In Defense of Ephemerality

A couple of weeks ago, while reading through some weblogs, I came across the following quote in Don Park’s weblog:

“Blogs will fade away within two years. What we know now as blogs will not be recognized by web users of tommorrow, not as blogs, but as websites. Website technologies and blogging technologies will converge into one.”

When I first read this, I had a fairly clear-cut reaction to the statement – it went something like “here’s hoping you’re completely, totally, and absolutely wrong, Don”. The reason for this reaction has to do with today’s topic – ephemerality and education.
Much of the worrying taking place on the Internet today has to do with issues of ephemerality and its prevention – what do you do about newspaper archives that become pay-only after a while? How do you react when someone objects to their content being archived on Google or the Wayback Machine? How do you prevent permalinks on weblogs from breaking? In all of these discussions, there seems to be an unspoken assumption that permanence=good, ephemerality=bad. Now, it is absolutely true that in many of the discussions I’ve mentioned other important issues are at stake – for instance, some of the groups trying to dearchive their content from Google are doing so as a way of covering up evidence about some rather unsavory activities. That being said, though, the preceding dichotomous equation always seems to be taken as a given. This is very unfortunate, since I believe that ephemerality is not only not always negative, but is in fact essential to many aspects of life that are now mediated by the Internet, not least of all education.
Consider the following scenario: you are at the neighborhood watering hole, and you’ve run into someone who shares your interest in early blues music. You have some fairly unorthodox ideas about the genealogy of the field, but when you mention them to your newfound friend, they react with enthusiasm, and make their collection of recordings available to you for your research. Now, replay the preceding scenario, but this time have your newfound friend pull out a tape recorder as soon as you start to talk, and announce enthusiastically that every word you say will be archived for the ages to come. How likely are you now to share that unorthodox idea that could potentially make you look foolish? How likely is it now that that research partnership could come into existence? Somehow, ephemerality is starting to look much more like a virtue than a vice here…
Anyone who has ever worked in education knows that a similar dynamic operates in the context of a successful classroom. For an instructor to stimulate thoughtful and creative discussions, they have to provide an environment that encourages risk taking on the part of the students. Risk taking does not occur in environments where every single act is permanent, indelible, registered for the ages. Rather, there needs to exist a range of possibilities that can accommodate everything from the truly ephemeral (comments in a brainstorming session) to the permanent (a final project) and everything in between, with the possibility that elements can increase or decrease in ephemerality (for instance, allowing a set of comments from a brainstorming session to be selectively archived so that they can form the basis for a project).
Where do weblogs come into all of this? The richness of opportunity in face-to-face interaction in the classroom deserves no less of a wealth of options in the electronic tools now available. To cite just three examples, chat rooms belong to the realm of the highly ephemeral, traditional architected web pages are perceived as highly nonephemeral, and weblogs are somewhere in between. You’ll notice that I used the term “perceived as” in the previous sentence – this is actually an important point. While, as Don correctly points out, weblogs are just another form of web page, technologically distinct only because of the way they are currently created, they are perceived at this point in time as quite distinct from traditional websites. A traditional website is expected to grow and change, but retain a core of stability in its content; again, at this point in time, weblogs have much weaker expectations in this regard. If Don’s vision comes to pass (which, speaking from a technological viewpoint, is not unlikely), and the concept of a weblog as a distinct entity becomes merged with that of the traditional website, we will be the poorer for it.
It is beginning to sound like I’m in favor of incorporating ephemerality as an explicit design constraint in the networked tools arena. Which I am, in a sense. The issue is not just one of incorporating an “archive after time x, and delete after time y” feature in weblog software, but rather incorporating tokens of intent within the tools that are clearly and visibly communicated to users. As with all other issues regarding tools for social interaction, I do not believe blunt interdictions on forms of use are the way to go; rather, thought needs to be given to the issue by software designers so that social norms and tool features can coevolve. There are generally no laws barring you from bringing a tape recorder to a public gathering place and recording everyone’s conversations – but in most societies it would be viewed as unspeakably rude, and could very quickly make you a social pariah.
My research and experience in using networked tools for education points to the issue of ephemerality as one of the most crucial ones in this area of pedagogical design – and, unfortunately, one of the most neglected ones. If enough people start discussing this topic and using it as an explicit component of how they plan their work, I’m hopeful that this situation can be remedied.
Postscript: on Wednesday, August 6, at 4:30pm I’ll be presenting a talk at the MERLOT International Conference in Vancouver – some of the material I’ll be discussing there relates directly to the topic of ephemerality.