Here today, gone tomorrow: why the next decade’s web won’t feel familiar

Paul Raven @ 07-10-2009

mosaic of Web2.0 logosPeople seem to be waking up to the impermanence of the web of late. TechDirt points us to a mainstream journalism article at the Globe & Mail, which springboards from the imminent nuking of GeoCities to worrying what will happen to all of your pictures uploaded to Facebook when it eventually (and inevitably) goes the same way. [image by jonas_therkildson]

Lately, there’s been so much discussion about the permanence of information – especially the embarrassing kind – that we have overlooked the fact that it can also disappear. At a time when we’re throwing all kinds of data and memories onto free websites, it’s a blunt reminder that the future can bring unwelcome surprises.

Ten years ago, you could have called GeoCities the garish, beating heart of the Web. It was one of the first sites that threw its doors open to users and invited them to populate its pages according to their own creativity. At a time when the Web was still daunting, it encouraged laypeople to set up their own homepages free of charge.

Kinda like the forerunner of MySpace, then, albeit (somewhat ironically) easier on the eyes and ears… and MySpace’s days are certainly (and mercifully) numbered, if the traffic figures are to be believed. But I digress…

And now, it’s curtains. GeoCities won’t disappear entirely. The Internet Archive – a non-profit foundation based in San Francisco dedicated to backing up the Web for posterity’s sake – is trying to salvage as much as it can before the deadline hits. At least one other independent group is trying to do the same. But this complicates things, because it puts GeoCities users’ data into the hands of an unaccountable third party.

Money-losing websites aren’t exactly novelties. Smaller sites flicker in and out of existence like those bugs that only have 18 hours to mate before they die. But it’s disconcerting to see a big site – one that, long ago, was one of the most popular on the Web – not just fade into obscurity, but come to its end game.

It bring to light some truths about data that are easily overlooked. Websites are like buildings: you can’t just abandon them indefinitely and expect them to keep working. For one thing, that electronic storage isn’t free. Storing files requires media that degrade and computers that fail and power that needs paying for.

The obvious answer here is to make sure you have local backups of anything stored “in the cloud” that you couldn’t bear to lose… but it’s only obvious to those with some degree of computer savvy, and (based on personal experience) everyone else is insufficiently bothered to worry about it ahead of time, no matter how patiently you try to explain the situation. If nothing else, there’ll always be good money for people who can write custom API scraping tools for defunct social networks… that business model will be the new equivalent to the photography studios places who now make their income by scanning and retouching old snapshots from the pre-digital era.

But other changes in the way we use the web are very much afoot, as pointed out by Clive Thompson at Wired. For the last decade, classic search has been the dominant internet tool, propelling Google to the top of the pyramid. But this is the age of Twitter, the temporal gateway into the “real-time web”; maybe the old surfing metaphor will finally make more sense when we’re all riding the Zeitgeist of trending topics:

For more than 10 years, Google has organized the Web by figuring out who has authority. The company measures which sites have the most links pointing to them—crucial votes of confidence—and checks to see whether a site grew to prominence slowly and organically, which tends to be a marker of quality. If a site amasses a zillion links overnight, it’s almost certainly spam.

But the real-time Web behaves in the opposite fashion. It’s all about “trending topics”—zOMG a plane crash!—which by their very nature generate a massive number of links and postings within minutes. And a search engine can’t spend days deciding what is the most crucial site or posting; people want to know immediately.

[…]

“It’s exactly what your friends are going to be talking about when you get to the bar tonight,” OneRiot executive Tobias Peggs says. “That’s what we’re finding.” Google settles arguments; real-time search starts them.

Well, at least we’re not going to be short of things to argue about. If that ever happened, the web would probably close down due to lack of interest… 😉

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