Twitter's last minute Twitpic save and the fragility of online data
The strange tale of Twitpic's closure is finally over.
According to Twitpic CEO Noah Everett, Twitter has acquired the moribund startup's domain name and photo archives to make sure all the images shared via the service will remain available, allowing a large chunk of Twitter's history to survive after Twitpic's (delayed) demise.
It's good to know that so many images won't disappear because the company that hosted them was unable to sell itself off before now. But I can't help but wonder how the news might affect other companies that host massive amounts of content but are unable to turn it into a successful business before their funding finally runs out.
Twitpic didn't need to sell out to preserve its users' photos. The company could've just allowed the Archive Team, a group which seeks to preserve the Web in all its digital glory, to download the photos instead of blocking its efforts. But it didn't, and even though one acquisition fell through -- which lends Twitpic's shutdown the strangeness mentioned above -- it has now used the threat of deleting this bit of Web history to convince Twitter to buy out the photo archive.
What's to stop another company from pulling a similar stunt in the future? Having prevented third party archivists from preserving its content, Twitpic could have used the threat of its removal as a bargaining chip in acquisition talks. The reality is that much of our digital history is in the hands of companies that could disappear tomorrow. If archivists are blocked as they were here, can we expect a company like Twitter to keep those artifacts alive every time one of these services is threatened? And should we even want that to happen?
Allowing a few large companies to take ownership of so much of our digital histories is more than a little worrisome. It poses the same risk that allowing startups with no clear business model to steward such information does, because companies will eventually tire of holding the information or shut down. (Just ask Nokia how quickly a decades-old company can have its ass kicked after a few bad decisions.)
Imagine if there were only a few libraries anywhere in the world. Anything that happens to them would be disastrous for our culture in much the same way that losing so much of our digital histories would be. Information is information no matter what form it takes, and the idea that a lot of it could be wiped out when a business inevitably disappears is frightening.
So while Twitter has saved Twitpic's images for now, it's also raised another question: what will we do if these large tech companies gather all this information and disappear themselves, taking all the data with them like a digital library of Alexandria, not burned in a literal fire but buried beneath a sea of consumer apathy?
[illustration by Brad Jonas]