When today’s data goldmines becomes tomorrow’s data carcasses

In 1859 the tiny community of Tin Cup, Colorado got its first taste of gold fever. A tiny amount of gold was all it took for prospectors to start poking around with hopes of striking it rich. Twenty years later they landed their first major strike and rumors of the find spread across the country.

By 1900, the once insignificant mountain settlement had mushroomed into a bustling gold town with over 2,000 people. But in a short time the mines were exhausted, the people left, and the post office closed its doors in 1918. Today, the only remnants of this once thriving community are a few abandon buildings and a couple signs along the road.

Ghost towns are a rich part of world history. There are literally thousands of examples of these now-irrelevant pin pricks on a map. Overnight sensations quickly became a distant memory in the years that followed.

Is the Internet today really that much different than the gold rush stories of the late 1800s?

For ghost towns, the reasons behind their demise vary tremendously. Pripyat, a small town in northern Ukraine, reached a population of 50,000 before the Chernobyl Nuclear Power disaster. Today, it is glowing with abandonment.

Jonestown, Guyana was founded as both a “socialist paradise” and a “sanctuary” from media scrutiny by cult leader Rev Jim Jones. After reaching a population of nearly 1,000 people, the entire population participated in a mass suicide, causing it to become little more than an entry in the why-in-the-hell-did-they-listen-to-him history books.

These, of course, are unusual examples. But the world is filled with unusual examples. A disaster is still a disaster no matter how unusual the circumstances may be.

Will the digital ruins of today’s Internet ever compare to the physical ruins of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome? Will anyone even know they existed?

Ghost Brands

In 1962, Woolco began a 20 year rollercoaster ride through retail history. At its peak the Woolco name was a powerful force in the marketplace, with hundreds of big box stores in the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain employing tens of thousands of people. Today the name hardly merits a mention in history books.

In the 1970s, IBM’s Selectric Typewriter had established itself as a critical cornerstone of office activity. But when computers arrived in the 1980, typewriters began to disappear and now the Selectric brand is little more than a museum piece.

In 1999 some of the top Internet properties were Lycos, Xoom, Excite, AltaVista, and GeoCities. Each of them were attracting millions of web visitors each month, competing head to head with companies like Microsoft, Yahoo, and Amazon. Today each exists in name only, resting quietly in the shadow of its former existence.

Organic Content Creation

As we entered the 2000s, many companies began to focus on organic content creation with customer doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the time and labor used to build a primo web property.

As a result of this trend, data has been accumulating so fast that companies are investing heavily in server capacity to accommodate customer demand. While the exact numbers are being closely guarded, here are some notable data points to consider:

  • Google is rumored to manage over one million servers in its various data centers around the globe. Google’s data capacity for its search, YouTube, G-Mail, and other data-heavy services is said to be over twice the size of its competitors – Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, Yahoo, and IBM.
  • Microsoft’s newest data center in Chicago has been architected around installing entire containers filled with servers. Each container holds over 2,000 servers and can be installed in less than eight hours.
  • Amazon currently runs the world’s largest online store and one of the world’s largest cloud computing operations.
  • IBM currently operates eight million square feet of data center space on six continents.
  • EDS is now managing over 380,000 servers in 180 data centers.
  • Facebook’s data centers store more than 40 billion photos, and users upload 40 million new photos each day – about 2,000 photos every second.
  • The Tokyo Data Center serves as Japan’s Internet backbone. Japan claims it to be the largest data center in the world
  • IDC is predicting that the cost of powering data centers around the world will reach $40 billion annually by 2012. How long before that number doubles, triples, or quadruples?

The difference today between the ghost towns of the Wild West and the brand names of the 70s is the speed with which changes are happening.

Organic growth often leads to organic abandonment. Is the speed with which they arrive a predictor of the speed with which they will leave?

Future Ruins Viewed as a Digital Past

As we look at the next generation of the Internet, watching carefully as it unfolds, we cannot help but be struck by how quickly it has infiltrated our lives and how much of our attention it currently commands.

Much like the physical structures in our cities that form along the horizons of our urban landscapes, the data structures inside today’s data giants represent some of mankind’s most remarkable feats. True, they exist only as a digital compliment to the bricks and steel of physical buildings, but they hold within them vital clues about who we are, what we find valuable, and our drives and passions for forging ahead.

So what will happen to the likes of these ground-losing giants?

  • Second Life – Less than 3 years ago this one time buzz-dominator of the virtual world’s industry was the darling of media discussions, but has now been relegated to competing for mindshare with lesser contenders like video games and social media.
  • MySpace – People have rapidly shifted from the chaotic page-building systems on MySpace to the cleaner look and interface on Facebook. How long before some new contender arrives and begin to steal market share from both?
  • Plaxo – Starting off as a constantly updating business card service, Plaxo has lost ground to other mindshare grabbers like LinkedIn and Twitter.
  • – Monster suffered a 33% decline in revenues in 2009 compared to 2008 as the bad economy and lack of jobs drove many would be customers to CraigsList and other contenders.
  • Friendster – An early pioneer in social media, Friendster has lost its footing and remains a distant memory among the historians for social media.
  • PhotoBucket – Riding on the coattails of MySpace, this one-time darling of the photo hosting world has lost ground to companies like Flickr and Picassa.

Certainly each of the companies has the potential to breathe new life into their business and add buoyancy to their sinking ship. But even the best business managers can only hold things together for a while.

Life expectancy for modern day businesses, even the remarkable ones, is measured in decades, not centuries.

Are today’s success stories nothing more than a prelude to tomorrow’s disaster stories?

The digital world as it exists today contains the keys to humanity, the raw essence of personhood, and in the long run, the future of our children’s children.

More important than the decaying wood and weed infested streets of physical ghost towns, what will happen to the data reserves and important scraps of our civilization that can be instantly erased with the flip of a switch rather than the erosion of time?

These are all hard questions without good answers. But rest assured, the ghost town era of the Internet is coming, and for some, it has already arrived.

By Thomas Frey

9 Responses to “Ghost Towns of the Internet”

Comments List

  1. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Matt Dombrow</a>

    Thomas, Great analogy. How long until Twitter becomes a ghost town? Littered with irrelevant comments and links to articles that no one has the time to read? While I am aware of Twitter’s power to get the word out in emergency situations or to keep up with Ashtun Kutcher’s daily musings, I find its reach and usefulness to the average internet user to be massively blown out of proportion. I own an internet marketing business and I simply have no time for it. My clients rarely have time for it. And all of us are as busy as we want to be. If you want to update me about your business’s new lunch special, an email will do just fine thanks. I hear tumbleweeds in the distance. Interested in comments to the contrary. Tell me how short sighted I am 
    • admin

      For me its hard to imagine a "stable" business model when it comes to an Internet business. For that matter, its hard to imagine any business being stable at the pace of society today. The difference though is the accumulated assets - customer supplied content - that is at risk of disappearing because we don't have any long term strategies for dealing with it. We can debate all day as to how much of this content is worth saving, but the people who are devising new strategies for extracting value from data will surely mourn the loss of even a single terabyte of it. Our data creation and value extraction processes today are very primitive. We still exist in the caveman days of the Internet. Yes, the tumbleweeds you see in the distance for Twitter are only slightly ahead of the tumbleweeds for Facebook, Microsoft, and even Apple. The real question is, what do we do with the Ghost Towns once they arrive?
  2. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Andy</a>

    Good article. springs to mind. Even though the site has been revamped and expanded numerous times, I can't help feeling a sense of that ghost town melancholy looking through people's updates that have stalled somewhere around 2003. Who knows if Facebook will head the same way with abandoned Farmvilles and Mafioso wandering the web? I don't think Twitter is setting itself up for the same fall as, for me at least, it is primarily a news feed and news never goes out of fashion... does it?
  3. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Raymond Hutchins</a>

    Interesting perspective. The internet is truly an environment that begets rapid change and it is difficult to predict what will last and what will fade. It seems to me that the anchor system within the internet is domain names. They may represent one of the few "solid" foundations of the internet. Domain names to the internet is like the real estate under the building and certain real estate is more desirable than other real estate.
  4. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Ken Garman</a>

    I agree that what we see offered on the internet today will fade and die, and probably quicker than we imagine as the next "better" thing arrives. As for me right now though, I find Twitter very useful. I never even look at my main feed. I really couldn't care less that "Joe Somebody" was at Starbucks at 9 this morning. The power of Twitter is in it's hashtags. They group the information that I'm interested in (values based leadership) into it's own relevant feed. Perhaps this will be soon replaced by Google+ hang outs, but so far it seems to be having a very slow start.
  5. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Marguerite O'Connor</a>

    There are real time ghost town clubs & tours. So, in a parallel universe, will there be virtual clubs & tours for those interested in data that we thought was deleted or obsolete? Data is like energy in that it seems to transition, but never is really destroyed.
  6. <a href='' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Kennita Watson</a>

    It seems to me that data can be effectively destroyed, if it is stored on a single server and that server goes down without distributed backup.

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