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On Linkrot, Part #3928452

Posted 5th March 2017

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Recently, I wrote a little piece over on Ganymede & Titan which was ostensibly about the popular science fiction comedy series Red Dwarf. In fact, it was bugger all to do with Red Dwarf. It was actually about the transient nature of the web – a bit of a recurring theme of mine these days.

To summarise, then: I went back and looked at a random day of G&T’s output from ten years ago – and the result surprised even me. Every single external link used in those news stories from 10 years ago no longer works correctly. I expected some – perhaps even most – to be dead. But every single one to succumb to linkrot? That’s completely ridiculous.

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As a little experiment, I thought I’d go back and see what the earliest example of linkrot is in the archives of Dirty Feed. This was a mistake. Because it’s one that’s entirely my own fault.

In the fourth piece I ever published here – Moderation For ‘Em, back in the first month of this site’s existence in January 2010 – I link to an old article I wrote over on Noise to Signal, a now defunct group blog about the media. Take a look at my dodginess:

OLD, NOW BROKEN LINK: http://www.noisetosignal.org/net/2006/06/protocol-websites-for-em.php
CURRENT, WORKING LINK: http://www.noisetosignal.org/net/2006/06/protocol-websites-for-em.php.html

For fuck’s sake. And to think I was so proud of keeping Noise to Signal’s archive online. That mistake with the URLs when I was converting NTS to a static archive is a wretched state of affairs. (And actually one I can fix, and will do. But I kinda think fixing it straight away and pretending it never happened would be a rather dishonest way of writing this article.)

If we decide to go further, and see what the first broken link is where the material has been entirely removed from the net rather than just changed location, that comes in the fifth piece I ever published here – Hi-Dee T.V. This included a YouTube link to The Young Ones which no longer works – the account has been deactivated, presumably due to copyright infringement.

Still, links from 2010 not working, while annoying, is perhaps not much of a surprise. A more interesting question is: what are the most recent links on Dirty Feed which no longer work? For that, we have to go back to October 2016, and the piece “Digital Spy, there”. This is a particularly sad loss, too – the broken link is this YouTube video, which was a phase inverted version of the Red Dwarf theme. This was a video infamous in Dwarf fandom – because it was the first video where most of us first heard that the opening theme had lyrics. Of course that video can be recreated easily enough, but losing that specific example means a little piece of fandom history is gone forever.

There seems to be a pattern here regarding YouTube videos. So, if we ignore those, what’s the next most recent broken link on the site? That appears in the article “The Sad State of ‘The Talk Show’ Archives” from August 2016, and is a tweet from a now-deactivated account. Brilliantly, that tweet was about somebody figuring out how to listen to old episodes of a podcast when the main site for that podcast had fallen offline. This is irony in its purest form.

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The climax of my Ganymede & Titan article wonders the following:

“Perhaps news sites which care about the history of things should be saving local copies of external pages, ready to use as replacements if the original falls off the web.”

It was an idle thought, but the more I consider it, the more tempting it becomes. It brings up its own issues, of course – copyright being the obvious one for a start. And then there’s the simple matter that some people deliberately choose to remove their old work from the net, and you can run into ickiness very quickly there. It’s something which would have to be thought about on a case-by-case basis.

And if we think of it like that, it seems to me that we wouldn’t run into trouble at all with most of the above examples. Going back to that original G&T article – the three links which have entirely fallen offline are a blog post from Norman Lovett, an entry about a musical on the website WhatsOnStage, and an old website for the King’s Head Theatre. None of that information is particularly sensitive, but would give valuable context to those news stories ten years down the line. I’d have no problem replacing each of those dead links with local copies of those pages, if I had them.

If we look at the Dirty Feed stuff, things aren’t much different. I wouldn’t bother trying to save the link to the video of The Young Ones – that’s an unavoidable thing that happens if you’re cheeky enough to link to ripped-off videos on the internet just to make a stupid joke. But the phase inverted version of the Red Dwarf theme I’m less worried about – I think we easily used that video for the purposes of “criticism or review”, and that’s legal.1 As for the missing tweet, I highly regret not embedding it into the article, which would have kept the tweet readable even when the account was deleted. There was nothing especially sensitive in it – I’d happily have kept it online with no moral qualms whatsoever.

And the crucial thing with all this: we can’t rely on the Wayback Machine to save our asses every single time. Some of the stuff I’ve mentioned in this article can be accessed using it – but some absolutely can’t, and is lost forever. We cannot assume it’s going to save everything out there which is worth saving. Because it just isn’t going to.

This article may seem a little navel-gazing. But there is a purpose to thinking about this. As I continue with my redesign of Dirty Feed, I’m spending a lot of time going through my archives. And there is a real sense that linkrot is damaging some of the pieces I’ve written – even when I’ve gone to a great deal of trouble to protect my own archives. (That dodgy Noise To Signal link aside.) No matter how much care you take with your own stuff to keep your archives accessible and pure, your work will be damaged if other people don’t play by the same rules.

And if other people don’t play by the same rules… maybe you’re allowed to force them to. When it’s not creepy, or blatantly illegal. And a lot of the time, it’s going to be neither of those things.

  1. “And that’s legal!” would make a great catchphrase. If Savile had just said that after every encounter, everything would have been fine. 

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