Nelson is an Internet time traveler, one in a small community of scholars and techies who are laboring to build a past for a technology obsessed with the present. In a computing culture accustomed to deleting its Internet history, they are trying to create one.
“We’re sort of stuck in this perpetual now,” Nelson said. “Figuring out what was on the Web an hour ago, a day ago, a week ago, we’re really bad at that.”
Nelson and some colleagues at Old Dominion and the Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed a sort of Internet time machine called Memento
. When attached to a browser, it enables the user to search for a Web site as it appeared on some past date, if an archived page exists.
Joseph JaJa, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Computer Studies at the University of Maryland and a fellow time traveler, is working on another tool that would allow a search of the archived Internet as it existed at a time of one’s choosing.
“The Internet now is the main communication and publication medium,” JaJa said. “If we don’t preserve it, we lose a good part of our cultural heritage.”
Computer users who think their Flickr photos and Facebook updates last forever could be in for a shock. The average life of an Internet page is about 100 days. When Nelson’s team surveyed users about lost Web sites, they found many causes: service providers bought and sold; servers seized by police; page owners dying, leaving for college or simply losing interest.
Remember GeoCities? The community of user-designed pages — some termed it the Facebook of the 1990s — was shut down in 2009. Yahoo Video, a onetime YouTube rival, closed to user-generated content last year.
All of this runs counter to the notion that anything posted online, particularly if it is unflattering, is permanent. That is not true — although highly publicized online gaffes tend to endure because they are so easily copied.
Much of what has been published in the roughly two-decade history of the Internet is eminently disposable: 140-character musings on the weather, colorless corporate directories, personal ads and a seemingly endless photographic celebration of cats.
Yet scholars are growing concerned about the burgeoning quantity of creative work — Twitter aphorisms and blog posts, photographs and videos, even scholarly papers — that is “born digital,” without corporeal form and doomed to die online if it is not salvaged.
Future historians might want to study today’s online flat-stomach ads in the same way contemporary scholars ponder cigarette ads from magazines of the 1960s as a barometer of culture. Internet coverage of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks may prove as historically resonant as TV coverage of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.