Our data, scattered

A while back I started to take an interest in the topic of personal data archiving, and in particular how the topic intersects with the various social media platforms that so many of us interact with. The simple fact is that so much of who we are–the things we write, the photos and videos we take, the people we interact with, our very memories, as Facebook likes to remind us–are locked up in a bunch of different walled gardens that are difficult to escape, both technically and due to the powerful social pressures that keep us on these platforms.

I like to think of the traditional photo album as an interesting contrast.

It used to be that we collected memories in these books, and stored those books on a shelf. There was some real downsides to this approach! It’s a pain to add stuff to them (I have to “print” photos??) They’re difficult to share and enjoy. They’re single points of failure (think: house fires). They require intentional acts to ensure preservation. The list goes on.

But, they were ours. We owned them. We could take those photos and easily copy them, share them, rearrange them, archive them, and so forth.

Now imagine that you collected all your photos in a photo album that you could only store and access from a vault being run by a private company. The company would ensure the photos were protected and stored properly, and they provided a really nice, simple mechanism to easily add photos to your album right from your phone! That’s really nice! But if you wanted to look at those photos, you’d have to go to the vault, enter your passcode, and then you could only look at them while you were in the vault. And if you wanted to get a copy of all of those photos for yourself, well, you can, but it’s ugly and complicated and designed to make it minimally possible and maximally difficult.

Next, imagine the corporation changed their policies in a way you didn’t like. Or imagine that corporation went bankrupt. Or experienced a fire. Or you lost the passcode for that vault. Or a loved one passed away and didn’t store the passcode in a safe place.

What then?

Today, we don’t just lock those photos in one vault run by one private company. We lock those photos in many vaults, spread out all over the place. In doing so, we dramatically increase these risks, because instead of just one company failing or one account that we might lose access to or one set of terms of service we need to worry about, it’s many.

All the while we fragment our identity, spreading ourselves thin across the internet, which makes it extremely difficult to preserve all of those memories.

So what can we do about it?

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