Our online lives slowly leak away

I just looked at the baby photos of Milan being born. Back then we did something pretty cool with a service called “Twittergram.” We recorded his first cry. But now Twittergram seems to have gone away and with it, our baby’s first cry. That was only two years ago. You can see the link there, but it doesn’t work.

This isn’t the first time I’ve noticed things online disappearing over time. My first two years of blogging are gone. Some of that was backed up by the wayback machine.

I’ve seen other people’s blogs, or other online items go away too. Hey, quick, find some of your Tweets from just four months ago. They are all still online, but you probably can’t find them. Me neither.

Or, wait until you are hacked and don’t have a backup, like happened with me. I love the folks who say “you should have backed up.” How do you back up everything you do online? You can’t. Quick, back up all your Google Docs, your Tweets, your Flickr photos and all the metadata surrounding them (comments, tags, etc), your Facebook items, etc etc. You will die trying.

I know, I’ve been backing up like a crazy man lately since I got hacked. What’s funny is one of my brand new hard drives died. Luckily I had a backup of that. But what if I didn’t?

What if my house burned down tonight? I wouldn’t be able to save everything. Heck, I’d be worried about getting my family out and screw the hard drives.

So our online lives leak away.

It gets worse after you die.

You think your family will be able to save your Flickr photos? Not if you don’t give them your passwords. Here’s why: they won’t be able to find them.

I let my Flickr Pro account lapse cause I was too lazy to put in a new credit card. I couldn’t even find my old photos. Why? Because Flickr’s search only shows the last few photos and they turn off the calendar and all sorts of things if you stop paying for the pro account. Yowza.

Reminds me of an interview I had with Jeremy Toeman who built a new company called Legacy Locker. But now we need to put enough cash in there to keep Flickr accounts paid up so my sons will be able to see their photos after I die.

Some best practices I’ve learned:

1. If you care that it stays around, use services from big companies. Google will probably stick around for a while. Twittergram? Gone.

2. Put your stuff in multiple places. Why? Because maybe Yahoo will decide to turn off the Flickr service in 10 years. So, make sure your photos go to other services.

3. Back up what you can, but that won’t help long term. Quick, if your dad handed you a hard drive with 10,000 photos would you be able to find anything on there? What if you got that hard drive in 30 years? Would you be able to even look at what’s on it? Remember, when I was in college my entire life was on floppy disks. I can’t even read those now.

4. Print out stuff that you really want to save. I still have my trunk of photos from my childhood, but lots of my photos taken digitally over the years are gone or hard to find.

5. Use services like Legacy Locker to ensure that your kids at least will have your passwords and rights to your stuff and accounts.

Any other “best practices?”

Comments

  1. I use iTunes, back it up and use the iTunes + Facebook integration to push the most interesting pictures to Facebook. Things get more complicated if when you start looking beyond photos. Sometimes I feel that this fragmentation and speed is going to bite us back at some point. Good to see you blogging more!

  2. the world is absolutely crying out for a desktop backup solution whereby the app can take backups from at least the most popular sites… i use gears to backup my gcal, gdocs, gmail, etc… gmail can of course be backed up via pop (fetchmail, etc) if gears is being buggy for you…
    twitter and facebook… i wonder if tweetdeck are saving my tweets locally… even if they are.. i know twitterberry isn't saving my tweets! a desktop prod that pulls everything would be wonderful… i suspect may people here are techies… anyone want to start one… tweet me on @ringlerun and we can start something… i can contribute in perl for a lot of the backend as well…

    once everything is on your desktop… a snapshot should suffice… and scoble … i'm surprised you didn't mention jungledisk (owned by rackspace?)… depends on the speed of your internet connection, but a brilliant place to backup… as are S3 and some other services…

    the “best practice” of always going for big companies… enron, siemens mobile division… there's plenty of examples… maybe a “little” safer… but at what cost… innovation?

    also, see what is important… if you ware wanting to backup every single thought of yours… for a “just in case scenario”… get over it :) believe in yourself… the brain that thought them today, will think better ones tomorrow… have more confidence in self.. (with humility of course)… :)

  3. Hey Robert,

    I don't normally do this, but your post stirred up some memories. I used to write a lot about a thing I called a Digital Life Manager. I started thinking about it in 2005 and tried for over a year to build it at Yahoo. Brickhouse was born from that and other seeds (that's a whole 'nother story that I'd be happy to share with you sometime). There's lots of talk about Life Streaming and that's all fine and good, but where does it all go? How do I find it later? How do I make meaning out of all this stuff I create online… from this comment, to photos of my son playing a baseball game, to my 12seconds updates. I'd like to see more thought put into Life Caching instead of Life Streaming. It's not just about backing up, it's about archiving your personal media and making meaning out of it. Since I know Jeremy fairly well, maybe I'll bring it up with him and we can get something going, but until then I'll just put it out there…

    Here are my original blog posts about this stuff if you or anyone's interested:
    http://www.itsbeach.com/blog/2006/02/calendar_c
    http://www.itsbeach.com/blog/digital_life_manager/

    - beach

  4. I wouldnt publish anything that I consider I would like to save for myself online unless I have made a offline copy first. Before publishing important photos to Flickr, check if you have already saved them to your desktop drive somewhere so it goes into your home storage device. Storage is cheap these days, with 1 TB external drives going for less than hundred dollars, so makes sense to put money on them. That is the reason I am sticking with big email provider companies like Gmail because Google will be around for a long time to come, other small webbased email provider companies will probably get extinct round the corner of this year or next year.

  5. what is with people and “going with big companies because they will be around” … so risk averse… so full of fear… i'm not saying go with the smallest… give reasonable TTL estimatations appropriate weightage, but don't be so full of fear and run your life from a “centre of fear”!

  6. Twittergram? Gone ???Flickr service will be turn off /??these big companies why turn off it?/I will be back up my all photos,thanks Robert Scoble

  7. when you don't pay flickr(/yahoo), i don't think you loose stuff… you loose access to it.. .and when you pay, it all comes back… (that has been my experience anyway)… really really really dodgy policy… but at least i don't think they delete your stuff…

  8. Robert, I think you've pretty much nailed it. Multiple copies in multiple places, perhaps on different storage media types. Such as Hard Disks and DVDs and “the Cloud”.

    I personally would not trust tape for long term archival backup, as I have always worried about being able to read the data back.

  9. Robert, you had used Cinch in the past and now Cinch has been relaunched at http://www.cinchcast.com (beta). The Iphone app is coming (any day now they say) but as you know and have used in the past, a Cinch can be done using any phone. We have added replies, open api etc to the site. We would be honored to host your new born's first “Cinch”.

    Alan

  10. Not very long ago, I went through a major data loss incident, and was – of course – not properly and thoroughly backed up. It really screwed up everything, and I am still dealing with it, months later. While these unfortunate losses/hack jobs/etc. are upsetting and disruptive, they do lead to progress on the perpetual learning curve. This post proves that. I’m glad to see real issues being blogged, rather than the usual twittering about tweets. For that I am thankful.

    My suggestions for preserving the important stuff: multi-format everything (plain text, Word, Pages, OpenOffice, jpeg, gif, etc…); print collections (blogs, photos) into books; regular printing on quality paper; microfiche; flash drives along with other drive formats; site and blog mirrors; archive sites with mirrors; and finally, in general – keep the emphasis on content rather than design extras.

    No matter what methods and formats used, it is always a big job to stay on top of back ups and keeping formats current. Printed media, especially books, are actually smart solutions for long term preservation.

  11. 1. Don't rely on third party services. Keep your data and back it up. I'm looking into further ways to centralize my online life by unifying… more on that to come :-)

    2. You can use YOUR OWN COMPANY for offsite backups. Rackspace cloud files or Amazon's S3, Mozy, etc

    If a website disappearing means you're loosing something of value… you're doing it wrong.

  12. 1. Don't rely on third party services. Keep your data and back it up. I'm looking into further ways to centralize my online life by unifying… more on that to come :-)

    2. You can use YOUR OWN COMPANY for offsite backups. Rackspace cloud files or Amazon's S3, Mozy, etc

    If a website disappearing means you're loosing something of value… you're doing it wrong.

  13. Robert, my new company VitalLock takes a utility approach to the problem by providing an Adobe AIR powered application for encrypting and storing any VITAL (video image text audio link) document in the cloud. VitalLock also provides a mechanism for sharing those documents with family and friends and like LegacyLocker we support delivering (or destroying) same upon death or disability. As for longevity of our service there is no way to know for certain but I built this as a solution for my own family and as such have engineered the service so that, in the event of our demise, a user can split off their data into individual Amazon S3 (and yes one day Rackspace) accounts. http://VitalLock.com

  14. Robert, my new company VitalLock takes a utility approach to the problem by providing an Adobe AIR powered application for encrypting and storing any VITAL (video image text audio link) document in the cloud. VitalLock also provides a mechanism for sharing those documents with family and friends and like LegacyLocker we support delivering (or destroying) same upon death or disability. As for longevity of our service there is no way to know for certain but I built this as a solution for my own family and as such have engineered the service so that, in the event of our demise, a user can split off their data into individual Amazon S3 (and yes one day Rackspace) accounts. http://VitalLock.com

  15. I hate to say it, but most of what we save is crap.

    You need a scrapbook. It can be easily carried and in most cases, will survive its owner.

    Our lives leak away to our online lives, one cut of a thousand at a time.

  16. Thanks for the mention Robert. We’ve been looking into the pragmatic realities around financially supporting a service into perpetuity, and it’s fairly fraught with challenges. The general assumption is you’d put enough money into an account that it becomes an annuity. So $5000 invested into a “future Flickr” account would generate far more in interest than the $25/year fee. However…
    * What happens if Flickr raises their rates?
    * Or they change their services?
    * Or the technology used becomes antiquated (requiring end-user intervention)?
    * Or the bank you used shuts down?
    * Or the company shuts down?

    Obviously the last one is an issue for any type of future investment, but unlike paying out for a year (or even with Legacy Locker), there’s a known, fixed amount.

    So far, our opinion is this: since you can use Legacy Locker to include some form of directive, it’s a better “sneakernet” to tell a loved one to keep paying for a service on your behalf than it is a technology/financial problem to solve…

  17. Such a poignant reminder that digital life differs from real life. I think having a systematic approach to backup and multiple destinations for content is a great idea and one that so many of us just fall short of because of that whole REAL life getting in the way. :)

  18. With Pictures and other original content which you have spent notable amount of time on, I can totally see your point. I never put photos out into any cloud that I don't already have on my home network, and backed up to my HP MediaServer (which I happen to like a lot for that purpose.)

    Blog Posts, yes it would be nice to have, in case my hosting company goes BK, so I periodically (monthly) backup my site to HD.

    Blog comments (such as this), no backup strategy, and not sure it's needed.

    Tweets, I feel no need to recover Tweets from 4 months ago any more than I have a desire to recall a sentence I uttered verbally 4 weeks ago.

    Decide what elements of your online life would cause you pain to lose.
    Develop a strategy to backup those items.
    Develop an “online will” which gives your loved ones access to your online content should you pass away.

    Best,

    @JeffreyJDavis

  19. With Pictures and other original content which you have spent notable amount of time on, I can totally see your point. I never put photos out into any cloud that I don't already have on my home network, and backed up to my HP MediaServer (which I happen to like a lot for that purpose.)

    Blog Posts, yes it would be nice to have, in case my hosting company goes BK, so I periodically (monthly) backup my site to HD.

    Blog comments (such as this), no backup strategy, and not sure it's needed.

    Tweets, I feel no need to recover Tweets from 4 months ago any more than I have a desire to recall a sentence I uttered verbally 4 weeks ago.

    Decide what elements of your online life would cause you pain to lose.
    Develop a strategy to backup those items.
    Develop an “online will” which gives your loved ones access to your online content should you pass away.

    Best,

    @JeffreyJDavis

  20. 1) Create, 2) Save 3) Retreive – big issues for each of these items.

    Rules of life memories (from my perspective)
    1) No one will cherish your memories more than you!
    2) No one will have the obsessive drive to save those memories more than you.
    3) Very few people will have the desire to retreive those memories once you are gone.

    So, you've got to find the methods that work for you to save your thoughts, writings, pictures and videos so that they live on in 30 years.

    It is actually very facinating to think of the amount of data that humans are creating each day. Now imagine trying to find a memory of one of those people in say 100 years.

    We've got a long way to go!

  21. 1) Create, 2) Save 3) Retreive – big issues for each of these items.

    Rules of life memories (from my perspective)
    1) No one will cherish your memories more than you!
    2) No one will have the obsessive drive to save those memories more than you.
    3) Very few people will have the desire to retreive those memories once you are gone.

    So, you've got to find the methods that work for you to save your thoughts, writings, pictures and videos so that they live on in 30 years.

    It is actually very facinating to think of the amount of data that humans are creating each day. Now imagine trying to find a memory of one of those people in say 100 years.

    We've got a long way to go!

  22. 1) Create, 2) Save 3) Retreive – big issues for each of these items.

    Rules of life memories (from my perspective)
    1) No one will cherish your memories more than you!
    2) No one will have the obsessive drive to save those memories more than you.
    3) Very few people will have the desire to retreive those memories once you are gone.

    So, you've got to find the methods that work for you to save your thoughts, writings, pictures and videos so that they live on in 30 years.

    It is actually very facinating to think of the amount of data that humans are creating each day. Now imagine trying to find a memory of one of those people in say 100 years.

    We've got a long way to go!

  23. Nothing in electronic form is safe for archiving, whether it's in the cloud or your PC. All electronic media degrades over time. But more importantly, file formats change. I have Powerpoint files from the 1990's that are perfectly readable, except that the current version of Powerpoint can't open them, and there are no converters. If Microsoft won't maintain backward compatibility with its own file formats, who will?

    The longest-lasting backup is, as posted, on paper. It's still not permanent without exceptional care, but lasts much longer than any electronic media.

  24. Nothing in electronic form is safe for archiving, whether it's in the cloud or your PC. All electronic media degrades over time. But more importantly, file formats change. I have Powerpoint files from the 1990's that are perfectly readable, except that the current version of Powerpoint can't open them, and there are no converters. If Microsoft won't maintain backward compatibility with its own file formats, who will?

    The longest-lasting backup is, as posted, on paper. It's still not permanent without exceptional care, but lasts much longer than any electronic media.

  25. Nothing in electronic form is safe for archiving, whether it's in the cloud or your PC. All electronic media degrades over time. But more importantly, file formats change. I have Powerpoint files from the 1990's that are perfectly readable, except that the current version of Powerpoint can't open them, and there are no converters. If Microsoft won't maintain backward compatibility with its own file formats, who will?

    The longest-lasting backup is, as posted, on paper. It's still not permanent without exceptional care, but lasts much longer than any electronic media.

  26. Nothing in electronic form is safe for archiving, whether it's in the cloud or your PC. All electronic media degrades over time. But more importantly, file formats change. I have Powerpoint files from the 1990's that are perfectly readable, except that the current version of Powerpoint can't open them, and there are no converters. If Microsoft won't maintain backward compatibility with its own file formats, who will?

    The longest-lasting backup is, as posted, on paper. It's still not permanent without exceptional care, but lasts much longer than any electronic media.

  27. Nothing in electronic form is safe for archiving, whether it's in the cloud or your PC. All electronic media degrades over time. But more importantly, file formats change. I have Powerpoint files from the 1990's that are perfectly readable, except that the current version of Powerpoint can't open them, and there are no converters. If Microsoft won't maintain backward compatibility with its own file formats, who will?

    The longest-lasting backup is, as posted, on paper. It's still not permanent without exceptional care, but lasts much longer than any electronic media.

  28. I have some suggestions, if anyone cares to listen, that should help to quick fix part of the problem, though it's not an adequate solution, I agree.

    I can reasonably say that I have triple backups (if not quadruple) of every tweet post and picture post that I have ever taken.

    Here's how it works:
    I use this service called tarpipe (just google it) that works like yahoo!pipes where you create workflows. But tarpipe, unlike yahoo!pipes, uploads your tweet and image to multiple services at once. I send one email from my iphone with my tweet and picture to a tarpipe email address, and then It redirects my tweet and picture to twitter, identi.ca, twitpic, photobucket, flickr, facebook , delicious AND *evernote* + it creates shortlinks to the picture in several url-shortener services such as bit.ly or gd.is. It's a bit complicated at first to create a customized workflow, but after that, it's automatic :)
    They also have a nice bookmarklet that helps you share links from your browser to these multiple services. And there are good screencasts and tutorials that should help you out with the workflows.

    I realize this isn't an ideal solution to the problem. But at least, it gives some extra maneuverability whenever one of these services go down (a year ago I was also back-up tweeting to jaiku and pownce). On the plus side, it backs up every single thing I share on Evernote, which happens to be a service that claims that will keep your notes forever (for whatever that's worth).

    It's a very important issue raised here. I'm also looking for better solutions. Please do share whatever you do to safely backup your online activity…

  29. you are kidding me right.. that paper is the longest lasting format… i always thought it was rock paintings :)

    btw, if you really want to preserve your stuff… save it in text format… propritary formats will never last – agree… but plain text you will always be able to read…

    didn't larry wall once say… backup's … what are they? i just put my code out there and let the world mirror it :)

  30. Robert,
    That’s where we are going with http://www.lifestreambackup.com. We currently support Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, Delicious, Gmail, Google Docs, Basecamp, Photobucket, Flickr, WordPress, Zoho, and Blogger If you want a free account I’d be glad to set you up. Or hit up Jason Falls. He’s working closely with us.

    Cheers
    Rob

  31. A few thoughts on backups.
    I self host my most important projects and I have a computer at home that pulls complete backups (database and files) via remote shell and encryption every six hours. Setup took half a day. So far I have not had the need to use any of those backups. It may seem excessive, but after reading your post I feel that it is necessary.
    I have not lost anything so far, but I admit to being a bit paranoid. I do not put important documents on just one company's servers for those reasons.

  32. This is very interesting. Seeing companies go out of business or get sold has caused me to be very hesitant to rely much on smaller startups or anything new. I have documents, photos, etc. spread out on so many different online services that it has become inefficient and time-consuming to keep track of everything. I've especially become unsettled after FriendFeed sold out to Facebook. After that news, nothing has felt very stable, except for Google. So I'm putting more and more of my “eggs” into the Google basket. I had started to use file123.com to store documents (you can also fax docs in for storage), but I stopped using it due to the uncertainty. So, basically I'm not backed up at all at this point.

  33. I also experienced the same. Some of my Flickr photos are long gone. What I did is I try to print them as much as I can and compile it all. I still have my photos when I was young and it still looks good. I was just wondering life was pretty easy back then. It was suppose to be the other way around.

  34. Robert, I disagree. You can Back up everything that is important. It comes from you so it can be done. My blog has a back up it has moved from one service to another but it is still there. Even if my current service goes down or get hacked I can put everything back up in a few hours. It is just a question of knowledge and planning. I don't back up twitter, because everything I put there is nonsense, which is what I think of twitter.

  35. Back up everything you can, of course. For things like photos, I keep everything locally as well as on Flickr, and those get backed up, on-site and off-site (via JungleDisk).

    For my WordPress blogs, I wrote a quick and dirty shell script to back them up to my BSD box at home, those then also get shipped off-site: http://www.jigcode.com/2009/06/11/quick-and-dir

    As for things like Twitter comments… comments I post on blogs… Google docs… etc., I'm still looking for a good solution! The nice thing about these is that, at the very least, I just don't consider them critical if they get lost.

  36. Great post Robert. I unfortunately had a good friend pass away last month. He was 23 and a computer science student… so naturally he had a *huge* online presence. He had various servers in colos, flickr, twitter, facebook, linkedin, amazon s3, a few google accounts, google apps and more. He was also a security hobbyist so everything was locked down. The only access his parents had was through his iPhone, which they used to access his email and notify all of his friends of his situation.

    Backups are an interesting issue, especially when they deal with someone's passing. However I must bring up one slightly contradictory thing about this article. You say to stick with big companies and then recommend Legacy Locker. While I see the logic – it's not like Google runs a similar service – but how do we know that this startup will be around long?

  37. This link may be relevant here : http://www.siliconglen.com/news/2007/05/why-its

    I've also got a back up of every digital photo I've ever taken on backblaze. They are sorted by which camera took them and the camera put the photos in month based folders and the photos are tagged with individual dates so that does help somewhat in identifying them, but you are right – I got a photo album 120 years old and it's impossible to figure out who anyone is in it.

  38. Trying to keep life, whether online or off line, from leaking away is futile. Retaining every electronic message or piece of paper you touch takes so much time that you have no other life. Lifestreaming is not much better. It implies a disjointed collection with little connection other than the calendar.

    Think biography — biographies do not include every detail. No one wants every detail of your tens or hundreds of thousands of photos, tweets, etc. There are a very few services, that will probably not survive, that let you organize your electronic materials as stories. Stories are what people want to know. Maybe even one's children are going to want to know the stories. But any organization other than stories will fail to inspire enough interest to be worth the effort to backup and store, etc.

    Life is many stories if we would just put the 'stuff' together rightly.

  39. Don't worry about it. It happens.
    There's lots of stuff from my (pre-computer age) youth that's gone, like hardcopy photos. That's how it is. Focus on the important things you need now. Older stuff will hop along, much of it anyway.

  40. This is a must read for anyone regularily using the web and a reminder to all of us that “think” we're immune to failure and blessed with genes to live for ever. Thanks Rob !

  41. The guys above have a point in that most people probably shouldn't keep EVERYTHING. I use Facebook and Twitter the same way I use my telephone–”Where are you?”, “I'm here!” and “I need a sofa” aren't going to do much for posterity.

    However, if you're a blogger, an artist, or someone else whose online presense is a huge part of your life and work, these things do become necessary. This post also made me think of some of my online “penpals” who I've never met: if something happened to me, how would they know when I'm the only one with the passwords to Twitter and my IM account?

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  44. If you're overwhelmed by data then you probably look from the wrong perspective. That's an algorythmics principle.

    Direct derivative of your first point is that – No one will be interested in your memories in 100y.

    Tough but true.

  45. If you're overwhelmed by data then you probably look from the wrong perspective. That's an algorythmics principle.

    Direct derivative of your first point is that – No one will be interested in your memories in 100y.

    Tough but true.