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29.04.16

The Fragility of the Web

Posted 29th April 2016

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My late-night web browsing covers a wide variety of esoteric topics. Sometimes I find myself looking at the in-depth technical specs of the Evel Knievel pinball machine. Or amazing barely-released Xenomania tracks. Or early versions of toys which ended up becoming Transformers. You get the picture.

The other day, I found myself in a spiral of links about Favrd – an old Twitter favourites aggregator run by Dean Allen1 which was shut down in 2009. At the time, Jeffrey Zeldman wrote this poignant piece about how web communities end. And everywhere round the internet, there was the plaintive cry – from Andy Baio, John Gruber, and Zeldman himself: if only Dean had kept the archives of the site online.

Pleasingly, however, we’re not left in the dark as to his motives. Dean answered these criticisms in the comments section of Zeldman’s blog. Hang on, I’ve got it here, it’s linked to on Daring Fireball… oh, wait, it’s gone?! Yes, Jeffrey Zeldman got rid of all comments on zeldman.com a couple of months back.

The irony here is not lost. Zeldman complains about the effects of destroying a web community, and also specifically wishes the archives for Favrd had been kept… and then doesn’t keep the archives of his own comments section online. Note that this isn’t a discussion about whether his site should be open to new comments or not – in fact, I’m seriously considering not having comments open on the next incarnation of Dirty Feed. This is about the disappearance of pre-existing comments – ones that had been on the site for years. The destruction of the site’s very own community.

Now, let’s be careful. Despite the above, I’m not really criticising Zeldman much here, a man who does more for the web in a day than I will manage in a lifetime. Even on this specific point, it’s worth noting that the archives on his site stretch right back to 20052; my own personal blog archives only date to 2010, with anything before then missing.3

In fact, that’s really the point: Zeldman is one of the good guys, and stuff like this can still happen incredibly easily. And in this case, a major part of the story of Favrd – linked to from plenty of places around the net – has just disappeared.

Luckily, we can read Dean’s comment explaining himself by using the Wayback Machine. And I’ve lost count of how many times the Wayback Machine and the Internet Archive has been useful to me over the years. For a start, without the Internet Archive, my previous post on Dirty Feed would have been literally impossible to write. Whether it’s finding out genuinely important information, or just pointing and laughing at an idiot, barely a week goes by without me using it in some capacity.

So, the other day, I made a donation to the Internet Archive. If you care about the web, and can afford to give even a little, then I urge you to do the same. The web breaks. We should all do as much as we can to stop it… but we will never stop it entirely. If people like Zeldman can’t stop their own sites from breaking, and if I shake my head in regret at the things I let drop off the net, then we all know what’s happening elsewhere from people who truly don’t care.

Being able to archive sites and then easily view them isn’t just a nicety. Sometimes it’s vital in order to figure out what the hell happened.


  1. Dean’s online presence sadly seems to have disappeared entirely. His Twitter was last updated in 2013, and his website is long gone. 

  2. With some material from way before 2005, though it’s bitty and incomplete before then. 

  3. Though there are chunks of me from 2003 on other sites. 

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1 Comment

Andrew Bowden on 29 April 2016 @ 4pm

There’s a problem with the fact that domains expire. I have a several domains I no longer update. But pay for them to stay online so the content doesn’t disappear. Many would say, why bother.

And then there’s people just rebuilding sites and breaking links. I have now redirects that redirect to other redirects that go to other redirects, but my aim is that everything still works even when I’ve changed the URL structure. It doesn’t always work, but I try.