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Yahoo Groups enters the digital dark ages

Published 1 November 2019


Yahoo Groups may have had over 150 million users at its peak. Each one of these people were living, loving and sharing stories about their favourite hobbies. Much like ancient Roman graffiti, the emails posted to Yahoo Groups reflected what was actually worth discussing and gossiping about. And with its closure, there is the inevitable loss of cultural perspective and historical relevance that may never be seen again.

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We are living in the digital dark ages

The end of an era or the beginning of an error?

This is the question we have been so rudely left to ponder as the announcement goes out that Yahoo Groups is now officially shutting down the majority of its website functions. They are apparently deleting all it's archived work, message boards, discussions and content along with it. Yahoo used to be the Internet leader and a portal to the unchartered world of the Internet. It is now struggling to stay relevant with the general user base against the onslaught of the current goliaths of Facebook, Google, and Twitter. It is worth remembering that the Yahoo web portal was many people's first gateway to the Internet. Yahoo Groups was one of the technologies that kept the portal fresh and interesting every time a person dialled up the Internet.

This technology is the very foundation our society is built off of and the value of online discussion, cooperation and collaboration is immeasurable. So while these threads and discussion boards may not be so widely used now, the biggest and most troubling fact is that Yahoo intends to erase the history and data stored there. The Yahoo Groups archive is an extremely vital parts of internet history. We can't understand why it needs to be deleted? Mass storage space is ridiculously cheap and the cost of storage would be minor compared to the cultural heritage stored. These are the terrifying signs that we are now slowly being dragged kicking and screaming into our very own self-inflicted digital dark age.

My Yahoo Groups

We feel the outrage and hurt involved in destruction of your work. Every post, thought, comment, reply that people made has value. These posts are a verb in the conversation of our culture. Yet, interestingly, no one has been able to put together a definitive list of what Yahoo Groups actually existed. Yahoo has given existing users the capability to download your posts and photos but we think it is just stuff without the context of the conversation or the times that they were posted in. My Yahoo Groups is disappearing just as the sand escapes from your fingers as you play at the beach.

Digital content should be easy and cheap but this is a misconception. Database license fees need to be managed, collections need to be maintained, ongoing legislative changes mean that content needs to be manicured to keep it accessible.

Are Internet discussion boards important?

It begs the question; How important can a bunch of internet discussion boards be? Well, we hate to break it to you, but you would be severely underestimating the value that most of these message and discussion boards have. Consider the time they were active and the massive impact some if not most of these boards have since had. The value that these groups provide is a snapshot on educational, scientific, socio-economic, political & environmental discourse. Possible for the first time ever, people from across the world have been communicating ideas and solving problems. The first 18-20 years of this social thread may go.

In our opinion, it's an incredibly valuable resource for researchers who want to understand more. We need to evaluate how these online communities relate with another and the results that came about as result of these online relationships.

1800 list of Yahoo Groups

Now, to give a bit more context into this, the digital dark age is what scholars describe, as a possible future where it will be difficult or even impossible to translate historical documents. Digital media may simply rendered as obsolete or unreadable, be it through outdated formatting or in this case, the permanent deletion of historical and archived data. Was the cost of maintaining the list of Group accounts, or maybe the cost of transferring the database into a new format too much? Can't we just call a 1800 list of Yahoo Groups?

While we are generating huge amounts of information on the internet almost every day, the fear remains that over time we will bequeath only a fraction of it to the future. For example, even on the basis of social media, our data or information stored on Facebook or Twitter, will only last as long as these company's business models allow. If their business model changes or they run into cashflow problems, then they could turn off their servers. Flick the switch to that outdated data warehouse and bye-bye Instagram memories, twitter moments or Facebook friendship milestones. So, while this may sound like an exaggerated depiction of the situation, the fact of the matter is, this sole act by Yahoo is the very definition of the term.

The digital equivalent of opening a black hole that is essentially sucking in such an important part of the internet's history is occurring. There is no regard for the consequences that this presents for the future.

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Commentary reflecting our time

You see, the Internet is pretty much a valuable resource for contemporary historical research comprised of descriptions of recent events generated through distinct perspectives. When put together, these archived collections of web documents, data, discussions, communications and content form a comprehensive picture of our cultural, commercial, scientific and social history. Think of it as how we have physical evidence like statues, pyramids, or hieroglyphs; Clear physical proof of how Roman, Egyptian or Mayan culture thrived. In our case though, with all our information, culture and knowledge is now living online. If, or in our opinion when, that data starts to become unreadable or erased, future generations won't have any way of actually understanding how our culture functioned. We need to tell our future self what really happened. We can't leave it to chance that revisionist historians reflect on the partial facts.

Information such as the data stored in Yahoo's servers continues to be erased. We may be a witness, and for some a party, to the historical gap of our current times. Yahoo Groups was launched in January 2001 at the height of the Dot-com bubble. It is one of the relatively few services that survived the following bust. The removal of user data from what was created over the next 18 years creates a data black hole across a period where the Internet was just kicking off and beginning its quintessential immersion and advancement of modern society. This historical period could just be a significant turning point in human history.

Archiving Yahoo Groups

You may start to comprehend how serious the problem is? In fact, it is because all this information tends to be ephemeral that there has been a rise of web archiving initiatives in the past couple of years. It is a necessary and vital cause, as regardless of their importance or not, all information has the potential of becoming historically relevant. It just depends on the context and event that it is being researched. Initiatives like the British Library's UK Web Archive, Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, or the National Library of Australia's Trove aim to acquire, preserve and provide access to historical information published online. Unfortunately, most of the message boards and groups on Yahoo were privately managed. It is now proving to be a very difficult task for archivists to record and save this information before the platform's deletion.

Charting the Rise of Yahoo Group Bot Nets

The start if the century was a more innocent time. Conversations in newsgroups was normally between humans. People would use pseudonyms to live an online personality that they would not even consider in their normal physical lives. Over the next 20 years, artificial intelligence became the new buzzword and billions of dollars have gone into replacing humans. Is it unreasonable to assume that conversation bots, such as Steve Wozniak's Mitsuku conversational AI. It might be possible to go back through the archives and identify the rise of artificial intelligence. Is it even possible that many of the messages and accounts used in the Yahoo Groups functionality were just AI conversation bots talking to each other?

What is actually frightening about all this is, one of the basis on which the Internet was born from, was to achieve information preservation in a much more convenient and accessible form. Uploading our information, our memories, thoughts, ideas to the internet, is about the closest thing to a global knowledge repository. At the time of the upload we assume that our little part of this knowledge will remain intact and in whole into the foreseeable future. It's a terrifying prospect that all of that information, can simply be erased off a single corporation's whim. Could this be a middle-management decision much like deleting early BBC tape recordings.

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