For the first time in forever I visited the popular links page over on Pinboard, where the site’s most bookmarked URLs are displayed for public perusal. A few dozen users bubbled a recent Tim Bray article, “Google Memory Loss,” up near the top and it hit a soft spot in me. Here’s the thesis:
I think Google has stopped indexing the older parts of the Web.
Bray goes on to prove it and offer alternatives, namely DuckDuckGo (my preferred search engine) and Bing. Anecdotally, this comports with my own experience online and reminded me of a defunct little project I’ve been thinking about lately.
For three brief installments in 2013, I had a look-back column here called Hindsight. The idea was to read year-old stories and find at least one article on the web at least a decade old. It was an attempt to step away from the daily firehose of current events (already a problem back then; today, a national crisis) and learn something new. Far and away, the most interesting part of this short-lived exercise was finding really old stuff on the web.
I had a few little tricks to discover aging content back then, including using Google’s date range search tool. Trying to use the same tool again this week brings up precious few useful results. From the outside looking in, it feels as though Google is discarding the early web. Which is strange given the company’s supposed raison d’être of organizing the world’s content.
But all is not lost! In search of what was happening this week on the web ten years ago, I started visiting older blogs whose owners have been responsible stewards of their archive. First up was Kottke.org. Imagine my surprise when I saw that Jason had taken the third week of January 2008 off and handed the site over to…Awl co-founder Choire Sicha! The Awl shuttered yesterday, as did sister site The Hairpin.1 It’s a blow to independent publishing, but also a straight-up bummer to anyone who’s been reading online for more than a few years. We’ve already had to live without a Gawker, now this?
Oh, back to ten years ago this week.
Sicha spent the better part of January 17, 2008, sharing stories of New York City during the early 1990s, apparently research for something I haven’t quite been able to figure out. The wildest, I think, was a 1991 New York Times article on East Village apartment owners desperately trying to sell their abodes (in one case to the tune of a $100,000 loss) with no takers.
The topics bob and weave all over the map throughout the week. There are two posts that ponder whether it was too soon for Cloverfield after 9/11 (and a third that considers the same topic as it relates to a Laurie Anderson live album). He alerts readers to Apple’s introduction of iTunes movie rentals and complains about the lack of copy-paste on iPhone.
In a strange confluence of my own recent interests, Sicha points to news of work on a musical version of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. I had never heard of Maupin until a few weeks ago, when PBS aired The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin (still waiting for me in my DVR queue) and I grabbed the first volume of Tales from the library. (I’ve started out my year with an interest in serialized fiction.) Anyway, the musical ended up premiering in 2011, called by SFGate theater critic Robert Hurwitt “a blithe, comic and pleasantly tuneful celebration of sex, drugs and all kinds of coming out in freewheeling, pre-AIDS San Francisco circa 1976.”
The web has changed dramatically in the decade since Sicha’s week on Kottke.org. It’s a blogging style (furious, scattershot, immediate) the modern reader may not even recognize. And if Google really has stopped indexing the older bits of the web, it’s a style the future reader may not have the chance to consider.
I guess it’s incumbent upon the rest of us to keep that corpus relevant. The Internet Archive does the hard work of preserving the web as it was2 and, as Bray mentioned in his article, other search engines are doing much better than Google. But an archive is nothing if it’s not gone through every once in awhile, just as an unused library serves merely as a warehouse.
I know I learned a great deal from looking at just one site as it was a decade ago. I’m curious to hear if others find this interesting as well. As I mentioned above, I’ve been thinking about the Hindsight column that I never really pursued. If I started it again today, I would probably focus only on stories published at least ten years ago. I’d like to be a bit more deliberate about it this time around, and it would help to hear if people would want to read something like this regularly. Would you want to read it here? A new site? In the oh-so-of-the-moment newsletter form? Let me know what you think in the comments or on twitter or drop me a line. Or just come back again soon to see where this goes.