An interesting debate has popped up about the permanence (or lack of it) of the conversations happening in blogs. Gina Trapani kicked it off with a post about why she’s not following the neophile herd onto Tumblr as their main platform:

In the end I decided not to, for an important practical reason: the data you enter on Tumblr is locked in. While there are some hacky third-party tools that purport to do it, Tumblr itself does not offer an official export feature which lets its users move their data to another platform should they choose to do so. (Update: In late 2009, Tumblr mentioned a beta tool which can export your data in a limited way, on one platform. Doesn’t count.) That, along with some doubts about site reliability and losing my existing posts and their permalinks, made me decide the posts I really care about are just too important for Tumblr.

I’m squarely behind her on this one. Personally, I’m a natural archiver. I want blog posts I wrote nearly a decade ago to be still accessible. It annoys me that things I linked to in 2003 are no longer there. Indeed, when Steve Reubel made his big switch, he broke some links on my blog. But this love of archiving is a character trait, and not one everyone shares. My wife regards my scanning and archiving of my parents’ photos with a little disbelief. And some have disagreed strongly with Gina’s argument:

I don’t really care that much about archiving my content. I don’t see 99.9% of my blog posts as having a shelf life beyond a few days. I write ‘em, hopefully they get read and discussed, then I write something else.

In 13 years of on-again-off-again personal blogging, I can only think of one post — just one — that’s lost but I wish I’d saved; it was the post I wrote when I returned from my mother’s funeral in April 2000. Everything else is ephemeral, like tears in rain.

That’s Mitch Wagner in a post directly responding to Gina’s. His phrase “tears in rain” reminds me of a recent post by a friend of mine, Tom Morris, about the lack of access to your Twitter archives provided by the company right now, and his irritation with people who say that it doesn’t matter:

The poncy hipster types may see no value in their old tweets, but some of us do. And we shouldn’t be disadvantaged because some guy who reads a bit too much Malcolm Gladwell thinks he can judge the preferred archiving strategy they should take to the material they have written better than they do.

Now, for a vast majority of Tumblr blogs, this just isn’t an issue. There’s little or no original content in there – it’s just reblogging of material published elsewhere on the net. And event the comment conversation isn’t locked into Tumblr, because most of the time it’s housed in Disqus, which has plenty of export options.

So, if that’s all you’re using Tumblr for, then go ahead. No risks there. But those of us who make our living from comment creation in any way should think very carefully about how much of our content we commit to sites that aren’t passionate about the fact that we own our own content. Many hosted blogs and social networks are bad at this; Typepad (which I use for some blogs) is notoriously hard to get photos out of, for example.  If there’s value, be it intellectual, entertainment, emotional or commercial in your old content, then you need to think about how you’d move it if (or when) your current service expires or no longer meets your needs.

Indeed, I think the “tears in rain” crowd miss a fundamental point – the web is built on linkage. And every time you move a post from its permalink, every time a piece of content vanishes from the web, there’s a chance that a hole opens up in that network. The web heals. But the conversations between sites can be lost. And that’s you devaluing the work of others through removing your own. The web is a collaborative entity and unilateral destructive action can undermine that.

As for Tumblr itself, well, the question could soon be academic. A Tumblr engineer jumped into the comments on Gina’s post:

I’m an engineer at Tumblr (and fairly new, so hopefully I’m not speaking out of turn). We’re working on an ‘export my blog’ feature that will completely export all your content (images, posts, etc) and allow you to download that export.

So, hopefully, soon Tumblr will be a real option for those of us who want more permanence from our blogging that “tears in rain”.