I don’t ask for any money for writing Dirty Feed. I don’t have a Patreon. I haven’t run any kind of Kickstarter. I don’t have a tip jar. I don’t have Amazon referrals, or an Amazon wish list. Call it keeping the site pure, or call it not wanting to have any kind of obligations around here. Either way, if you’ve enjoyed anything on here over the past 12 months, you’ve enjoyed it for free.
This year, I’ve written quite a lot about the history of the web. (And I’m currently in the middle of a new piece to publish at the start of next year.) Those pieces include:
Not forgetting this piece I wrote over on Ganymede & Titan, about Red Dwarf fandom mid-2004.
Some of these articles might not be your favourite things I’ve written this year. I generally get a lot more positive feedback for stuff I write about the telly, and my internet archeology pieces go rather unnoticed. But that’s fine. I write Dirty Feed for myself as much as for anyone else, and the important thing for me is to have a mix of different kinds of stuff here. (Though, of course, there are plenty of parallels with the kind of internet archeology above, and the kind of thing I do with old sitcoms.)
Still, the important thing about all the above articles: they all relied on the Wayback Machine in order to research the web of the past. And perhaps it’s easy to get blasé about its existence, now it’s been around for so long. But if you step back and just think about it: typing in a URL, and being able to visit (most) websites at (nearly) any point in their existence, is absolutely damn incredible. And is vital to maintaining a record of the history of the web. My silly articles are nothing compared to how important the Wayback Machine is for everyone – and, indeed, the Internet Archive as a whole.
So, here’s my request. The Internet Archive is currently fundraising, and is well short of their goal. If you’ve enjoyed anything I’ve written over here over the past year, and can comfortably afford it – and that latter part is crucial – please consider giving them a small donation. It would mean a lot to me, and is the most relevant support you could give this site.
Thank you. Serious message ends. I’ll be back tomorrow with a round-up of all my nonsense over here from the past year. I didn’t half write some shite.
Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a little bit of internet archaeology. Whether it’s pointing out dodgy updates to sites about murder, tracing what happened to Twitter favourites aggregator Favrd, figuring out what the deal is with an extremely weird abandoned website, or looking at good archivists and bad archivists, all of these investigations relied on one thing: the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive, taking us back in time to examine websites at a different point in their existence. Or in some cases, to websites which have disappeared entirely. (Don’t forget my plea to think about giving the Internet Archive a donation.)
Today I want to use the Wayback Machine to talk about a couple of sites which meant a lot to me, but which are no longer online in their original form. One is more serious, and the other is a ridiculous amount of fun. Both of them, in one way or another, changed the way I think about things.
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The Music You Want (JAM Creative Productions, 1979)
Yesterday, on a small corner of the internet, something flickered back into life.
A jingle package, in fact. A jingle package made by JAM Creative Productions in 1979, for legendary radio station WABC. Called “The Music You Want”, it would be some of the last jingles JAM made for WABC which emphasised the station as somewhere to go for music.1 (Three years later, WABC would transition to a talk format.)
These jingles were previously unavailable on JAM’s website. Sure, the famous Top 40 packages were there, like LogoSet (1976) and Positron (1977). And all WABC’s talk radio packages were there, from Talk To Us (1982) right through to Top News (2005). But a little slice of that history was missing. And now it isn’t. Brought out of limbo into the digital age. So we can all enjoy some damn fine jingles, which even plenty of jingle obsessives have never heard before.
This pleases me.
* * *
A Brief Message (Khoi Vinh and Liz Danzico, 2007-08)
The website A Brief Message had a rather, yes, brief existence. Launched in 2007, it was billed as the following:
“A Brief Message features design opinions expressed in short form. Somewhere between critiques and manifestos, between wordy and skimpy, Brief Messages are viewpoints on design in the real world. They’re pithy, provocative and short – 200 words or less.”
To be honest, it was never the writing side of A Brief Message which I particularly liked. What caught my attention was the site design itself; one of the very earliest examples I came across of a site breaking out of pre-existing templates, and making each post look different. Moreover, each post had a specially commissioned piece of artwork, which is still a rare thing to find today, let alone back then. It’s a site I’ve always remembered, as something which came along and made me realise that web developers can paint themselves into artificial corners: every post can look different if you want it to. It fundamentally made me think of web design differently.2
The site is no longer online. Well, not properly, anyway. As usual, most of it is preserved online via the Wayback Machine. But the actual URL is dead as a Pyrenean ibex.
In fact, the site had a bit of an odd end full stop, really. Launched in September 2007, the site stopped updating in March 2008: an active life of just half a year. That’s a very short amount of time for a project which had so much promise, and had two such talented people running it; you have to wonder what happened. And then the archives fell offline for good at the end of 2012.
And man, that sucks. I have no problem at all with the site not updating; it was a shame when the project was so promising, but there could be any number of reasons for that happening. But to not inform your readership about the future of the site, and then letting it just fall offline entirely is a dreadful way for a project to end, and is just rude as much as anything. Communicate with your audience. Let them know what is happening. And keep those archives online, especially when you’ve made something important and influential, as A Brief Message undoubtedly was. If a work remains online, it is never truly dead.
A Brief Message had much that could inspire people even today. If it wasn’t for the Wayback Machine, that work would be inaccessible entirely. Even as it is, that copy of the site isn’t quite complete, and far fewer people will read it. It’s all such a waste.
This displeases me.
* * *
Without a word, somewhere on the internet, someone drags out something from the past, and makes it live again. Elsewhere, without a word, great things die in the most ignoble way possible.
Be the person who makes things live, not lets things die.
“We are open for business.”
— David Hencke, Exaro ‘Head of News’, 18th July 2016
“We are absolutely devastated. We were going ahead with plans and had only just put up a story the previous day, with a lot more in the pipeline, and suddenly we are told it’s closed just like that.”
— David Hencke, Exaro ‘Head of News’, 21st July 2016
This article is not the story of Exaro – the investigative news site set up in 2011 to, in their own words, “hold power to account”. That story heavily involves Exaro’s investigations of paedophilia and child abuse, and that’s a topic on which I have precisely no insight on whatsoever – either the investigations themselves, Exaro’s conduct during them, or the official police investigations. There are many people who are far more qualified to discuss those matters. I mean literally qualified, with actual qualifications. There is nothing I could ever add to those discussions.
Still, what I want to talk about is something which does impact on the aftermath of those investigations. Whether you think Exaro’s conduct was exemplary, reprehensible, or some complex line between the two, the fact now remains: aside from the usual rescue from the Wayback Machine, there is no primary evidence of those investigations left online. It has all disappeared.
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Keith Instone, writing on the site Usable Web in December 2012, taken from the Wayback Machine:
“I just noticed that Alertbox articles (and other things) from useit.com are now incorporated into nngroup.com”
Ah, two sites belonging to famous usability consultant Jakob Nielsen.
“From a practical perspective, it means different URLs for Alertbox articles.”
Uh-oh. Jakob hasn’t broken a load of links, has he?
“So far, all of the redirects seem to be working (no linkrot).”
Excellent. Well done, Jakob.
Back to Keith and the site Usable Web, today:
500 Internal Server Error
Oh well, maybe it’s just temporary. Let’s take a look at March 2016:
Linkrot… on an article about linkrot. Bonus points go to Usable Web for having the slogan “Links to web usability history”. Not much history present there any more.
See also: famous designer Jeffrey Zeldman complaining about a web community being destroyed, and then destroying one himself.
(Don’t look too far in the past on sites I’ve been involved with, though. I definitely didn’t write a pompous article about all this years ago which suffered exactly the same fate. Promise.)
John Gruber’s The Talk Show podcast – self-described as “the director’s commentary track for Daring Fireball” – has had no less than four separate homes over the years:
- First incarnation: As an independent podcast at talkshow.net, with Dan Benjamin (27 episodes1, June 2007 – October 2009)
- Second incarnation: On Dan Benjamin’s 5by5 network (90 episodes, July 2010 – May 2012)
- Third incarnation: On Mule Radio, solo (80 episodes, May 2012 – May 2014)
- Fourth incarnation: On Daring Fireball (85 episodes so far, May 2014 – ongoing)
As this piece is published, that’s a total of 282 episodes. Of those 282, a total of 80 are missing – all of the first 27 originally hosted at thetalkshow.net, and 53 from the Mule Radio years. (Depending on what you define as “missing”, of course – but more on that later.) That’s a full 28% of episodes which have disappeared.
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Please join me, as we take a trip back in time through to the early days of the web. Mind your head on that <blink> tag.
Old websites which have (brilliantly) managed to cling to being online have been endlessly discussed; the Warner Bros Space Jam site from 1996 is the classic example. Abandoned projects online are nothing new either, although they endlessly fascinate me. The saddest example I can think of is the Save TV Centre Studios campaign – last updated in 2013, with absolutely no admission that hey, it didn’t work out, but they tried their best.1
I think I may have found the most perfect combination of both, however. Behold: Exposure, “The How-To eZine Covering The Art Of Illusion”. Oh, it’s all there. Six illusionists listed on the front page, all promising to give their secrets… only two of which are links. And when you visit the David Copperfield section, you’re greeted with a list of all his tricks… precisely none of which are clickable, or have any content whatsoever. In fact, there is only one single piece of content on the entire site.
But the real beauty comes when looking at the What’s New page. Please forgive me if I just quote all of it.
October 9, 1997 – EXPOSURE gets an overhaul. A new home page now shows some of the magicians that will be featured. Although David Copperfield is an active link, there are no illusions available for viewing – just a list of his television specials with a sub list of the illusions in each special. The illusions will have active links just as soon as the material is produced. The David Blaine link now includes an illusion breakdown of his recent television special, Street Magic. At this moment, the only available illusion is the Balducci Levitation. Others will be made available just as soon as the material is produced.
September 15, 1997 – EXPOSURE goes online, thanks to free web hosting from GeoCities. The Balducci Levitation is the only illusion available.
Yep, that’s it. A grand total of two updates… both done in 1997. Nearly 19 years ago.
And that’s odd. A site going online in 1997, having a total of two updates, and then being swiftly abandoned wasn’t exactly rare. But the fact the site is still online certainly is. Even more weirdly, the site was obviously originally hosted on Geocities, which has obviously long since closed – but the author bothered to find new hosting, buy a proper domain name for the site, and then continue to do nothing else with the site. Not even remove the little Geocities GIFs. Just to make things even stranger, through checking archive.org it appears the site had some inconsequential changes made in 1999, but the currently online site is an earlier version!
A bit of research indicates that the domain name was bought in 2005, although it seems to have only been active since 2010. Geocities closed in 2009. So it seems that the site was created in 1997, sat idle on Geocities for years until Geocities closed, then moved to its own hosting… but still with no updates whatsoever.
An old site falling off the web is a shame, but understandable. An active site moving hosts and continuing to be updated is understandable. Even an inactive site which has a huge archive of material moving hosts and staying online is understandable. But a website with no content, which is never updated, suddenly moving hosts after years, but still completely abandoned?
That’s just weird. Maybe someone’s got a magic trick up their sleeve and are just playing a really long game.
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.
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The Bodies of Leakin Park, “Hae Min Lee”, from October 16th 2014:
“Maybe my prejudice is showing through but who in their right mind lets their daughter date a man named “Adnan Musud Syed”? Putting that aside, I am intrigued that Mr. Syed is at Cumberland. I could see where he would have spent the first 5 years of his sentence there, since that is where the state likes to send violent offenders first to cool off, however, there is a point in time where an inmate has to grow a pair and face the general pop in Hagerstown. It’s been long enough, Mr. Syed is 28, let’s quit coddling him.”
Serial, Season 1 Episode 10, “The Best Defense is a Good Defense”, from 4th December 2014:
SARAH KOENIG: Reporting this story, I found plenty of examples of casual prejudice against Muslims. One of Adnan’s teachers for example: “Think about what he would have been taught about women and women’s rights.” Another teacher I talked to told me she was terrified at the time that Adnan’s relatives were going to come after her for talking to the detectives. She told me she assumed his parents were evil. On that website that lists all the bodies found in Leakin Park, the author’s commentary about Hae Min Lee’s case is: “Maybe my prejudice is showing through but who in their right mind lets their daughter date a man named Adnan Musud Syed?”
The Bodies of Leakin Park, “Hae Min Lee”, today.1 The section quoted from October 2014 above is entirely deleted. In its place:
“1) I am intrigued that Mr. Syed is at Cumberland. I could see where he would have spent the first 5 years of his sentence there, since that is where the state likes to send violent offenders first to cool off, however, there is a point in time where an inmate has to grow a pair and face the general pop in Hagerstown. Nobody is asking the tough questions as to why he is still in Cumberland, could it be unruly behavior?
2) Sarah Koenig is the most irresponsible self-serving human being on the planet. Adnan Syed is not getting out of prison ever, he’s guilty.”
Whether this change was an appropriate and convincing way of dealing with Koenig’s comments, I shall leave as an exercise for the reader.
Having spent yesterday praising a blog about television, today I thought I’d slag one off instead. Always a dangerous game when in the past you’ve published things like the top post on this page, but never let it be said that I am not courageous.
On one of my random click-anywhere-and-see-what-happens jaunts on which I waste most of my life, I came across Mouthbox, a “TV reviews & media blog”. Oooh, a a review of House of Fools – I’ll give that a read. I disagree with most of it – especially the part about being “protected from the truth”, also quoted below – but that’s not the point of this post. The part I want to concentrate on is the second half of the following sentence:
“Reeves and Mortimer also have enough friends in high places at the Beeb to be protected from the truth, and a second series has probably already been commissioned despite the glaring problems with this pilot.”
Which is a very odd thing to write, as this piece was published in March 2015… in the middle of the show’s second series.
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