Deleting Yahoo Answers is a disastrous idea. For history’s sake, we need to preserve our digital record.

FILE PHOTO: A photo illustration shows a Yahoo logo on a smartphone in front of a displayed cyber code and keyboard on December 15, 2016. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration
Yahoo Answers is shutting down on May 4.

  • Yahoo Answers is shutting down and deleting its content by June 30.
  • When Big Tech deletes websites, humanity loses valuable knowledge and collective memory.
  • We need to preserve our collective digital memory for future generations.
  • Raphael Tsavkko Garcia is a Brazilian journalist and holds a PhD in Human Rights from the University of Deusto.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Starting today, April 20, users can no longer post questions or answers to Yahoo Answers. On May 4, the site will shut down. By June 30, all of its content will be deleted. That’s 16 years of content that generated knowledge, memes and, of course, misinformation. Verizon, owner of the website, cited falling popularity and changes in the company’s focus as the main reasons for the end of the service. Users will be able to download their own data, but all the rest will vanish on June 30.

Just like with the end of Orkut or GeoCities, Yahoo Answers will delete the content generated by millions of users, including unique knowledge that feeds search engines. More than a debate about fake news, this is a debate about memory and the need to save the content and knowledge produced by humanity – even if that content doesn’t seem worthy or relevant now.

Many Twitter users compared the end of Yahoo Answers to the burning of the Library of Alexandria. That might seem exaggerated, but if you look at the sheer number of websites and services that have been deactivated in past years and had their content deleted, the comparison starts making sense.

We are talking about an archive of millions of questions, answers, comments, and interactions that could help researchers understand trends and social/cultural patterns from over a decade of content. Once it’s deleted, a precious archive will be lost.

When other services, such as Fotolog, Google+, or Friendster, were shut down, huge amounts of data were lost. I’ve never used Fotolog, but it was a huge hit in Brazil when I was a teenager, and I know of friends and acquaintances who have lost pictures they never stored anywhere else. Photos of friends and relatives and both happy and sad moments are now gone forever.

Lost in time?

Websites disappear all the time, and with them, years of accumulated knowledge and material that, at the very least, serve as the basis for future ethnographic and anthropological studies that might help us understand our own history. As a researcher myself, I have had a hard time digging up content from long-gone pages, conversations in forgotten groups, and material that was never backed up. I have had to rely on interviews with people who often couldn’t remember details because their archives were all online and had vanished.

If someone forgot to pay a hosting service, or a particular site went bankrupt, or the terms of use changed and old content was deleted without notice, huge caches of information disappear.

Sometimes we like to think that, unlike previous societies, we are now able to record everything. We think future generations will have full access to anything they’d like to know about the current society. But it’s not that simple.

Setting aside the issue of bias in the information preserved, we can’t even begin the conversation about dealing with bias and misinformation in historical data if we can’t access files from even just ten years ago. There is a growing issue of dated, inaccessible file formats, and storage devices such as USBs and CDs are becoming obsolete. But above all, society as a whole is not good at keeping records and backing up our memory.

Despite being riddled by far-right content, Yahoo Answers has created its own internal culture, with many of its answers becoming famous memes; its demise will be an immense loss to the entire internet culture. We can understand social transformations and have an overview of what was trending at a particular moment in time through the countless memes born of silly, funny, and often stupid questions and answers – but now all of that will be lost.

We don’t care about preserving history

We have a propensity to not care about our history and collective memory. Take Geocities for example. When Yahoo decided to shut it down in 2009, there were at least 38 million pages hosted on the site, with an archive dating back to 1994 when the internet was still taking its first steps. The amount of knowledge lost with its shutdown is immeasurable.

The end of services like Geocities and Yahoo Answers is indeed equivalent to burning thousands or millions of books. Today it may not seem like a blog of a teenager’s diary – or dumb questions posed to strangers – is something of value, but in 50, 100, or even 500 years, this content can serve as the basis for important historiographic studies. These artifacts can help future generations understand today’s society and how people of this moment think. It is through small pieces of information, whether personal diaries or historical narratives, that the memory of an era is built or reconstructed.

The danger of losing websites, services, and social networks is that we are losing knowledge. It doesn’t matter if many answers hosted by Yahoo are not exactly correct (or even if many are just jokes), there’s tons of data stored that gives us marvelous insight into people’s minds. Even the mistakes are an interesting way to understand how people think – the quality of education systems, class differences, cultural backgrounds, etc.

To delete such an archive for whatever reason – be it for change of focus, lack of popularity or, like many speculate, because people are abusing it to spread misinformation – is evidence that large tech companies aren’t interested in keeping our history and records safe.

A better alternative

The first step to save this archive is to exert collective pressure over Yahoo to not delete the content, but rather memorialize it. Rendering a full archive to static HTML and keeping it online would be a minor cost to a company such as Verizon, Yahoo’s owner.

But the issue extends beyond Yahoo Answers. We must think in big initiatives such as Archive.org, a nonprofit working to build a digital library of the internet. Projects like this should be expanded and better funded to keep large archives such as Yahoo Answers alive. We cannot trust Big Tech to keep our collective memory alive.

We need to put pressure on large companies to not simply delete content, but also, we need to foster a movement of activists, users, universities and other institutions to create services capable of maintaining internet archives.

We might not miss the content immediately, but years down the road, we’ll all benefit from saving these large archives of knowledge.

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