At the end of this month, on April 2nd, Google will shut down what they called the “consumer version” of Google Plus, their fourth major foray into building a Social Network. The deadline had been the end of the year but was moved up due to a number of cited factors, including data breaches.
When a seismic event like this happens in the online world, especially involving one of the “Tech Giants”, there’s a lot of e-Ink spilled about the money involved, the comparison of markets and post-mortems of performance. However, only a sliver of that coverage tends to mention the social and cultural costs involved.
In fact, to hear it often stated, also-ran social networks are almost like the embarrassing outfit you wore in school or a bad hair day – something we all experienced, but don’t want to talk about.
However, recording and preserving The Web has been our mission for 20 years, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned – it’s that it’s never as simple as “old is terrible, new is good”. In fact, some of the oldest materials of the Web, in all their lower-resolution, lacking-fidelity forms, are also our most emotionally connected and meaningful, due to the passage of time.
On Google+, and before them, on Geocities, FortuneCity, and many others, there’s always been a question who exactly the services are for. Are they meant to be general purpose shared albums of notes, photos and birthday announcements? Or are they places of assembly, where like-minded folks or families gather to communicate and debate, argue and reconcile? The answer, it seems, can often be whatever advertisers want, but in fact it often ends up being a little bit of everything to everyone, and the longer a given service or network exists, the more drift of purpose it will experience.
The biggest difference between “then” and “now” in the eyeblink of Web History is primarily storage and speed. Geocities, at its peak, may not have exceeded 10 or 15 terabytes of data at any one time. Google Plus, however, probably exceeds Petabytes. Choosing to “back up” or make a Wayback-machine compatible snapshot of these places turns into a choice of how much of the Internet Archive’s budget should go towards holding them. Ideally, the answer would always be “all of it”. But sites are getting larger, the shutdown time frames smaller. It’s a constant concern.
Also, when spending this much time and effort to mirror a site, another consideration is how “unique” the material is on it. Were these sites used to share already-available media we could get at other services? Or were special conversations and creations living on the closing site that we will never see again?
Throughout the history of our online times, experts and keepers of special knowledge will share what they know – be it on mailing lists, image boards, ‘groups’ or ‘clubs’. For many, from 2011 to this shutdown year, Google Plus worked to make it easy to be one of those destinations. Time will tell how much might be lost, and how much efforts to mirror it have saved.