Link rot is a technical way of saying that when websites disappear from the internet, links to those websites don’t disappear. The phenomenon of clicking a link and finding a 404 error or a completely disappeared website is frustrating. However, it’s particularly frustrating in light of the reality that some things seem to never disappear from the Internet–if words, images or video are scandalous, unfortunate, compromising, or even in a minor way controversial, you can bet on them living on the internet “forever.”
There are technical and social reasons behind the paradox that some things you want to keep forever disappear and some things you want to disappear don’t. I’ve covered angles of this problem in episodes of my tech ethics podcast (2.02, 2.10, 3.05, and others), but I’ve never set it out in text.
The technical aspects of why good things disappear are multifold, but I’ll point out two aspects of one problem: one reason that good things fade is because inventors of the internet largely set up the internet as a self-sponsored activity. Financially speaking, you have to pay for the hosting or put your content on someone else’s hosting if you want to put something on the internet. If you or the hosting party don’t or can’t continue paying the hosting, there is not a “internet backstop” that automatically takes over and saves it from loss. (The Internet Archive fills this role somewhat, but they cannot capture everything and don’t try to–although they capture an astonishing amount. It costs them a lot of money to do this, and they will happily accept your donations.)
Outside of the financial reasons, your technical rights as a creator allow you to mess up links. You can take down your content off the Internet if you get tired of having that content out there, for whatever reason. If you do that, it’s gone off the internet, and links to it are rotted. Even if you just your content somewhere else or restructure the links in your site, you can do this in such a way that all the links on the internet to your content are broken (i.e. if you don’t set up redirects). Thus: there’s no overarching rules about what you must do with your own content, nor is there any internet backstop that catches everything. The internet is self-sponsored, and thus fragile.
Some technical aspects of why bad things live on forever are screenshots and rehosting. Anyone can take a picture of anything on the web and rehost it somewhere else. Even if it is deleted, it can be reconstituted elsewhere. For instance, I have my students write about social media crises in the crisis communication section of the social media course that I teach. Many of their papers contain a screenshot of a “deleted” tweet. “Deleted” tweets live on through search engines that make that deleted-but-rehosted content easily findable and related to a person’s name, and then my students write papers about the “deleted” tweet.”
Social aspects of why good things go are simply the reasons people quit things in general: people get tired of doing a job or a hobby, people run out of money to do a side project or hobby, people run out of time to handle continued maintenance of things on the internet, people have conflicts on their time that don’t allow them to take care of things before hosts change/close, etc. Nothing noxious here, just simple life stuff–it’s hard to keep up with stuff, even with the best of intentions.
Social aspects of why bad things stay are more multifarious. For instance, journalists find bad things to be newsworthy. (I am a journalist, so I mean no harm against journalists here: this as a function of the job, without positive or negative valence.) Outside of journalists, bad actors use bad things on the internet for blackmail or revenge. People enjoy titillating schadenfreude. Data brokers collect data and sell it (regardless of content, they sell it–there is a negative valence there). People like seeing justice be done to bad actors. Professors assign students to go learn about deleted tweets to learn how to not do unethical things on the internet. There are lots of social reasons bad things stay.
Another social aspect of why good things disappear is more complicated: we appreciate the good in other people’s work that sometimes people themselves cannot see. (See this lovely story about the comedian Carl Reiner, who died recently.) Things that I posted years ago on my music blog still get all sorts of hits, even though I haven’t thought about the posts themselves in years. So if I someday got rid of my back catalog for some reason, people would be sad that things I no longer cared about but still mattered to them are gone. Content takes on its own life when it leaves the mind of the creator, and its value is often higher to the audience than the author. (Especially if the audience is small but dedicated; the creator may feel they are having no mark / it takes too much work to keep this up, while the small-but-dedicated audience may think “no! please keep on! this is wonderful!”) Human nature is also that creators have limits, and thus to have to make tough choices about what to prioritize and what to not. We would hope that people would archive their work when it’s over, but this is not always possible.
All of that is true, explanatory, and yet deeply insufficient: I haven’t touched on institutional / professional aspects of content management at all. That’s a post for another day. Suffice to say: the reasons the internet never forgets are many, and the reasons it forgets are many, and they are not the same reasons.