The Human and the Digital   /   Spring 2018   /    Thematic: The Human and the Digital

Tending the Digital Commons

A Small Ethics toward the Future

Alan Jacobs

Facebook is unlikely to shut down tomorrow; nor is Twitter, or Instagram, or any other major social network. But they could. And it would be a good exercise to reflect on the fact that, should any or all of them disappear, no user would have any legal or practical recourse. I started thinking about this situation a few years ago when Tumblr—a platform devoted to a highly streamlined form of blogging, with an emphasis on easy reposting from other accounts—was bought by Yahoo. I was a heavy user of Tumblr at the time, having made thousands of posts, and given the propensity of large tech companies to buy smaller ones and then shut them down, I wondered what would become of my posts if Yahoo decided that Tumblr wasn’t worth the cost of maintaining it. I found that I was troubled by the possibility to a degree I hadn’t anticipated. It would be hyperbolic (not to say comical) to describe my Tumblr as a work of art, but I had put a lot of thought into what went on it, and sometimes I enjoyed looking through the sequence of posts, noticing how I had woven certain themes into that sequence, or feeling pleasure at having found interesting and unusual images. I felt a surge of proprietary affection—and anxiety.

Many personal computers have installed on them a small command-line tool called wget, which allows you to download webpages, or even whole websites, to your machine. I immediately downloaded the whole of my Tumblr to keep it safe—although if Tumblr did end up being shut down, I wasn’t sure how I would get all those posts back online. But that was a problem I could reserve for another day. In the meantime, I decided that I needed to talk with my students.

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