Sudden Site Shutdowns And The Perils Of Living Our Lives Online

The other day, all of my memories were erased. Well, that's how you'd describe it in the marketing parlance of Memolane, an excellent social history timeline service that shut down late last week. Just a few weeks prior, the always-useful crime stats and community updates from Everyblock stopped flowing into my Google Reader. What the hell, Internet?

As the Web matures, the possibility that our favorite services might suddenly and unexpectedly shut down always looms in the background. It may be unlikely, but it's something to bear in mind as we spend more of digital lives in the cloud: This data isn't ours. We're handing it to some company that's storing it on their servers. If we're really lucky, they'll let us click an "export" button at some point and take it with us.

This isn't an entirely new phenomenon. Remember LaLa? The online music service was nearing Rdio-caliber levels of awesomeness before Apple bought it and shut it down. Since Larry Page took over as CEO, Google has been routinely cleaning house and closing less popular services while making the remaining ones more Google Plus-y.

Then you have the thankfully rare scenario that some  unsuspecting Megaupload users were caught in last year when the feds shut down Kim Dotcom's cyberlocker. More recently, Yahoo acquired Pinterest clone Snip.it and subsequently slammed the doors shut. To be fair, that site was nowhere near as popular as Delicious, the social bookmarking service that narrowly escaped the swing of Yahoo's downsizing hatchet in 2011.

Expect More Startup Roadkill

Don't be surprised if this sort of thing happens more frequently as the Web gets older. Startups will either fail or get acquired, and the giants will keep fine-tuning their products as their business priorities shift.

In many cases, few will mourn these shutdowns. Nobody wept when the curtain rang down on Google Wave (although some of us are still bitter about the loss of Google Reader's sharing button).

But in some instances – see Everyblock – services with a substantial community can disappear overnight. When this sort of thing happens, it hopefully won't always be as thoughtlessly bungled as NBC's shutdown of Everyblock was. But happen it will.  

Memolane, We Hardly Knew Ye

Memolane was not a hugely popular service, but I loved it. The premise was simple: You plugged in your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare and SoundCloud accounts (among many others) and it built a nice-looking timeline of your social media updates and content, going all the way back to whenever you first started using Facebook or Flickr. Mine went back seven years, so it was pretty interesting to scroll through.

You could also plug in any RSS feed, so I kept an archive of my ReadWrite stories alongside my photos, check-ins, tweets and other social content. If you live online like I do, your Memolane timeline would be pretty thoroughly detailed. 

My grandmother died in 1997. It was just a few months before Larry Page and Sergey Brin registered the domain google.com. If I wanted to find out more about my grandmother's life, I'd have to dig into old boxes or ask my mother. I can't Google her. My grandchildren, on the other hand, will have as richly detailed a history as you can possibly imagine, right down to individual haircuts (thanks, Foursquare). Kids graduating high school this May will have an even more thorough digital biography awaiting future generations. 

Tools like Memolane allow us to start aggregating all the content and updates we're sprinkling across the Web, pulling them into a thorough and chronological timeline. Nobody cared about my Memolane but me. And even I didn't look at it regularly. It was just interesting to go back every once and awhile and reminisce about things that were happening in my life four years ago.

I could imagine my grandchildren one day scrolling through my Memolane timeline, wondering what life was like before Internet-connected neural implants and laser-shooting eyeballs. 

Memolane felt very personal. So when it shut down, it was a little weird. LaLa, Everyblock and other public services were one thing, but this was my history. I don't even get an export button? Apparently not. 

Fortunately, all Memolane was doing was aggregating content from other sources, all of which are still live. So I can at least partially recreate the experience on another service like TimeHop or Rememble. Easy enough. 

Still, these recent shutdowns offer yet another sobering reminder of something we already knew: It's not our Web, even when it feels like it is. So have fun and share as much as you please. But try not to get too attached.

Lead photo by Chris Gilson