Saturday, June 21, 2014

The disappearing (and reappearing) profile photo

Recently I noticed that my profile photo was broken (I've since fixed it).  "That's odd", I thought, "I uploaded it quite a while ago.  Maybe there's some glitch in Blogger's servers."  I kept checking, figuring it should come back before too long, but it didn't.  So I went to my Blogger profile to see what had happened to the image, and discovered that the URL I had given was broken.

I don't remember why I'd given a URL instead of just uploading an image.  Maybe I didn't have a copy of the image handy.  Maybe I just thought it was "webbier" to give a URL, but never mind.  Easily fixed.  I hunted up another copy of the image and uploaded it ... and we're back!

What's interesting, though, was that the URL pointed at Technorati, whose probably-no-more-tangled-than-usual history I've touched on before.  So I checked.  Technorati is still a thing, albeit clearly not one I personally pay much attention to.  Evidently they've redone their infrastructure a bit, or perhaps just cleaned out inactive accounts, causing the link to finally rot after however many years it's been since I first put it on my profile.

Links rot.  That's just part of the web.  In fact, it's a key architectural decision behind the web (as opposed to, say, Xanadu).  It would be interesting, though, to study which links rot, and when, and why.

In the case of my profile photo, a link to an obscure corner of Technorati, linked to a completely inactive account associated with a little-read blog, remained stable for years until, one day, it disappeared.  This is probably not too uncommon, but nonetheless I'd expect link rot to become less common over time.

In the old days, people would put up web sites on their personal computers, or on the workstation in their lab, and so forth.  They would get tired of the hassle of hosting the site, or graduate, or whatever, and the site would go away.  That's largely been replaced by web hosting services, but even then sites go away all the time as people get tired of paying for them and maintaining them.

However, a larger and larger portion of content is now being hosted by companies like Facebook, YouTube, Google, Twitter and so forth, or by major media outlets, which at least implicitly promise to maintain the content in perpetuity.  "Perpetuity" is rather better defined in theory than in practice, but I have a high degree of confidence that links to this blog will still work ten years from now, probably twenty and quite possibly fifty.

Will someone living a thousand years from now be able to read Field Notes?  I have no idea.  The odds of Google (or any of the other present-day giants) still being around in a thousand years are fairly small, but the likelihood of it costing peanuts to maintain everything that's ever been published on Blogger are pretty good, so who knows?

What does seem likely is that the bulk of "user-created content" will remain accessible as long as there is a web more or less like the present one for it to be part of.  If that's right, then the main sources of link rot will probably be companies folding and taking their sites down, or content owners deciding to take older content down or hide it behind paywalls or similar actions.  In other words, links are probably less likely to rot due to inattention or Life Happening to the particular person who created them in the first place, and more likely to happen due to explicit decisions by corporate entities.

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