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On 25 January 2011, a popular uprising began in Egypt that  led to the overthrow of the country’s brutal president and to the first truly free elections. One of the defining features of this uprising and of others in the Arab Spring was the way people used social media to organise protests and to spread news.

Several websites have since begun the task of curating this content, which is an important record of events and how they unfolded. That led Hany SalahEldeen and Michael Nelson at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, to take a deeper look at the material to see how much the shared  were still live. 

What they found has serious implications. SalahEldeen and Nelson say a significant proportion of the websites that this social media points to has disappeared. And the same pattern occurs for other culturally significant events, such as the the H1N1 virus outbreak, Michael Jackson’s death and the Syrian uprising. 

In other words, our history, as recorded by social media, is slowly leaking away.

Their method is straightforward. SalahEldeen and Nelson looked for tweets on six culturally significant events that occurred between June 2009 and March 2012. They then filtered the URLs these tweets pointed to and checked to see whether the content was still available on the web, either in its original form or in an archived form.

They found that the older the social media, the more likely its content was to be missing. In fact, they found an almost linear relationship between time and the percentage lost. 

The numbers are startling. They say that 11 per cent of the social media content had disappeared within a year and 27 per cent within 2 years. Beyond that, SalahEldeen and Nelson say the world loses 0.02 per cent of its culturally significant social media material every day.

That’s a sobering thought. Social media plays an important role in the spread of information around the world. Of course, opinions differ over the importance of its role in the Arab Spring. But few would deny that this form of communication defines our time. 

And now it’s vanishing.

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1209.3026: How Many Resources Shared on Social Media Have Been Lost?

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