The ever-brilliant Real Life magazine today features a story by Kristen Martin about the ephemerality of digital narratives when third parties are entrusted with their preservation. This is a story about the experience of accruing personal documentation in a space that is not taking serious care of it:
That an external force — one I had wrongly assumed would forever preserve what I’d entrusted it with — had dismantled that narrative I had created for myself of my teenage life felt more unsettling than the hard drive crashes or misplaced envelopes of photos I had weathered before. Those losses, whether digital or analog, felt more under my control; with Webshots, a business decision destroyed my image anthology without my even knowing it.
The described outrage by disappointed users is a common sight following “site deaths” – a manifestation of the failure by designers to embed preservation of personal content into a product’s concept from the beginning; after all, the value proposition of a space to keep and share photographs is far too often just a means to build a business, not to truly satisfy a human need.
Following some philosophic considerations about the role of photographs absolutely worth reading (I particularly enjoyed the thoughts around photographs from times before our own existence), Martin concludes:
If, as [Susan] Sontag wrote, photography allows us to relate to the world in a way that “feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power,” the loss of these archives feels like a loss of power over my own life narrative. Those narratives are mortal, too.
So, instead of providing control over their life narrative as they promise, services like Webshots take that control away from people.
This is yet another factor that I do not see represented enough in contemporary discourse of User Experience (UX). While consumer technology is designed to be ever more seamlessly integrated with “the cloud”, little thought is put into empowering the user to understand the long-term value of the media they create (and the business-, not user-, driven focus of these online services) and to take action for their preservation, in order to keep them available to themselves of their descendants. I strongly believe that extending the concept of “user experience” to that of a “human experience” (HuX?) would help make technology more meaningful to people also in the long term.