Opinion

alex beam

Don’t speak, memory

The Internet forgets easily, and forgets a lot.
AP/file 2013
The Internet forgets easily, and forgets a lot.

A thin-skinned Croatian concert pianist has asked the Washington Post to delete a disparaging review from its website, invoking Europe’s newly legislated “right to be forgotten” by the all-knowing, all-preserving Internet.

Everyone fears that his or her negative review, or the offhand, callous tweet, or your ill-advised karaoke performance of “She’s Got It” at a Bulgarian Black Sea resort — who knew Zlatny Pyastsy had Wi-Fi? — will endure forever on some faraway server farm. So your embarrassment of bits will outlive the cockroach and ensure your humiliation up to, and even past the inevitable, world-ending Rapture.

The facts are quite different. By some estimates, over 80 percent of Web content disappears in a year. The Internet forgets easily, and forgets a lot. Moreover, it doesn’t much care what it forgets.

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For example:

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  What I believe to be the world’s first Internet correction has disappeared from view. I know. It was my mistake.

In 1996, I wrote an article for the online magazine Slate, claiming that the 48th parallel divides the United and Canada. Wrong — it’s the 49th parallel. So change it, I suggested, that’s the beauty of online publishing. But the World’s Greatest Editor, Michael Kinsley, said no, we’ll publish an Internet correction instead. A completely unnecessary gesture, in my opinion. I think online corrections are idiotic, when you can simply alter the text.

Here’s the punch line. The story exists, but the correction has disappeared. The error stands. Who says the Internet is forever?

  About 10 years ago, I bumped into the writer Joyce Maynard in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. She wasn’t especially cheery; “You’re a big Google problem for me,” she said, explaining that a not-so-nice article (“I Was a Teenager for the New York Times”) I wrote about her in 1998 often hit the first screen of a Google search for her name.

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But not any more. Joyce has moved on to other triumphs, and Google has effectively forgotten my article. Here’s to forgetting! Google has likewise deep-sixed a couple of my search problems, including an amusing and on-point attack titled “Alex Beam Offers the Worst the Media Have to Offer.”

How does this happen?

“The reasons are complex, various, and mysterious,” Georgetown University professor Meg Leta Ambrose explained to me in an e-mail. “Finances, disinterest, and revamping sites are pretty consistent culprits, but natural disasters and poor maintenance can also wipe out sites and pages easily.”

In a nutshell: The National Security Agency may have enough money to archive every bit of information it has collected in its long and shadowy history, but no one else does. When a newspaper or magazine goes out of business, its information, and its web links, are often consigned to oblivion. When your cousin stops paying for web hosting, her precious Internet posts cease to exist. Sic transit glorious cat videos.

In his 2007 book, “The Future of Reputation,” Daniel Solove described the case of the “dog poop girl,” a young Korean commuter who let her dog defecate in a subway car, and suffered viral shaming as a result. “The Internet is indeed a cruel historian,” Solove wrote.

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But Ambrose argues that, with all its crazy lacunae and missing links (“linkrot”), the Web is more like “a lazy historian.”

“The disappearance of a correction is particularly interesting,” she told me. “At some point someone took the time to increase the value of that story by changing the error, but then no one took the time to take care of that boost leaving us with an error in the history ‘books.’”

Not for the first time, I stand uncorrected.

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.