An article published this week by The Atlantic rings an alarm over the impermanence of online-only content.
In ‘Raiders of the Lost Web’ Adrienne LaFrance uses as a case study an early venture in turning a piece of narrative journalism into a multimedia ‘web experience’:
[Kevin] Vaughan spent the better part of a year reporting the story. And in that time, a team of web designers, photographers, videographers, and engineers worked with him to build a web experience around the series—the first time the [Rocky Mountain News] had built something digital of this scope… It was worth the effort… In 2008, Vaughan was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for the series. The next year, the Rocky folded. And in the months that followed, the website slowly broke apart. One day, without warning, “The Crossing” evaporated from the Internet.
In the (less important) world of beer much of value has also been lost, in part or in full, or lingers on only in fragile form via the Wayback Machine web archiving project.
The late John White’s website White Beer Travels limped on for a while after his death in 2007 but the domain has now been hijacked by someone selling sailing holidays. Most of the content is available with a bit of searching via Wayback Machine, like, for example, this 2005 piece which captures first-hand the early days of Thornbridge Brewery.
Evan Rail’s brilliant 2011 piece deconstructing myths around the founding of the Burgher’s Brewery in Pilsen no longer shows up in Google searches because his blog has expired, though it thankfully lingers on in the WBM archive if you know to look for it, or follow the trail from other blogs.
Another website we used a lot when we were just learning about beer, and referred to in the early stages of research for Brew Britannia, was the Oxford Bottled Beer Database. Like an early, more homely version of Ratebeer or Beer Advocate, it comprised a comprehensive list of beers available in the UK with multiple user reviews and tasting notes. It was useful for answering all sort of questions: Has this beer changed over time? When did it first become available in the UK? How did people react to it in 1998? And so on.
Tom Fryer founded the site with two university friends turned colleagues in 1996 as a way to record their own tasting notes, and to show off their web and database design skills. He told us why it has disappeared in recent years:
We were always rather idealistic and commercially naïve as far as the OBBD was concerned, perhaps because it was so personal to us. For example, we deliberately avoided paid advertisements for a long time, because we wanted the site to be seen as independent of any influence from breweries. As a result, it never looked like generating any money, so ‘real’ work had to come first. It also required colossal amounts of time to keep the OBBD up to date, to weed out spam reviews, to maintain the subscriber newsletter, to deal with correspondence and to moderate the discussion forums, meaning that we could barely keep up. Then we began to have major server problems – a combination of high traffic, deluges of spam and people trying to hack the database. First of all we were forced into reluctantly shutting down the forums, but after one particularly bad hack we had to disable the submission forms for a while too. We decided to use this downtime for a complete site overhaul, to make it both more secure and more personalised to our users. In the end, though, our plans proved too ambitious for our available time and, partly due to the recent server problems and partly because we were also restructuring our own business at the time, our hearts weren’t quite in it any more. The OBBD never recovered.
Tom still has all the raw data and has given some thought to making the archive available again but, for now, doesn’t have the time to do it in a way which is secure and useful.
There are no doubt many other personal websites, e-books, blogs and online articles which have come and gone. Many others that remain active and accessible now may not be in ten years time.
Main image adapted from ‘404 – common sense not found’ by Kim Bach, from Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.