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11/7/2003
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Best Of Listening Post

Today's topic is World Wide Web permanence. Does what we post every day deserve to be preserved for posterity? What sites should be handed down to our children?

Misty Water-Colored Memories
Just when you thought the dot-com bubble had paid its last dividend, along comes a fresh idea for yesterday's detritus.

"Ove Hansen" read an Associated Press article on InformationWeek.com about Web-site ghosts--sites that are no longer cared for. Maybe ghosts is the wrong word. They're more like most household projects: conceptually interesting but not interesting enough to inspire the enthusiasm to complete them. Ove thinks there is intrinsic value to at least some of these World Wide Web dormers and gazebos.

"Recycling electronic material is very easy," writes Ove at "Yesteryear's Castoffs" - tomorrows collector's item?. "Flip a few billion bits on a hard drive and you have gone from reporting on the war in the Gulf, to running an E-commerce site for cosmetics or mortgages. However, in the meantime, you have irrevocably destroyed a piece of the modern history of human communication."

Before you think our friend is too sentimental, he adds that he wouldn't compare the erasure of a blog with "the burning of a 15th century Gutenberg Bible. But I believe that in the future, maybe even the most trivial of today's sites can be of interest to people."

Imagine two early hominids looking at the back wall of their cave, covered in overlapping, impressionistic images of wildlife. "This would be a good place for a breakfast nook, Gothor." Gothor's thick brows shoot back on her slanting skull. "What are you grunting about, Pahtuck? This is a record of our world. Future generations will know us through this art."

Giving his mate's views some thought, Pahtuck replies, "Like they're not going to look out their cave on the same old mammoth hunts and saber-toothed-cat attacks going on outside right now." Then he picks up a stone ax to start an intimate corner (that he never finishes).

Back to Ove: "Maybe E-libraries should be created to safeguard the information (no matter how trivial or maybe even offensive it might be) that we put on the Web every day."

Actually, Ove isn't the only person to have this idea. I remember researching how the candidates in the California recall election (speaking of heavy brows) were using the Internet to win votes. I was deep into a site for Bill Simon, the man who unsuccessfully ran against California Gov. Gray Davis during the last actual gubernatorial election, when I realized that this particular site was, indeed, from Simon's first campaign. Although he was running in the recall, he hadn't launched a new site.

I'd found the site through a Google search and didn't notice that it had become part of an archive created by UCLA. Check it out yourself at www.library.ucla.edu/mgi/ campaign/2002/cal/primary/ gov/simon/website/index.php.htm.

There's also a site, web.archive.org/ collections/web.html, that has organized coverage of specific events. The Internet Archive Wayback Machine offers collections of era-defining Web pages. Want to see Yahoo's home page from Dec. 20, 1996? How about the Jan. 8, 1997, home page for the Well?

And, despite its whimsical name, the Wayback Machine can resurrect sobering emotions for those of us getting much of our information online. One collection documents online coverage of Sept. 11, 2001. Reading, for instance, France's LeMonde's reaction to the attacks is as thought-provoking as it is visceral.

As Ove points out, ephemeral as our online world is, at least aspects of it are likely to be important to have around. What sites from your personal, business, or cultural past do you think need to be saved?

Don't be shy, but do be civil in the Listening Post, informationweek.com/LP.

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