Will the Web Have A Past?

Stone Tablet

Photo by Jennifer Dickert

Though Wired has declared it dead, I think the Web has a future. I’m not so sure it will have a past.

A while back, I spent a few idle hours trying to explore the archives of Jeff Jarvis’s BuzzMachine blog, in search of some legendary Dell Hell and early insights from the master. As you pass backward through the abysm of time, all’s well until July 2005, when the monthly navigational links give out, and you have to keep pressing “older” over and over. (I know, Jeff, we’re all aging, but do you have to remind us so remorselessly?) And then you bang up against the immovable doors of July 1, 2005, and there’s no going further.

Unless you happen to have the key that opens them.

But then, as you dig downward in time, things start to get pretty ugly. The surprisingly bad design has a charm of sorts, but the spam links at the end of every paragraph do not. And when you get to the very bottom, there’s no design at all—just raw code.

When he switched to WordPress in July 2005, Jarvis promised he would preserve his site’s past:

“I plan to leave the old Buzzmachine (ugly design, extra colons, and all) in place just as it is, though I’ll cut off the ability to post comments there in a few days. From June 2005 back to the beginning, the old site and its permalinks will stay intact.”

True to his word so far, the BuzzMachine past is still there—but it’s fading.  Would anyone be surprised if one day it just quietly disappeared?

Last month there was a flurry of declarations from the likes of Paul Carr and Leo Laporte that microblogging on the ephemeral canvases of Twitter and Buzz was robbing them of their pasts. As Laporte put it, and Carr quoted sympathetically,

“I should have been posting [on his blog] all along. Had I been doing so I’d have something to show for it. A record of my life for the last few years at the very least. But I ignored my blog and ran off with the sexy, shiny microblogs.”

Both have resolved to go back to their blogs, with the expectation that all will be preserved for posterity. But can even blogs reliably preserve the past? It all depends on the owners, and while they may remain steadfast until death, what happens then?

And all this assumes that someone who cares is in charge of your history, and not some corporate entity with no interest in remembering its past. I once worked for such a corporation, and to my dismay, though for no doubt perfectly valid reasons, it recently zapped the pioneering Web site I cofounded and spent years building.

Now, my patient and clever reader, I know you’ve been restlessly bouncing up and down on your chair for the last few minutes, interjecting, “What about the Internet Archive?”

You are correct. It is an extraordinary resource we should all be grateful for. You can find there clean, well-lighted versions of BuzzMachine and my late lamented site. But the Web is still a teenager, and this is a slender reed on which to rest the coming century of Web content. Can we count on the Internet Archive to grow and prosper, and keep our pasts intact? I hope so, but I lack some, if not all, conviction.

Perhaps this is why, as Dwight Silverman noted on Laporte’s This Week in Tech a few weeks ago, the digerati love to see their names in print:

“What’s funny is digital people who are really into using the Web and apps to get their news, when their name appears in the newspaper, they go crazy!  So print still carries some power.”

As fellow panelist Robert Scoble added, it’s the permanence of print that gives it such power:

“It’s still fun to have a newspaper with your name in it and keep that for your family. It’s something permanent. In fact, when I was [quoted] in The Economist, I had it framed up here.”

This heartfelt appreciation for the durability of print on paper is ironic in the context of the history of media formats. As Tim Carmody wrote last month in The Atlantic in an article on “10 Reading Revolutions Before E-Books,” paper has not always seemed so permanent.

“Communications legend Harold Innis suggested that the history of culture itself was characterized by a balance between media that persisted in time—think stone inscriptions and heavy parchment books—and those offering the greatest portability across space, like paper, radio, and television. Not only does this offer a grand scheme to think about media, it also suggested (for Innis at least) that modernity, for good or ill, had tipped the balance toward the ephemeral-but-portable.”

But in the aftermath of the Web, it seems, paper has become the new stone.

Let’s face it, the Internet is all about currency, not permanency; about now, not then.

Maybe that’s one reason why Jarvis is hard at work on his second book. And I don’t know about you, but personally, I have my chisel in hand, and am off to find a nice slab of granite for next week’s post.

UPDATE April 16, 2012: Though it’s broken several of the links above, I’m happy to say that Jarvis not only finished his book, but as of today, rescued his blog’s past.

One thought on “Will the Web Have A Past?

  1. Pingback: Jeff Jarvis Strikes A Blow for Web History | B2B Memes

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