Oct13

Archiving The Web: What Happens To Websites When They Die?

Posted by Madeleine Bruce

Where do websites go when they’re no longer in use?

The modern internet is defined both by its ephemerality and its permanence. We seek instant gratification, and we consider any news posted over a day ago to be irrelevant. But at the same time, we expect every URL, blog post, article, and meme in the entire history of the world wide web to be accessible and at our fingertips whenever we want it—whether it’s in the next hour, or a year from now.

Part of the reason for this seemingly paradoxical set of expectations is space, or, more specifically, the lack of limitation on space. Once upon a time, back issues of newspapers and magazines had to be stored in a physical location, as did film negatives and reels. Indeed, there has never been a medium in history that has offered no limitations on how much we could produce. There is no need to be selective about what content we post or webpages we make, because there is simply no scarcity around where we keep them once we’re done with them.

However, our somewhat lackadaisical approach to posting and storing things online comes into focus when we face the prospect of a vital contribution to the internet culture withering away with time. Such is the case with the website archive of Gawker. The gossip website’s parent company was recently sold to Univision after the company’s lawsuit-fueled bankruptcy. While its successful spin-offs like Jezebel and Deadspin will continue operating, Gawker has officially ceased publication and the question of what to do with the company’s sizeable archive—the website published 200,000 posts over its lifetime—is now facing not just the company, but archival institutions and the internet community at large.

There are several reasonable outcomes for Gawker’s archive. After auctioning it off to please his company’s creditors, site founder Nick Denton might be able to purchase it back to keep the site’s archive alive without posting any new content. Or, the man who funded the website that downed Gawker (tech billionaire Peter Thiel) will buy it and end his vendetta forever by drowning all the site’s past content. Another option is that a neutral third party could buy it and take down posts they feel might spur further lawsuits.

But as Christopher Bonanos makes the case in New York Magazine, “The early content of Gawker, in particular, is of real significance in the history of journalism … whether you like it or not, or mimic it or not, what they did changed the way things are done. For that alone, it is (and will be) worth study, and is thus worth preserving.”

Bonanos goes on to make the case that because of Gawker’s early significance and cultural contributions to the internet and to writing, a library or academic institution, such as the Library of Congress, should take up the work of archiving the site. As he notes, “the barrier is not an issue of storage space, which the cloud makes nearly infinite; it’s a question of dedicated manpower to set up an information funnel, bring all the data in, and catalogue it and make it accessible.”

This far into the internet age, it is quite concerning that we do not have a formal or agreed-upon protocol for archiving inactive online material like Gawker that no longer has an owner, but still have cultural significance. The existing Wayback Machine, which describes itself as “a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more”, does great work, but doesn’t provide the kind of granular and detailed archival work that a site like Gawker would need.

As the internet evolves, and more and more once-powerful sites we couldn’t imagine not being around go defunct, the question of archiving is likely to become more prominent. Gawker is, in many ways, serving as a case study for how much we care about cultural content after it’s lost its newsiness.  

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