One of my favorite movies is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis from 1927. It’s one of the earliest science fiction feature films, and addresses concerns ranging from industrialization to income inequality. Critical reception of the story was mixed at the time, but the special effects were universally considered astounding, as some of the effects were invented especially for the film. The picture debuted in Berlin, but with sometimes heavy-handed moralizing and a running time of 153 minutes, it was re-editted down to 115 minutes for an American release. Another version for wider distribution was cut down to 91 minutes. By the time interest in the movie was renewed several decades later, there was little left of the original.
I first saw the movie in college. It was the Moroder version, in which Italian music producer Giorgio Moroder editted together what footage he could find, color-tinted everything, and added a soundtrack with music by the likes of Freddie Mercury, Pat Benetar, and Adam Ant. Despite the atrocious wreck that it was, interest was renewed in restoring the film properly. Using a copy of the score that survived, and a combination of working prints, a restored version was released in 2002. Additional working prints were later discovered and were added in 2010.
I relay all this to highlight a concern some people bring up regarding webcomics, namely that of archiving. Metropolis was a film that was distributed worldwide with a variety of versions and, despite tons of effort, we still don’t have a complete cut of the original movie. By contrast, webcomics typically only have one version anywhere in the world. (Maybe two, if the creator’s host keeps ongoing backups of everything.) If a webcomic site gets deleted, accidentally or intentionally, it’s likely gone forever.
We have copies of Little Nemo in Slumberland in part because each installment was printed hundreds of thousands of times. The odds of all of those editions surviving a century are roughly nil, but we only really needed one in order to see it. The odds of at least one of those hundreds of thousands surviving is considerably higher.
Collectively, we generate five times as much content every day as we did in 1986. Every day, the average person individually generates six newspapers’ worth of information and is bombarded with the equivalent of 174 newspapers. Actually, the numbers are probably higher than that now; that was from a 2011 study. More recent estimates say 90% of all the data ever collected has been generated in the past two years.
Those two points lead me to wonder about what is ultimately saved. We used to need hundreds of thousands of copies of something in order to save a few; now it looks like we might be creating hundreds of thousands of individual things, but save perhaps only a few. Do we need every installment of every webcomic ever? Probably not, but we can’t know in advance which ones are necessarily worth saving. Is it worth the effort to make sure we save everything? Or will the saving we’re already doing—the type of almost incidental saving that kept Metropolis around—will similarly provide a decent snapshot of today? Will the strips that are printed out and tacked up to cubicle walls, or passed around via email, or posted on Facebook, or collected in professionally printed editions eventually lead to the same type of curation that film historians took on with Lang’s work?