At work a few weeks ago, I came across a website with some old and outdated information about my company. We got in touch with the webmaster and asked him to remove the content. He respectfully declined.
At first I was confused. These were fifteen year-old articles about programs and services that no longer exist. They no longer served any useful purpose to internet users, and on the contrary, they misrepresented our company’s current offerings. But after spending a few moments on the phone, his point of view began to come clear. This website documented a project of which he was exceedingly proud. Never mind the fact that it happened over a decade ago, he poured his time, hard work, creativity, and his heart into this website, and now we were requesting its imminent demise.
“Ah,” I thought. “It’s like he has published a book, and we are asking him to burn every copy.”
Is there a comparison to be made here? The act of permanently removing content from a website has a rather neutral connotation. We are updating, engaging in reputation management, and improving the accuracy of available information. But book burning? Quite the opposite. That brings to mind censorship, angry mobs, and small minded hypocrites. It recalls images of uniformed Nazis and the fictional firemen of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
The distance between these contrasting images (on one hand a clean and simple keystroke in a cubicle, on the other hand an angry and salivating mob) highlights, I suppose, a significant difference in our attitude towards electronic versus printed materials. Burning a book is a political statement, but removing an e-book of the Bible or Harry Potter from your Kindle probably would not cause much of a stir. And replacing a website? Well, that is a business decision.
But, what about historic preservation? We can still study a 2000 year-old sheet of papyrus from ancient Egypt, but I’m not so sure about that old term paper you’ve got saved on a floppy disk. In this digital age, it is easier than ever to create, disseminate, and retrieve content, and we are doing so at a rapid rate in a multitude of formats. Paperless files are more convenient and efficient, and they save a few trees too. But, as technology changes and websites are updated, should we be concerned about losing valuable content?
I did a little superficial digging on the topic, and it is hardly a shocker that other people are thinking about this topic too, with considerable more depth and expertise than me. Here’s an interesting article from the Economist published back in 2010. It turns out that there is an entire organization dedicated to thinking about this idea, the International Internet Preservation Consortium, and the Library of Congress has set up an internet archiving initiative.
A non-profit called the Internet Archive has even built a Wayback Machine, where you can look up various renditions of websites, assuming that their URL has remained the same.
I typed in my Alma Mater, The University of Michigan, and I was able to view their website, as it was in 1996:
My memories from watching MTV in the ’90’s are so vivid (grunge rock!), who knew their website could be so bland in 1998:
And here’s the White House in 2000. I cannot believe we entrusted our country to waving flag clip art.