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31.08.17

How to Be Better Than Tim Berners-Lee

Posted 31st August 2017

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I’ve written a lot in the past year or so about what I like to call internet archeology. Whether it’s revered web designers destroying communities, podcasts destroying their archives, or simply historically important web tutorials disappearing, there’s one recurring idea: hey, don’t just yank your stuff offline, man.

But you don’t need to take my word for it about how bad this is. A certain Tim Berners-Lee, in his seminal 1998 essay “Cool URIs don’t change”, covers everything you need to know on the subject.

“In theory, the domain name space owner owns the domain name space and therefore all URIs in it. Except insolvency, nothing prevents the domain name owner from keeping the name. And in theory the URI space under your domain name is totally under your control, so you can make it as stable as you like. Pretty much the only good reason for a document to disappear from the Web is that the company which owned the domain name went out of business or can no longer afford to keep the server running.”

But why should I care, Tim?

Why should I care?

When you change a URI on your server, you can never completely tell who will have links to the old URI. They might have made links from regular web pages. They might have bookmarked your page. They might have scrawled the URI in the margin of a letter to a friend.

When someone follows a link and it breaks, they generally lose confidence in the owner of the server. They also are frustrated – emotionally and practically from accomplishing their goal.

Enough people complain all the time about dangling links that I hope the damage is obvious. I hope it also obvious that the reputation damage is to the maintainer of the server whose document vanished.

Yep, makes sense to me. We’re all agreed, yes?

*   *   *

Let’s pop over to Tim Berners-Lee’s page on the W3C site. Yes, yes, very interesting. Let’s just have a click around. Oh, a blog, wonder what that’s about…

hang on, a dead link?!

Yep, Tim’s blog has fallen offline. A blog hosted by the Decentralized Information Group – another group co-run by Tim himself. Meaning, to paraphrase Tim’s own words, that:

For what it’s worth, I tried emailing both Tim himself, and the DIG webmaster. No reply. Meaning that yet again, the Wayback Machine saves our sorry ass. The Internet Archive having to rescue the writing of Tim Berners-Lee seems to me to be a thoroughly ridiculous state of affairs.

Any blog written by the inventor of the web is historically important. How bizarre that the W3C and DIG seem to have forgotten that.

*   *   *

The silly thing about all this is that Tim’s blog only fell offline earlier this year. The W3C and DIG have apparently decided the lessons espoused in Tim’s essay don’t matter now, which seems a little perverse.

But hey, maybe I’m one to talk. I’ve created and written loads of websites which have now fallen offline. It’s true: I’m a bit of a hypocrite. My only defence is that at least I did things the right way around: I’ve learnt from my silliness, and make sure these days not to break links or delete my work online. This situation with Tim’s blog seems like unlearning lessons which were already learnt 19 years ago.

Still, it does make me feel guilty when I think of some of the mistakes I’ve made over the years. Which is why recently, I decided to fix one of them. The Red Dwarf fansite Observation Dome which I used to co-run was cruelly yanked offline in 2006.1 Recently, I noticed the domain was now available again – so, with a bit of digging around on an old hard drive, the site was restored to its former “glory”. Correct links and all.

It doesn’t make up for everything I’ve yanked off the net over the years. But it’s a start – and probably the most important thing I’ve been involved with which I could bring back. And I can’t even begin to tell you the deep satisfaction it gave me. To see that website spring back to life was incredible, and it made other people happy too. So many memories of a certain time in my life. In a year where I’ve been looking to the future, bringing back Observation Dome is still one of the best things I’ve done for ages.

So what I’m leading to is this. If you’re the owner of any old websites which just fell offline, and you think there’s a few people who would appreciate its return – even just as an archive – give it a go. Search through your old backups, and see if you can bring back a little piece of web history. You don’t have to ever update the site again… it just being there for people to read is enough.

Go on. For once in your miserable damn life, you can be better than Tim Berners-Lee at something. That’s surely worth it.


  1. To be fair, the fact the archives were taken offline wasn’t exactly my fault – there was some boring intergroup squabbling which caused that, which I won’t go into – but still, it was symptomatic of my carelessness in those days. There are other things I made from around that time which I pulled offline, never to return. 

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1 Comment

Andrew Bowden on 1 September 2017 @ 8am

I have an old website I mothballed in 2012. Left everything online, just put a closed message up. And why not? Barely costs me anything. I had to delete the search option when I moved from Movable Type to WordPress for my other sites (leaving the old site as static pages) but other than that, it’s as I left it.

Anywayther day I got an email from the contact form (which still works) from someone who had enjoyed it and thanked me not deleting the site! Win!

For a long time I have tried to make sure I have no dead links, and that when I restructure everything, redirects are in place. There is very little content I deleted full stop – at least not since 2000 when I called some stuff I was a tad concerned about impacting potential employment prospects at the time. It’s amazing how long old links hang around the internet. Better to keep them working. It’s not that much effort after all.