Work hosted online can disappear instantly — don’t let it happen to you

On Thursday, journalists, salespersons, web developers, and freelancers at DNAinfo and Gothamist watched decades of work disappear from the internet after Joe Ricketts, the billionaire founder who owned the sites, laid off employees and shut down the websites without warning a week after staffers voted to unionize. Writers Guild of America East, the union which represents the staffers, said that it is pursuing “potential areas of recourse.”

Although a DNAinfo official told the New York Times that the missing work will eventually be archived online, that timeline would not be a satisfying answer to employees hoping to use the stories on the websites to find new jobs they suddenly need. If you can’t show an interviewer a previous work sample, how can they evaluate you fairly?

It’s a brutal reminder of the ephemeral nature of working online. Beyond people who work in the media industry, the case study of what happened to DNAinfo and Gothamist employees should strike urgency to anyone who has ever published work online. And if you’ve ever posted to social media platform or uploaded your draft to a server owned by a tech giant, that includes you.

As Google recently reminded us, our work is not private and the final version of what we create can be erased. On Tuesday, people reported that their Google Docs locked them out of their documents for violating the company’s terms of service. Google later said that it was a “glitch” and that the company would restore the documents. But by then damage had been done and time had been lost.

“We should all be keenly aware that any and all content we create, handle or amend inside of these cloud services is being evaluated and scrubbed,” cloud expert Dana Gardner said about the incident.

How to archive work in our digital age

The internet can be made to forget, so you need to make backups so at least you won’t, too. That starts with saving your work to servers you own.

1) Save work as PDFs

As the case study of the locked Google documents showed, Google is not a reliable server for sensitive information. PDFs are better than Microsoft Word documents for archiving professional work since Word documents can keep embarrassing metadata information like when you created work and how long you worked on it. Whether or not it’s fair, interviewers can make subconscious judgments based on these metadata clues.

To do this easily with work on the web, click “File” on your browser to any site you want to save. Then click “Print.” Choose the “open PDF in preview” option. Double check to see if the PDF is showing up how you want it to, then save it by date and title for your memories. Congratulations, you’ve archived your work! It doesn’t hurt to make backups of your backups on USB drives so works don’t exist in only one place or on only one computer.

2) Try recovering work on digital archiving tools

But if it’s too late to save and your work has disappeared, all hope is not lost. Digital archive tools like Wayback Machine and Webrecorder preserve decades of histories of websites and entire homepages. You can even submit website pages to be uploaded to Wayback Machine’s web archives for future generations to remember. But you need to remember the URL of the page you want to preserve, when your piece was published (and under what title) for its search engines to be most helpful.

If you cannot find your original URL to your site, you can use AMP and Google caches as this thread on Twitter — addressed to the beleagured crew at DNAinfo and Gothamist — explains.

There’s no perfect solution, so be diligent

As these convoluted workarounds show, digital archives are still an emerging field of work with imperfect tools.

Until digital archives can comprehensively catalogue works, we will have to be our own archivists — filing, saving, and uploading our documents and memories to backup drives more concrete than unstable clouds and malleable websites.