ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Eviction, or the Coming Datapocalypse —

A terrible thing happened recently. You might have missed it.

AOL Hometown, which itself was actually a combination of a bunch of previously acquired websites, shut down. It shut down on October 31 of this year. If you try to go to a site that used to be hosted there, you are forwarded to a weblog entry by “The AOL Hometown Team”, that says this, in total:

Hometown Has Been Shutdown
Posted on Nov 6th 2008 1:30PM by Kelly Wilson
Dear AOL Hometown user,
We’re sorry to inform you that as of Oct. 31, 2008, AOL® Hometown was shut down permanently. We sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.

Sincerely, The AOL Hometown Team

And that, my friends, is it.

There was a weblog posting on this same site, informally, on August 4th, letting people know AOL Hometown was being shut down, and maybe you should make an effort to get it. Officially, though, notification was sent out (how? In what way?) on September 30th, giving people essentially 4 weeks to figure out how to get their data off the servers, find a new place to send the data, get that arranged, and then do the transfer.

Of course, many people may not have been checking their e-mail. Some people might have had un-working e-mail and not been notified. Some people might have not understood how to make things run.

Go ahead and read these comments. They’re heartbreaking.

2.  Is there not a way to obtain the blogs anymore. I was unable to transfer them before oct 31. Please let me know if there is anyway to get them. Thank you Sandra

5.  My question is like those above. Is there anyway still to retrieve my hournals and homepages? I tried before the deadline but nothing happened. These are my memories. Things I wanted to remember about my kids. And when I tried to access them before the deadline I was unable to. Otherwise I would have printed it all out. Please help.

12. WHERE IS THE HOME PAGE IT TOOK MONTHS FOR ME TO BILL. I DID NOT RECEIVE ANY NOTICE VIA THE MAIL OR E-MAIL. PLEASE HELP ME FIND MY WEB PAGE SO I CAN COPY IT AND MOVE IT SOME WHERE ELSE.

17. What happened to my web page on my husband, Bob Champine, that took me many years to put together on his career and which meant a lot to me and to the aviation community. I noticed with 9.0 I lost the left margin and the picture of him exiting the X-1. I need to restore it to the internet as it is history. Please tell me what to do. I will be glad to retype it, I just don’t want it lost to the world. I need help. Gloria Champine

It’s all fine and good, those readers who sneer and say “you get what you pay for” and “ha ha, losers”. But the fact is, these people were brought online and given a place for themselves. Like a turkey drawn with a child’s hand or a collection of snow globes collected from a life well-lived, these sites were hand-made, done by real people, with no agenda or business plan or knowledge, exactly, of how everything under the webservers worked. They were paying for their accounts, make no mistake – this was often provided to them as a tool combined with their AOL accounts. Some were absorbed from other companies as AOL purchased them. Some of these websites had existed for a decade.

Some people didn’t back things up. Some had moved on. The data, however, stayed where it was, for years on end, and if someone happened to not be online for 4 weeks and be prepared on short notice to retrieve their stuff, then they were well and truly fucked.

Browsing the weblog that represents where these tens of thousands of websites used to go, you end up facing Kelly Wilson. Kelly Wilson is like the fucking Grim Reaper of websites. If you browse this collection of her postings, you can see she’s primarily doing the same thing: “These sites will be shut down. You better get your shit off because that’s it, it’s gone. You have 3 weeks. GO.”  One of these sites being shut down is Ficlets. Read this weblog entry from the creator of Ficlets and try not to have an emotional reaction.

If you’re going to start composing something at me with a salad of sneering and a dash of cynicism, just fuck off right now. We’re the failures here. We failed them.

Our little technorati, our people who cry for open source and beg us for money to Fight For Electronic Freedom and make their rounds at all the right cocktail parties at tech shows.. where the hell are they now? We’re talking about terabytes, terabytes of data, of hundreds of thousands of man-hours of work, crafted by people, an anthropological bonanza and a critical part of online history, wiped out because someone had to show that they were cutting costs this quarter.

It’s an eviction; a mass eviction that happened under our noses and we let it happen.

I’ve been evicted before – I was kicked out of a boarding house I used to live in between 1992 and 1997. Eviction laws were in place and I was sent notification after notification, shoved into my mailbox, left under my door, explaining my rights and how to appeal and how much time I had. It was done during the summer months, because winter would be a hardship. It was handled coldly, nastily, but it was done according to law, and luckily, I had a place to move onto. (They were closing up the building to turn it into professional space, which it is to this day.)

When we evict people from their webpages, fuck all is required.

And before you sneer at AOL people, these people who trusted AOL: how about your Flickr? Your Facebook? Whatever the hot new wig-wag that you’re dumping hours into without thinking about it? What, you’re paying for something? Check this recent event out, paying subscriber: you have shit. Because of a cascade of EULA and Best Practices, and most importantly, a complete disregard for the importance of this data, we’re going to let it happen again. And again. And again.

Think your site is untouchable? Think again, pokey.

What am I saying here?

I’m saying that, like a real eviction, there should be practices in place. When you open your doors to hosting user content, you should have rules in action that, unless it’s a complete and total fire sale and you have no hope of even staying open that long, then you should be required, yes by law, assholes, to make the data available to customers for an extended period of time.

There’s business opportunity here, for warehouses of data that can take in, say, AOL Hometown, and hold it for a year or longer, allowing people to acquire their data over the course of that year. With legislation or even the kind of peer pressure you all used to dupe people into Creative Commons, you could have this be the norm from this point forward.

If you tell people they can upload their content, you should have a clear and distinct way for them to retrieve their content. People do it ad-hoc as they can, but the abilities of most people, the people without an engineering degree or years of experience, to get back what they put up is minimal. It’s not that important. We should make it important.

How many more times will we allow this?

How long before someone takes a fucking stand?

Update: This page got an awful lot of attention, and so I decided a clarification was in order.


Categorised as: housecleaning

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76 Comments

  1. Angie says:

    Wow. o_O Is it just me, or are there a lot of comments here by people who have no clue who Jason is, and apparently didn’t even read his post very carefully. [bemused eyeroll]

    Angie

  2. [...] Eviction, or the Coming Datapocalypse [...]

  3. ross says:

    everybody loves to shit on peoples’ beds

  4. John Cowan says:

    I have to agree that anti-eviction laws don’t make sense in this domain, but I *emphatically* disagree with the tone, and much of the content, of the “Fuck you, you loser(s)” postings.

    I believe that Flavio (#25), Ed Pima (#26), and Anonymous (#35) are unfortunately right on the money, and that the rational response to such regulation would be to turn off free services altogether except for the largest and most deep-pocketed companies, which would make the concentration of cloud data all the worse and any failure all the less survivable. For myself, I buy backup from Amazon S3, and if I could afford it, I’d be using permanent second-level backup from Iron Mountain or a similar company. (Someone needs to retail the service of serious world-class data protection, as in “tapes in a box underneath the mountain”, so that individuals can use it.)

    Robert Plante (#33): This is not about taking responsibility for your actions, it’s about being compelled to assume responsibility for other people’s actions. If I lost my house to flooding and complained, you’d tell me I was whining and should have moved to high ground; for that matter, if I lost my house to bombing and complained, you’d probably tell me I should have had the common sense to be born in another country.

    As for Kyle (#43), who claims to believe that laws never solve anything: I personally invite him to move to Somalia at once, where there are none. Land is cheap, cell service is cheap, there are no taxes to pay for anything, and round-the-clock security guards for him and his family are just a cost of doing business. Of course, it pays to remember that most security breaches are inside jobs….

  5. [...] Eviction, or the Coming Datapocalypse (Desalojo, o el venidero fin de tus archivos) [...]

  6. Giacomo says:

    The answer is a webservice that, on receiving a ping, will go out and dump your data to a version-controlled system. Something like $1 or $2 per ping will be charged, and the big guys like AOL can offer it as a premium service. Seems obvious to me, but nobody has done it yet. We keep meddling backup procedures from the early 90s, when storage was expensive and version control was a black art. I guess it might be because most of the ‘net is still made up of 20- and 30-something who don’t really know how to plan for the future.

  7. Chris Barts says:

    There isn’t always a planned eviction: JournalSpace was wiped out by accident, and none of the morons who ran it had actually made real backups. RAID isn’t the same as backups for precisely this reason: JournalSpace was wiped by accident, not random drive failure, and the accident was dutifully propagated across all of the volumes in the RAID. The result is that restoration is (apparently) impossible.

  8. Mutiny says:

    I don’t see any difference between this and a hard drive failure. Do I feel bad for the people it happened to? Absolutely. Do I really really feel bad for the people who lack the technical acumen to back up their own data? Most definitely. Could a proverbial ounce of prevention be worth, in this case, more than an ounce of digital cure? Yes.

  9. Wintermute says:

    I want to address a couple of issues that have been raised in comments:

    First, for the “you get what you pay for” crowd, any FOSS advocate will tell you that there’s a difference between “free” and “free.” Did AOL gain a benefit from providing this service at the cost of the end user? I would guess yes. Therefore, the user “paid” something for the service, whether it was “free” with their AOL subscription, a premium add-on to their subscription, or there was a link back to AOL Hometown on all pages that it hosted. I’m not familiar enough with the service to say which it may have been, but an educated guess is that over the past decade, that has probably changed with the times. Regardless, all are valid forms of “payment” for the service.

    Second, how many of us who preach “backup, backup, backup” to our friends and family have also sat down and shown them how, exactly, to do said backups?

    Also, once data resides on someone else’s servers, people have a tendency to view the responsibility for that data as belonging to that someone else. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, only observing that this is how many people think. (I worked at an ISP/hosting provider, and I spent way too much time recovering from other people’s mistakes for them.)

    Finally, it’s easy to say “use a provider that you know isn’t going anywhere.” That’s sorta beside the point, but to address it anyhow… In 1998, who would have predicted that this service was going anywhere? AOL, however badly hated they were, wasn’t going anywhere. Just like we see Google as being around forever now, we saw AOL has being around forever then. It’s not the fault of someone who trusted them 10 years ago that they turned off the service now. And really, both bandwidth and storage are supposedly dirt cheap now. What would it hurt AOL to retain the data in a way that would allow the owners to retrieve it but not be browsable on the web? Or even, since they had worked out something with Google to provide a transfer script to Blogger.com, how hard would it have been to do said transfer and provide redirects for the URLs?

  10. westernworld says:

    aol are a bunch of jerks to be sure, but if people don’t backup anything they’re loath to lose locally they got to learn that lesson.

    it’s the same self people that never listen, insist on their cornfed ways and then wine when the shit hits the fan.

    the web is not for the stupid or the naive, nor those unwiling to learn and keep up-to-date.

  11. Wintermute says:

    @westernworld – Part of the point of my comment was this: Have you done anything to educate the “stupid or naive” other than to tell them “backup, backup, backup.” Telling someone to backup and actually empowering them by teaching them how are two entirely separate things.

  12. [...] Eviction, or the Coming Datapocalypse (Jason Scott) [...]

  13. [...] Died took me to a really interesting rant by Jason Scott about the closing of AOL Hometown. (And there’s a follow-up rant here.) Jason’s point is that, [...]

  14. [...] in Uncategorized at 16:32 0 by gillsmoke I’ve been thinking ever since I read this in 43Folders Clips . I’ve been thinking about data, memory, information vs knowledge, and a [...]

  15. [...] read a post likening shutting down websites to eviction (see also the follow-up here). I’m saying that, like a real eviction, there should be practices [...]

  16. [...] No great archive in the sky – Backup. (note to self: backup). [...]

  17. Oyunlar says:

    What the hell will all our puny thoughts and lives matter then?

  18. [...] the plug with less than a month’s notice. Jason Scott from textfiles.com did a good job of describing the carnage and also suggesting a solution that may help prevent future [...]

  19. [...] Scott, in “Eviction, or the Coming Datapocalypse” (Dec 2008), discussed the AOL Hometown shutdown (with 4 weeks notice), and the grief it [...]

  20. [...] at least isn’t as bad as when AOL Hometown got the axe, because now at least with GeoCities, people have some warning outside of a cold, terse Yahoo! [...]

  21. [...] Eviction, or the Coming Datapocalypse, by Jason Scott (Dec. 2008) http://ascii.textfiles.com/archives/1617 Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan http://www.robinsloan.com/mr-penumbra/ The [...]

  22. [...] in the close future, and trying their best to archive the data. Started in response to Scott’s call to arms when AOL Hometown was shut down, the Archive Team is a clever, capable crew, one that Scott claims [...]