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Op-Ed: Yahoo! Answers is shutting down and taking a record of my teenage self with it

Richard Marchal, shown at a local library in December 2006, was a top-rated answerer on Yahoo! Answers.
Richard Marchal, a semi-retired chemist shown at a local library in December 2006, was a top-rated answerer on Yahoo! Answers, a website that launched in 2005.

(Tom Gannam/Associated Press)

Yahoo! Answers will shut down on Tuesday, taking with it innumerable replies to the people who went there searching for answers.

Answers was the company’s open Q-and-A platform, like Quora or Reddit but for the internet of 2005. Elegies for the site have recalled it as a mid-aughts venue for bizarre questions and even less helpful responses. But it was also a space of earnest information sharing, and for me a place I went when the future looked uncertain.

As a high school student in the Milwaukee suburbs in the mid-2000s, I spent many of my days imagining what life would be once I could pack up and leave. At first, I was a lurker on posts that discussed others’ chances of getting into college, but eventually, I asked questions myself; mostly I needed reassurance from someone who wasn’t my high school counselor.

When the site announced last month that it was shutting down, I went in search of my old questions. After a bit of digging, I found my decade-old posts about college admissions languishing on some deeply hidden thread — with some thoughtful and optimistic responses attached.

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Like most things more than a year old on the internet, seeing those posts again was embarrassing. My need for validation! My eager angst! My coddled privilege! But they were also poignant reminders of my desperate anticipation of a new life about to start.

Yahoo! Answers’ closure, as it happens, is more than a personal event for me. It’s also relevant to my doctoral research into how online platforms shut down and what that means for our collective memory when they do.

In many ways, what is put on these platforms today represents a significant part of our cultural heritage, however banal it may seem in the present. What happens with platform data in the long run will determine what historians and users themselves can look back on — messages from friends, pictures of your children, political discussions. The afterlife of this data when a platform closes, however, is largely decided by the holding company, not the users who invested their time in the platform.

Over the last year, I’ve interviewed many former employees of social media companies that closed, trying to understand how these organizations make decisions about what to do with aging user data. Typically, once user engagement drops off and the remnants are mined for final insights about users, the content becomes rapidly disposable. Proper and ethical archiving is rarely a priority.

When I heard that Yahoo! Answers was closing and wiping its data off the internet, I wasn’t surprised. The history of online platforms is marked by regular closure: Vine and Google+, Friendster and Friends Reunited, GeoCities and Orkut. Even websites that are technically still accessible have lost or deleted huge swaths of user data. In 2019, for instance, the largely abandoned MySpace announced that it had lost an estimated 50 million songs and a huge amount of user content uploaded over a dozen years in a botched server migration.

Some dying sites have been partially archived by nonprofit organizations like the Internet Archive or volunteer groups like the Archive Team. Still, other sites have disappeared largely into the ether. Indeed, platforms are more difficult to archive than the public web, as they are often locked behind password-protected accounts, have technical configurations that are more difficult to save, or are held by larger companies that remain skittish about having their content preserved by another entity.

The aftermath of these sites demonstrates what the late historian Roy Rosenzweig called the problem of “scarcity or abundance.” Historians of the future, he noted, will have to parse a glut of records to make sense of the past: thousands of emails, text threads, digital documents. Yet the digital past is also marked by the threat of scarcity: Data can be deleted in an instant. This is certainly true for online platforms, which can delete millions of user accounts and years of user investment by shutting off a few servers. Hard drive failure, file format obsolescence, and software updates can cause data loss, too. Paper, by contrast, can survive millennia.

Even in death, online platforms need to be accountable to their users and the communities they once fostered on their sites. Much of the public debate has been about the right to be forgotten; the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, for example, mandates that companies remove personal data if requested by a user. But accountability also means the right to be remembered.

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Platform operators should provide lead times beyond a few weeks so that both users and archivists can grab content from snapshots of the closing site. More importantly, platforms need to work with responsible archival organizations throughout their shutdown. This might be in collaboration with nonprofits like the Internet Archive and organizations such as Documenting the Now that have focused on equity in their collecting efforts. Platforms should also offer user-friendly ways to experience downloaded content, not just an unwieldy file dump.

When I found my posts on Yahoo! Answers, I took screenshots. I’m grateful I had forewarning. But companies can do better. Platforms have a responsibility to a future that will one day need to know the story of its past.

Frances Corry is a PhD student at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.


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