How fragile is our web?

The web is slowly being eroded by link rot - or, at least, sits history is. Is enough being done to preserve the internet's past?

I’ve been blogging an awfully long time – over 10 years now, in fact. When I go through my archives, it’s depressing how many links are now dead; the sites or content they pointed to long gone. Our web is a surprisingly fragile thing. Dave Winer posted a long series of thoughts on the same subject:

Right now the archive of the early blogosphere is in an unknown state. There were sites at Blogger, Movable Type, we hosted some at, and I would like to see all of it safe and ready for future readers and researchers. Not as museum exhibits (this is what an ancient blog looked like) but as literature that’s available to anyone at any time. There probably were some great writers back then, and there certainly is history that we have already lost that can be resurrected. But every day that gets harder. We should do something about this.

Winer points out that, in the vent of his death, his entire archive could be gone within two months, if there”s nobody there to actively maintain it. Sometimes, a partner will pick up the reins and keep a blog going after someone dies – as happened with the real estate sustainability blog Elemental, when its author Mel Starrs died unexpectedly and tragically last year. Her work is being preserved for posterity, but that of so many bloggers isn’t. We have legal deposit libraries to maintain a record of physically published works. Do we need something like that for the web?

At first glance Facebook and its ilk being the default point of publication for many people seems to address part of the problem – they’re not going to fade away like some individual blogger’s site. But Kevin Marks mused about the benefits and risks of the emergence of the huge social networks in recent years:

By shielding people from the complexities of the web, by removing the fragility of links, we’re actually making things worse. We’re creating a fragility debt. Suddenly, something changes – money runs out, a pivot is declared, an aquihire happens, and the pent-up fragility is resolved in a Black Swan moment.

The special place disappears entirely.

If Facebook went away, for whatever reason, I wonder how many people would lose great tranches of their photos? If they’ve been sharing them straight from their phones to the social network, do those photos even exist anywhere? Are we swapping piecemeal fragility for massive singe points of failure?

Winer’s post was triggered by the heartening news that’s Wayback Machine has been updated with new code and more data – so at least some effort is being made to capture the web for posterity. But is there space amongst the web’s rampant neophilia for a focus on preserving the old, lest the history of this defining moment in humanity’s ability to share information across the world is lost?

Photo by Jess Wood on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons licence