I was three years old, laying horizontally at the top of the stairs of the first home I had with my parents. None of my siblings were born yet, and I remember very little else about life before my brothers and sister being somewhere nearby. The carpet was grey, with a hint of purple in dull light. I rolled down each grey step, one at a time. Except that now, twenty-five years later, I don’t really remember it, because my perspective is from the foot of the stairs looking up; my vision of that moment shifted into the third person. It’s not what actually happened, and I can no longer really be sure what I did there. But, whilst it’s fuzzy, this momentary event remains special and preserved. Thinking of it makes me happy.
So, when is something really momentary on the internet? Time was that random, accidental, delightful events would happen to us in the world, or in conversation, or by chance where we stand, and be just that; moments to be remembered.
We are now intertwined with a medium on which everything is stored publicly, in multiple formats. A redundant copy is made when anybody even looks at something on the internet. Can something still be momentary if it exists across hundreds of computers, for indeterminate timespans?
Simultaneously, more of our casual interactions have moved online. Conversations filled with quips and jokes and sparks of serendipitous chemistry don’t just happen in person any more, they happen in conversation and commentary in text, and in reply to the sharing of photographs. Each person participates in this online experience at a slightly different time, delayed at least by network latency, and perhaps a little longer whilst reading something else on another page. Hundreds of others will relive your moment when they read it in the minutes, hours, and days following. When you catch a silhouette against sunset, reach for your camera to capture it. You won’t need to recount the story of your child’s first steps, because you can replay it.
Pics, or did it not happen?
Before, moments were remembered. You carry an image in your head and think back to it. When you later recognise its importance you might write about your memory, scrapbook it, or share it with others through stories. You might refer to a photograph from near that place or time, or an artefact of another memory, in support of your account. Depending on how much time has passed, the accuracy of the memory of the moment will change, decay or be embellished. The moment remains true.
Now, the internet has enabled us to preserve not memories, but moments literally, first hand, in real time.
A strange thing happens when a web service shuts down, or sells up, or alters its business model. The preservation of our literal moments is threatened, and we may find ourselves with only the memories left. Entire chunks of our lives could change format in an instant. Are they remembered as well as they might be if they weren’t captured so precisely to begin with?
We now rely on the web to preserve the moments of our lives in a way that we never could before. We expect them not only to hold on to our moments, but to recall them for us, too.
You take a photograph and you post it to the web. How often do you revisit that photograph later and feel inspired to write about the moment in another place? When that service goes away, will your memory go with it?
Are our architectural expectations of the web—our demands for archival, preservation, and export—at odds with the established human way of preserving meaningful moments by recording our memories instead? Without meaning to offer excuses or defence to businesses who are careless with their users data: Is it even right for us to refer to them as the canonical record of our lives?
Do services set our expectations correctly? What if a service came along declaring that actually, the content within was momentary, and that if you wanted to preserve it you would need to create something new? Think of This is My Jam, whose posts and the commentary they inspire disappear after seven days. Or 4chan, where posts simply drop off the page when the hive mind moves on.
The pressure for services hosting our creative works to take good care of that data must not relent. Theirs is a responsibility that needs to be better honoured. But at the same time, shouldn’t we also preserve what matters most in the ways we always used to? By recording memories, not just moments.