The Museum Vanishes

Entrusting our culture to a commodified Web is risky.

April 10, 2014

So, this week we heard that just about everything online that we thought was secure was actually vulnerable and we have to change our passwords, but not until platforms we’re using have fixed their SSL problem because if we change our password before the fix, the new password can be intercepted. We’ve had this gaping hole in our security for a couple of years. I’m not even sure how many things I signed up for and forgot about in that period of time. So far as I know, the NSA didn’t put this hole in the OpenSSL software library, but they have built small broken places into Internet standards that they can use to bypass privacy.

Basically – it’s not too safe out there.

Apart from the security issues that come with life online, we’re insecure in other ways, too.  When we entrust our stuff to the cloud, we sometimes forget that we are at the mercy of the platform and its owners (including whatever new owners might come along). Those small-print terms of service that nobody reads make it clear that what’s yours is theirs, and even if they don’t assert ownership of content you upload, they can make it disappear, make it harder to find or use, or mess up communities that use the platform for sharing and community-building.

One example is the way that Flickr’s owner, Yahoo, snazzed up their interface and broke it. In particular, they made it really hard for us to use the biggest collection of legally reusable images ever assembled. Many of these images were uploaded to Flickr precisely because it was where people went to find reusable images. But now the Creative Commons attribution is hard to find and downloading is made really tricky by the new “improved” infinite-scrolling giant image design. Hip, but broken. In Doctorow’s words, “the current iteration - either through negligence or deliberate intent - terribly undermines the Flickr Commons and does not do justice to the trust and generosity of its many institutional and individual contributors.”  There is a fix for this available at Github but I’m not tech-smart enough  to know what to do with the code.

One of the cultural institutions that contributed to the Flickr Commons is the Brooklyn Museum, and people who saw their images at Flickr contributed, too – adding tags, annotating images, spending time sharing what they knew and enriching the pool of images. Once a platform becomes the major place people go for something, it’s where they contribute. Libraries learned that adding social features to their catalogs is one thing; getting people to use them is another. Amazon and Goodreads already scooped up the public attention, and even big catalogs like Worldcat have trouble getting a critical mass of contributors. For images, that attention space was owned by Flickr, and there was a lot of work contributed there by a major cultural institution and by individuals who wanted to share their knowledge, all living on a platform that decided to make some changes that broke it, for at least some important purposes.

That’s not really why the Brooklyn Museum decided to pull out of Flickr, though. They simply were seeing a decline in visitors. (History Pin was also not drawing a big enough audience, so they pulled out of that, too.) They moved images to the Wikimedia Commons. I’m all for that – it’s a good place to put images that can be reused and it’s not as likely as Yahoo to break things carelessly. The museum was able to migrate some of the user-added content from Flickr, according to a comment at Inkdroid, where I first read about this issue. But some of it would be lost if someone hadn’t scraped and saved it.

This all raises a fascinating question: when we entrust cultural materials to Web platforms that seem open and inexpensive and hugely popular, we are also entrusting our futures to them. And all of them are fragile. Wikimedia has to regularly ask for donations. It does a great job of managing a really important public resource on a small budget, but it has issues with governance and succession, like any organization. Platforms like Flickr aren’t really about public sharing. They’re about growth and collection of personal data and collecting user-created content and curation that will result in advertising dollars and marketing intelligence. They are free as in beer and kittens, but not always free as in speech. They might not intentionally make it hard to find and use Creative Commons images. They probably just thought they could make the design prettier while getting customers to spend more time on the site. Which I do, unfortunately, because it has become a huge pain to download images that were put there to be shared.

Another victim of the careless ownership of a platform is a site I knew nothing about until the plug was pulled – Television Without Pity (tagline: “spare the snark, spoil the network”). It was a place where fans talked about TV. Useless, right? An example of the modern wasteland that is social media? No. According to Caitlin Kelly at the New Yorker's culture desk, it was a hotbed of smart and impassioned critique of an important part of our culture, and some argue it made TV a lot better. Too bad NBC Universal bought it and killed it. At least, after protests, the archives of the site aren’t being tossed in the digital dumpster. For now.  

These are issues that cultural institutions need to think about. Libraries already messed up when they outsourced knowledge to publishers and vendors. We are contingent libraries now, paying billions annually for content that goes away when we can’t make the rent. Institutions that use social platforms to reach audiences or crowdsource knowledge are at the mercy of the platform (and, as Dorothea Salo points out, put their users at the mercy of the platform’s owners, too).  

Thank goodness for the few places online which remain intentionally parts in the public sphere, digital outposts of the cultural commons, as the Internet Archive and Digital Public Library of America strive to be. We may always be vulnerable to bugs like Heartbleed and malicious exploits by criminals and our government, but we can put some of our sharing energies into platforms that believe in curation for the common good.  

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