How to Keep Your Digital Memories Safe

Do you place a high value on your digital content? Almost everyone is creating things with computers, and some of them are doing so with little regard for the value of what they are creating. The majority of people are aware of its current worth, but they have little idea of what it could mean to them in the future. They are either unaware of or do not believe that it could all be destroyed tomorrow. However, hard drives fail on a regular basis, and the online services into which people pour their time are shut down with alarming regularity, erasing the work of millions of people in the process. Now is the time to back up your digital memories before it’s too late.

Steps

1. Make a quick backup of your data right now. If nothing else, purchase a low-cost USB flash drive and transfer your documents folder to it via drag and drop. Don’t worry about the other things for the time being. You should do more than this, but it is critical to back up the most important and irreplaceable information on your hard drive to a secondary storage medium in case your hard drive fails, is stolen, or is lost.

Stop reading until you have completed this task, and stop making excuses for why you are not completing it.

2. Decide what is important to you. A few questions you might want to consider are: Would you be upset if this was deleted tomorrow? The answer is, of course, that you would do so for things like business accounts and documents. This is the type of thing that should be your top priority.

Would it matter to you if you didn’t have a record of this in ten years’ time? For those of you who are old enough to remember what happened a decade ago, you might want to ask yourself: What happened a decade ago that you wish you could go back and look at today? Your cat’s picture may not seem to matter much right now, but after your cat has passed away, you will most likely reconsider your position on the subject.

How easily can this information be replaced? Because MP3s and movies that you have downloaded are generally replaceable (even if doing so is a pain), it is not the end of the world if they are accidentally deleted. It is not possible to easily recreate documents that you have written or photographs that you have taken.

What level of expertise do you have in determining the worth of items? The things we choose to back up will be fallible and, most likely, shortsighted because we are human beings. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to backing up data; disc space is inexpensive, and 23 cubic inches can hold a surprising amount of information.

3. Be cautious about investing too much time and data in online services. Obviously, this does not rule out posting a picture on Facebook or making a comment on Twitter; these activities can be entertaining. It’s important to remember that no online service should be regarded as an archive or a permanent residence. These services are subject to interruptions from time to time. Other times, your account there may be suspended or your data may be accidentally lost due to an error.

Make a point of never devoting valuable time to a service that does not provide an easy way to get your data back. Use of a service that does not allow you to download all of your data as a ZIP file or with some automated tools via an API is generally considered to be a bad idea.

Maintain an up-to-date email address for any services you use in case the service is unavailable. If they do send you a notice, it will almost certainly be via electronic mail.

Maintain local backups of everything. If you’ve posted something online, don’t delete your local copies unless you’re absolutely, positively certain that you’ll never want to see it again.

Keep an eye out for signs of impending doom, whether they pertain to your personal information or the service as a whole. These are some of the indicators that you should consider transferring your data to a different location and being extra vigilant about maintaining local copies of your work:

A business model that is unclear or unsustainable. Enjoy yourself with these services, but remember that, as with any service, you shouldn’t count on it being available next year.

You should seriously consider whether you want to continue working there if you are losing data or experiencing extended periods of downtime. Fotopic was a good example of this; after several periods of downtime, at least one of which was prolonged, people continued to upload their photos to the site until it was abruptly shut down in 2011 without warning.

There have been reports of accounts being deleted by site staff. It is not necessary to discuss whether or not they may have a legitimate reason for doing so in order to observe that this occurs quite frequently to people who are not expecting it on many of today’s social networking sites, as previously stated.

A takeover of the service by another company with no clear plans for the service’s long-term future. In particular, keep an eye out for talent acquisitions that could result in the service becoming orphaned; the 2012 acquisition of Posterous by Twitter is an excellent example of this if you’re good at reading between the lines.

4. Start making copies of your data. Remember, something is always preferable to nothing. Backups are subject to the same diminishing returns that apply to everything else. The cheapest and most straightforward backup methods take care of the vast majority of likely loss-of-things scenarios. The most common pitfall is over-complicating your backup strategy: the more complicated and expensive you insist on making it, the less likely it is that you will actually use it.

People who tell you that you absolutely must go all-out with geographic redundancy are probably doing more harm than good, even when they aren’t trying to show everyone else how awesome they are. However, to the extent that such things are required if you are going to have backups at all, they are probably doing more harm than good.

The first step is to purchase a low-cost USB flash drive and copy your documents folder onto it. In the first step, you completed this task; if you did not, complete it immediately. This protects your most sensitive information from being lost or stolen from the medium that is most likely to fail.

Two-tiered approach: After determining what you value, invest in a USB external hard drive and begin copying more of your data onto it. Make it a habit to do this at least once a week to begin with. You’ll have more space to play with, which means you’ll be able to copy the more replaceable items, such as your music collection, onto it. Also, you’ll want to look into ways to download data from your online accounts (for example, backing up your blog or using Facebook’s export to a large ZIP file feature) so that you can back up that information as well.

Third level: Think about implementing an automated backup strategy. This is worthwhile if you have the time and desire to do so, but it requires more time to set up properly; a poorly-designed one will result in more data loss than a simple regular manual backup if it does not alert you to media failures on which you are backing up.

Fourth level: geographic redundancy, which is reserved for items that must not be lost under any circumstances. This protects you in the event of, say, your house catching fire. The law of diminishing returns is in effect; this is far less likely than a hard drive failing, and, of course, if your house is destroyed, you’re likely to be far more concerned with finding a new place to live and starting over than you are with losing your cat photographs.

5. Online backup services should be used with caution. Even in the case of possible geographic redundancy, they have their place; however, they should never be relied upon as your sole backup source. Once again, never delete your local copies of anything, and never use a service that does not provide you with a straightforward method of transferring your data to another location. Because of their widespread use for illegal purposes, “file locker” services are particularly risky places to store your data because they can disappear almost instantly if your information is compromised.

6. Don’t forget to bring your mobile devices with you. For many people, they have supplanted or completely replaced traditional computers in their daily lives. Make a copy of all of your photographs and videos taken with your camera phone.

7. You might want to consider licencing your work under a Creative Commons licence, or otherwise making a copy of your work easily downloadable for other people to archive. Allowing others to make copies of your work will result in a large number of copies of your work being available on the market if your work is interesting enough.

Numerous sites will accept copies of Creative Commons-licensed content; Wikimedia Commons, for example, will accept any media you have created yourself if it has some semblance of an educational theme to it. Collections of digital artefacts will be accepted by the Internet Archive, which can be found at http://www.archive.org/. Consider making a donation to one of these or another similar non-profit endeavour.

8. Keep an eye on the storage media you’re using. If one of your backup drives fails, you should replace it as soon as possible. “The universe is geared toward maximum irony; don’t try to force it.” In the long run, you’ll want to migrate your data off of various types of storage media as they become obsolete and onto newer ones as the newer technologies become more mature. Floppy discs, for example, were sent to the glue factory a decade ago and are rapidly becoming unreadable. Writeable CDs and DVDs are on their way out the door; if you have data backed up on these media, move it to hard drives or solid-state media as soon as possible.

9. Consider how much of your digital record is made up of other people’s information, and whether it is worth preserving some of it. An old example of this would be your bookmarks; at the very least, make a copy of your bookmarks file and store it somewhere safe. Many of your digital memories will have been created by other people in the Facebook era; for example, photos in which you have been tagged or tweets that mention you will have been created by others. The creation of personal copies of other people’s property is legal in many jurisdictions, provided that the copies are strictly for personal use only.

10. Keep in mind that your backups are only useful insofar as you have software to read the data from them. There are many people who used computers in the 1980s and 1990s who have already had the unpleasant experience of discovering that today’s software is unable to read their old files.

Keep an eye out for software that forces you to continue using it. An example would be a photo manager that wishes to import your photo library but does not provide documentation on where your files are stored or how to get them back out. Music download services that allow you to purchase tracks but use copy protection with the explicit goal of preventing you from making copies are another example (which is fortunately uncommon these days). This is especially true of backup software; if no other programme can read the format in which it stores your files, it is rendered completely ineffective as a long-term backup option.

Keep an eye out for file formats that are proprietary or unusual. This is a more generalised version of the previous example: Some vendors do not document their file formats specifically because they do not want you to be able to read your own files with anyone else’s software, and this is understandable. If your software allows it, save a copy of your work in an open file format such as PDF or Word. You should panic and switch to an open-source alternative if your software does not allow you to do so.

Keep your files in file formats that can be read by open-source software at the time of writing. Due to the fact that open source software tends to last longer than closed source software, even if you’re using proprietary software, you’ll be able to open it in open source software long after the vendor of your software no longer supports it.

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