The Curious Case of the Disappearing Internet

The internet is limitless and ever-expanding. So why delete stuff off it for no good reason?
Fiber optic bokeh
(UmbertoPublic Domain)

One of the internet’s great promises was that it would free content from physical formats (e.g., books, CDs, DVDs) that were expensive, wasteful, took up too much space, and were only useful if they were within reach. Once it was online, content would become accessible from anywhere, at any time, forever, so long as you had an internet connection. But now that we all have internet connections, it’s strange whenever content disappears — when that aforementioned promise fades a little bit — and for no good reason whatsoever.

(I know many, myself included, chafe at using an amorphous term like “content” to describe books, music, films, and other works of art and culture. But it is a handy catchall, which is why I’m using it here.)

Of course, there’s still lots of content available online, far more than you’d ever be able to consume in your lifetime, in fact. According to Siteefy, there are over 50 billion web pages spread across 1.1 billion websites, with 252,000 new websites added every single day. In other words, the internet is, for all intents and purposes, limitless and ever-expanding.

Except when it’s not.

CNet — one of the oldest tech news websites — recently announced that they were deleting thousands of older articles from their archives. Not because the articles were necessarily bad or filled with now-irrelevant information, but rather, to improve CNet’s Google rankings. Which is odd because Google specifically recommends against doing that; there’s no guarantee that deleting old content will improve a site’s search rankings. Instead, it’s better to find ways to improve and revive older content to ensure its continued relevance, which further verifies the site’s authority and value.

But even if the articles are no longer relevant, that’s still no reason to delete them (as per Google’s advice). We’ve grown too comfortable with the idea of websites being ephemeral, but they do have a history — especially a site like CNet that’s been around since 1995. Deleting articles willy-nilly breaks that history, leading to link rot. What’s more, a site as old as CNet is itself a record of the tech industry. Given how fast-moving and quickly changing that industry has been, that sort of record has intrinsic historical value.

Now, I highly doubt that it cost CNet anything to have those older articles floating around on the server. But money can certainly be a reason for deleting content — which is actually worse than trying to appease the dark gods of SEO.

Earlier this year, I wrote about Disney+‘s deletion of the movie Crater less than two months after its release, a fate similar to that of other Disney+ titles including The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Willow TV series. But it’s not like Disney+ was running out of server space and needed to make some room for the new seasons of Ahsoka and Loki. Using a slew of corpo-speak, Disney execs claimed the deletions were a necessary part of a “maturation process” that involved “reviewing the content on our (direct-to-consumer) services to align with the strategic changes in our approach to content curation.”

Look past the word salad, though, and the reason becomes quite clear: saving money. For executives and shareholders, anyway. Not only does deleting Crater and other titles give Disney a massive tax write-off, it also means they don’t need to pay any residuals to the cast and crew who made those titles.

And Disney isn’t alone in doing this. Since last August, Max (formerly HBO Max) has deleted nearly 90 titles to get tax write-offs and skimp on residuals. (Meanwhile, CEO David Zaslav of Warner Bros. Discovery, which owns Max, has been paid nearly $500 million over the last five years, while Iger has been paid nearly $200 million for making these hard decisions.)

Back in June, while advocating for physical media, I wrote that “[w]e all know, deep down, that studios are money-making machines focused primarily on protecting their intellectual property and increasing shareholder value, not faithful stewards of art and culture.” Something similar, it seems, can now be said of CNet.

In the grand scheme of things, deleting old tech articles may not seem like a big deal. But what frustrates me is that there’s no real good reason for it, just as there’s no good reason for Disney deleting titles to save money. Not when they’re shelling out stupid amounts of money to executives, anyway. And if it turns out that CNet is clearing up space in their archives just to make room for more (error-filled) AI-generated content, then that’s simply adding insult to injury.

Perhaps I’m taking a loftier position concerning internet content than most. But the internet matters; what we publish on it matters. As much as we might think otherwise, all of those webpages are part of our historical and cultural record, which is why sites like The Internet Archive and OoCities are doing the Lord’s work. And when webpages are removed — not because they’re harmful, spurious, or misleading, but rather, for a nonsensical reason like attempting to appease some algorithm — it goes against the internet’s promise and potential.

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