Why Facebook will plunge us into a Digital Dark Age

I've been thinking a lot about MySpace. Specifically, I've been thinking about how MySpace is responsible for erasing a good chunk of my childhood from existence.

You see, I'm young enough that platforms like MySpace were around during my teenage years, and my peers and I all flocked to them to share grainy cameraphone pictures and angsty statuses full of song lyrics. The MySpace I knew is long gone, of course; in an effort to retain a shred of relevance after being thoroughly crushed by Facebook, it pivoted to being a social network for musicians and designers a few years ago.

When that happened, it de-listed and hid all of the content that used to make up classic' MySpace. The digital record of my early teenage years vanished at a stroke. The company's help pages assure me all of that content is still accessible on the site, buried in a hidden section of my long-dormant profile - but that's a moot point, as my login credentials have been lost to history. While I'm grateful for this in some ways - the fact that all evidence of my more questionable fashion choices has been consigned to oblivion is a blessing - it's troubling in others.

For the past decade, we've been entrusting our collective memories to private companies, outsourcing the task of storing and cataloguing our histories. As we've seen numerous times, however, this can be a risky proposition. Social media companies are under no obligation to host our content in perpetuity, and if they decide that it's no longer in the business' best interests, they are free to scrub them from their servers at any point.

We saw a similar case with Tumblr last year - the site enacted a blanket ban on nudity in order to combat child sexual imagery, and nuked a swathe of kink, art and LGBTQ blogs in the process. For large chunks of the site's userbase, a huge part of their online identities disappeared as pictures and posts were taken down.

Photographs in particular are hugely important; not only do they help recall treasured memories, they also act as historical records, immortalising pivotal moments and providing a window into the past. If all of our pictures disappeared, not only would we lose a massive and vital part of our culture and heritage, we'd also be cutting future generations off from any possibility of learning from and about us.

This has happened before; the early Middle Ages are often referred to as the Dark Ages', partly because a lack of historical records means we simply don't know that much about that period. Experts have raised the possibility of a digital dark age' in the past, as obsolete storage mediums and file formats render older digital files unreadable - but there's a far greater risk that the information and content that we generate as part of our day-to-day lives will disappear as well.

It's likely that for many people Facebook and Instagram are the only online services that they use to store photographs of their daily lives. Let's imagine then that Facebook was to shut down tomorrow - perhaps the repeated flouting of users privacy finally causes regulators to step in. Facebook and all its subsidiaries would cease to operate. How many of the photos and videos that you've shared on Facebook and Instagram do you have copies of in other places? How many of the friends and family members that you talk to through Facebook Messenger do you have another form of contact info for?

Entrusting so much of our shared experiences to a single company is worrying enough, but we're also taking it for granted that it will be around forever, and that's simply not true. When Facebook shuts down - and it will, sooner or later - all of that information will disappear. If we don't start radically rethinking our attitudes to archiving our history, the records of the internet age will be lost (to paraphrase Roy Batty) like tears in rain.

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.