstances weren't "normal". I spoke with acquaintances who have hosted forums, trying to find a way to salvage the data. These people promised me that doing so was a rather simple procedure. But all of my attempts to put those responsible for the forum in contact with people who could explain to them what to do (I could only tell them that I knew it was possible) didn't produce the desired results. Perhaps these repeated, and ultimately futile, attempts even created a greater feeling of discomfort when the time came to make the final move.

As I've already admitted, for me, throwing things away is a problem. So it may well be that I'm the only person who feels such great discomfort when it comes time to remove a forum from the web. Others may be pleased when that happens, or at least relieved. Most people seem to dislike the feeling that they've left digital fingerprints wherever they've visited, and quite frankly, rather than fretting about having their comments erased, they're sorry that they can't erase everything they've written. And of course the issue of the disappearance of possibly significant information (and significance is in the eyes of the beholder) doesn't only concern participants in online forums. The New York Times recently completed the digitization of every one of its issues, in their totality, from 1851 to 1999. Nobody is going to read all of those, but just knowing its available is somehow comforting. On the other hand, much of today's (or at least yesterday's) digital art is in danger of being lost, though not because nobody is saving it, but because standards don't yet exist to preserve it. What's clear is that I'm far from being the only person who feels uncomfortable with the idea of information, no matter how inconsequential, being lost.

At the beginning of this column I wrote that some of the books on my shelves are there because I can't imagine throwing them away, while others are truly my friends. I have to admit that when I started writing this column the forums being discussed here wouldn't have been counted among my closer friends. But writing about them has attached me to them more than I would have expected. They're now friends with whom I'm truly sorry to part.

Google tells us, as of late August, 2002, that it searches almost two and a half billion web pages. Surely reducing that number by the perhaps fifteen pages that comprise the forums I've parted with is not going to make much of a difference in the overall picture of cyberspace. Few took much interest in the forums in question while they were still online, and fewer still will miss them when they're gone. I suppose that a case can be made for the world being a slightly poorer place for no longer being able to access the debates that were held on those pages, but it's only very slightly poorer, hardly perceptibly so. But in the long run I think that I have to admit that what bothers me isn't the information that's no longer available (though to a certain extent that's true), but the fact that I had to do it. I hope the cosmic unity of cyberspace will forgive me.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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