Thursday, September 9, 2010

Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part II: keeping your blog alive

Last week I wrote about the vastness of the information universe and how unlikely it is that most, let alone all of it, will last.

To recap from last week: Artist, poet, and longtime friend Leah Korican commented on a recent post with this suggestion:
"Here's something I wondered about that you might write about...the longevity of these blog posts and other internet publishing. In other words is it important that they are preserved? Do you print them out and save them? What is their lifespan? Will they still be around in 10 years or 50? I have printed email and saved it occasionally but wonder if all the digital stuff will vanish."

This week I'll take a look at a smaller problem Leah asked about: the longevity of blog posts.

Getting Practical: Preserving Your Own Blog Posts

So leaving aside the grandiose questions for a moment, let's suppose you post to one or more blogs and don't want to lose what you write. A reasonable and reasonably common desire? Okay, then. There are a few problems to think about and address:

  1. If your current blog platform goes away, how can you migrate your stuff to a new blog platform? I'll write mainly about Blogger and Wordpress in this post.
  2. How can you preserve blog posts in more general formats, to have a reusable record (digital or otherwise) of the work you did creating them?
  3. Who's going to care after you're dead?

Technology folderol aside, if you're blogging you know that the effort and the value in the exercise is in the posts you write, including the research that undergirds your posts; the synthesis, often in the form of hyperlinks, that points to sources of your research; and your brilliantly crafted prose.

That you rely on, say, Goggle's Blogger, or Wordpress.com, or TypePad as the venue by which to publish your work is really secondary to the effort you put into blogging. If you have downloaded Wordpress or Movable Type software to run yourself, as part of your own website, these are infrastructural efforts you have taken on in order to publish your blogging work, but are not the work itself.

To protect your blogging investment -- as opposed to your blog publishing investment -- you'll want to be able to easily save the blogs you create in a format that (1) won't disappear; and (2) can survive disruptions your to publishing platform (from platform failure to your change of heart about which you wish to use)

You don't want to lose your hard work, and you want to be able to keep it available on the internet.

1. Migrating between blogging platforms

Whatever platform you use to publish your blog, a key consideration is whether and how you can get your stuff -- the blogs you've researched, written, linked, tagged, illustrated, and decorated -- and upon which your bazillions of faithful readers have extensively commented -- off the original publishing platform and onto another, if you choose to or need to.

I'm going to talk about how this works with Goggle's Blogger or Wordpress.com because those are two widely used and popular platforms, and I know more about them than I know about others. The same ideas apply to any other platform, and you'll want to look into ability to export your blogs -- and what you can do with the export files once you've got them on your hot little disk -- no matter what platform you use. Ideally, you'll know something about how this works before you make a decision to invest a lot of blogging time on a platform ... because you're going to have to live with the consequences of your choice. Try before your buy.

The short story for Blogger and Wordpress is this:

  • Either of these platforms permits export of your blogs in a fairly complete way, including the text, links, tags, embedded images, and comments
  • Wordpress software can import a blog exported from Blogger, directly and without special tweaking or processing
  • It's possible to migrate to Blogger from Wordpress, but this isn't as easy as the other way around

To export or import a Blogger blog to/from "Blogger export file" format, follow the instructions on the Blogger help site. The export file is a structured data document in XML format, but that's probably not important to you. The point is that you can take data exported in this format and either (a) create (or re-create) a Blogger blog with it; or (b) create a Wordpress blog with it. (Presumably you can create a Movable Type or TypePad blog from a Blogger export file too, but I haven't tried this so caveat emptor.)

To export your blog from Wordpress.com, follow instructions on the Wordpress Export support page. With the export file -- also an XML file in what Wordpress calls "WordPress eXtended RSS or WXR" -- you can create another Wordpress blog, either on Wordpress.com or on an installation of Wordpress software that you manage. If you want to migrate your blog content from a Wordpress platform to Blogger, you can try out the WordPress2Blogger web service as explained in this article ... I haven't tried this, so I can't say whether or how well it works.

Wordpress.com claims to make it simple to import a blog you have created on Blogger, LiveJournal, Movable Type, Typepad, Posterous, Vox, and Yahoo! 360 -- in theory, you "Simply log into your WordPress.com blog dashboard, then go to Tools -> Import, choose your previous platform and follow the instructions presented." I can tell you from personal experience that import to Wordpress.com from a Blogger export file is a snap. Works like a charm, just as advertised.

Remember that just because you exported posts from your blog once doesn't mean later blog posts are saved! Export as often as you need to in order to maintain a safe, portable, reasonably current copy of your work. Back up your back up files, storing them someplace safe; or, better yet, store them in several someplaces!


2. Keeping stable copies safe

Moving between blogging platforms may not be enough to satisfy. You might also want to save your work in some usable, accessible, shareable format that's independent of whether or not blogging platforms exist. Maybe you'll want to do something else with your magnificent material next year, or ten or twenty years into the future. Technologies die, as I wrote last week.

There are a number of strategies you can take to preserve your blog's content.

One idea is to create your blogs using an independent tool, saving the created content independent of your blog's publishing platform, and copying it to the platform when you're ready to publish. For example, you could create your blog using a word processing program, or with Google Docs, then do the old copy-paste. If you use a word processing program on your own machine, you know how to save files, and your backups can include digital copies stored on multiple devices or disks and stored in multiple safe places; and/or printed copies, also stored in multiple safe places. More copies and safer places leads to better likelihood that you won't lose your stuff. If you use Google Docs, you can save copies of the cloud-stored files (on Google's servers) to your own disks, DVDs, flash drives, etc., in a variety of formats, such as HTML, OpenOffice, PDF, RTF, Text, or Word. Of these, HTML, text, and RTF are probably the safest (longest lasting, most independent of particular software tools). Plain text doesn't let you keep any formatting.

An ongoing way to export your blog is to e-mail it to yourself. Then you can use the same methods you use to assure that your e-mail is backed up (you do back up your e-mail, right?) to back up your blog's content. Blogger allows you, as the blog owner, to choose a small number of addresses to which each post will be e-mailed as they are published; to do this, go to your blog's Settings | Email & Mobile page and type in the e-mail address(es) to which you want the posts sent (as I write this post, Blogger's help page on this is more-or-less correct, but the illustration is a little bit out of date). Wordpress.com enables Blog Subscriptions that permit people (including yourself) to receive e-mail copies of blogs as they are published.

(What if your e-mail itself is "in the cloud" -- i.e., if you use Gmail or Microsoft Live? You might consider setting up a local e-mail client that downloads your remotely-stored e-mail to your local computer. I use Thunderbird myself, which is an open-source e-mail client from the Mozilla Foundation, the folks who make Firefox. You'll have to open/use the client to effect the downloads. Make sure you're downloading full e-mails, and test that it's working as expected by disconnecting your machine from the internet and making sure your mail is still available. You'll want to back up the local e-mail files, of course.)

And there's always paper. Paper has a better track record than digital media for long-term preservation (in large part because we humans invented paper a long time ago, digital media not so much). The downside? It's more tedious to reuse and revise paper copies of your work. You have to scan it into digital format, losing content and/or format in the conversion; or retype from scratch; or -- imagine! -- transcribe it with ancient twentieth-century instruments, like ball point pens. Still, that's easier than resurrecting something you wrote years before from wetware (a.k.a. your natural memory), at least for most of us.

Whatever way you save your blog posts, backup matters. For your digital copies -- whether in blog export format, e-mail, word processing formats, etc. -- be sure you take the same kinds of precautions with the data that you would with any other file(s) you hope to keep beyond the life of your current computer's hardware. Back it up. Save it in a safe place, on a device that you will be able to read into the future. When technology changes, it's your responsibility to move data to a format or device that the new technology can read. If you delay this chore, it can become onerous or impossible, as my experience converting a pile of near-obsolete 5.25" floppy diskettes showed me earlier this year. There are no magical solutions to this problem ... letting a "cloud" provider safeguard your data works until it doesn't; and that nifty floppy / CD / DVD / Zip disk / external hard disk / flash drive will become obsolete in two or five or ten or fifteen years. Bank on it.


3. But ... will my work be immortal?

You can do your best to preserve the things you research, write, and link -- and the comments people make about them -- but that's no guarantee of immortality, or even continued existence for a few human generations. Publishing your work in a format someone else (like a librarian) is likely to archive, and having it widely read is your best bet, because it spreads the task of saving your stuff to a broader set of people who care -- a situation many aspire to, but few achieve.

Even so...

Libraries fail. Unsold books are pulped every day. Boxes saved in the attic might last a few years or fifty or a hundred before whoever has custody of them loses interest or loses track.

With respect to archiving blogs -- as Leah put it, "is it important that they are preserved?" -- I suppose the best way to answer that question is with another: important to whom?

I ended Part I of this series with a nod to George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. How about a little T.S. Eliot today, from the opening of the second of his Four Quartets, "East Coker":
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.









(This post is the second in a two-part series. The first, Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part I: the big picture, was published on 2 September 2010.)


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Breaking technology: Google's Blogger outage
Moving one's life to the cloud
Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part I: the big picture

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