Error 404: A Look At Digital Decay
In 2005, one of the most intriguing advertising stunts of the internet age was hatched.
Alex Tew launched the The Million Dollar Homepage, where anyone could “own a piece of internet history” by purchasing pixels-plots (minimum of 10×10) on a massive digital canvas. At the price of just one dollar per pixel, everyone from individual internet users to well-known companies like Yahoo! raced to claim a space on the giant digital canvas.
Today, The Million Dollar Homepage lives on as a perfect record of that wacky time in internet history – or so it seems. However, the reality is that many of the hyperlinks on the canvas are now redirects that send incoming users to other sites, while over 20% of them are simply dead.
Here are the links that still work on the Million Dollar Homepage today:
The revealing graphic above, via John Bowers, raises the question – how do hyperlinks disappear, and what implications does this “digital decay” have?
The internet is stitched together by an incalculable number of hyperlinks, but much like cells in an organism, the sources and destinations have a finite lifespan. Essentially, links can and do die.
Most “link rot” is the result of website restructuring, or entities going out of business and pulling their website offline.
A high-impact example of this is when Yahoo! pulled the plug on GeoCities, one of the first popular web hosting services. In one fell swoop, roughly 7 million websites (containing a plethora of animated gifs, auto-playing midi files, and traffic counters) went dark forever.
Links can also die because of more deliberate reasons, as well. In 2015, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, Ben Smith, came under fire for deleting thousands of posts from the site (including content that was critical of Buzzfeed advertisers). Journalism has traditionally acted as a public record, so this type of “decay” has serious implications on the credibility of media brands.
This idea of a public record is at the heart of why digital decay is an issue worth addressing. Once millions of links simply burn out, what will people in the future know about society in the early-ish days of the internet? What record will remain of people’s thoughts and feelings in that era?
I worry that the twenty-first century will become an informational black hole.
– Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer
Perhaps more urgent are public records that live in the digital realm. Supreme Court decisions and academia lean heavily on citations to build their arguments. What happens when those citations simply vanish? A Harvard study found that 49% of the hyperlinks in Supreme Court decisions are now broken.
Even that ubiquitous resource, Wikipedia, has serious issues caused by digital decay. Over 130,000 entries link to dead pages – a troubling development, as linked citations are what lend entries their credibility.
Backing Up The Internet
A handful of people are taking steps to archive the internet.
The most well-known solution is Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which has archived hundreds of billions webpages over the past 20 years. Even the The Library of Congress – which is well known for archiving digital information such as tweets – contracts Internet Archive to do its web crawling.
The academia-focused Perma is another example of a company looking to create permanent records of the web sources (particularly citations).
Many of the weird and wonderful forums and hand-coded homepages of early internet lore may be gone, but we’re finally taking steps to combat digital decay. As awareness grows, avoiding an “informational black hole” may be possible.