The internet doesn't last forever. Much of it is disappearing, study finds

The Pew Research Center study found many links on news, government, social media and Wikipedia sites are broken.
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Posted at 6:39 PM, May 20, 2024

The internet comes with many warnings, one being that you should always be careful what you put out there because it "lasts forever." But a new study from Pew Research Center shows that's not always true; much of what's put out on the internet really only lasts a fleeting amount of time.

The report found a quarter of all webpages that existed at a point from 2013 to 2023 are now unreachable. The trend is starker in older content, with 38% of webpages in 2013 not existing today; but it's happening recently too, as 8% that existed last year are now gone.

Most times these pages are individually deleted or removed on an "otherwise functional website," meaning just the link and its content are gone rather than the whole site, Pew Research Center said. But that still leads to a higher amount of broken links within the online world.

It's happening in news, with 23% of sites classified as "News/Information" having at least one broken link, and in government, with 21% of pages containing at least one broken link. The study also found 11% of all references linked on Wikipedia are inaccessible now, and 54% of all Wikipedia pages have at least one reference link pointing to a nonexistent webpage.

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Social media is also playing a part in the "digital decay" trend. Pew Research Center looked at nearly 5 million posts on X, then known as Twitter, from March 8 to April 27, 2023, and found by June 15, nearly 1 in 5 were no longer visible on the site. In 60% of cases, the account that posted the tweet was made private, suspended or deleted. The individual tweet, not the account, was removed in the other 40%.

But in its Twitter study, Pew Research Center did find not all tweets disappeared forever. Though it found half of tweets that are eventually removed become unavailable within the first six days of being posted, it also found that 6% of disappeared tweets become available again at a later point. However, it says this could be due to an account going private then back to public or if an account is reinstated after being deactivated.

So next time you go to post, keep in mind the internet might not always be "forever" per se, but not all digital content is created equal. While some tweets can be fleeting, a viral one is likely to be repeated, and once the original gets lost in the mix, the idea is more "forever" than your content itself.