Will our digital content stand the test of time?

Image by Esther_G

Burning question: In 500 years, will historians peer through their space helmets at all of our emails, Tweets, blog posts, and FriendFeed threads, and understand our place and time in history?

Or to put it another way -- will/can digital trails have more or less longevity than paper trails?

Here's why I ask. I'm on a bit of a history kick right now, having just wrapped up Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates and diving into David McCullough's John Adams (yes, because I loved the lessons from the miniseries). And the only reason these books are as rich with details and insight about bygone eras as they are is due to the extensive preserved literary records of the time (17th and 18th centuries, respectively).

Case in point: The very title of Vowell's book tips its hat to the Puritans' love of correspondence and publishing, while McCullough found decades' worth of journals, letters, pamphlets, and more in libraries that informed his view of Adams.

But will this be the case for our era, given our increasing volume of digital, electronic, and multimedia content (in addition to paper)? As I see it, here are some potential positives and my correlating fears about them:

POSITIVE: Communication continues unabated, even accelerated, thanks to the speed and frequency of our technology.

FEAR: The result: exponential content creation. Finding every tidbit a person wrote might prove difficult or impossible, leaving an incomplete picture of their contributions.

POSITIVE: We talk on many more platforms to various degrees of depth.

FEAR: Is the range of "shallow to complex" balanced? Will the sum of all content pieces amount to anything meaningful or complex?

POSITIVE: We leave digital footprints that can't be destroyed by wind, fire, or poor storage.

FEAR: We leave digital footprints on technology that will become outmoded, rendering our information irretrievable.

Believe me, I want it ALL to last through time. That's why I journal at night, blog during the day, write letters to my pen pal in Florida, email with friends, tweet constantly. I want my grandchildren to see themselves in me, biographers to peer into my soul, and future folks to know what life was like at the turn of the 21st century.

Narcissistic? Probably. But my words are my only shot at immortality, and I want to ensure they -- I -- survive.

So in my more optimistic moments, I'm convinced our records and interactions will be saved, and our sophisticated archival technology will preserve our paper trail too -- which would amount to an astonishing breadth of material, the likes of which the world has never known.

But then my Internet crashes or my hard drive wipes out, and I break into a cold sweat that our modern communications are too intangible or ephemeral, our tools too finicky, to capture us for posterity.

Please, help a girl get some sleep, and let me know in the comments where you think we're going to end up, be it the history books or cyber graveyard. Your incentive: If I get really famous and have my writing preserved for all time, your thoughts will be coming with me. ;) Thanks!