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A Blue Perspective: Record of Events

Record of Events
13 December 2004

An advantage quite often has a flipside; a strength that is also a weakness. One of the major strengths of the Internet is the speed with which information can be disseminated, change propagated. But this rapid shifting in the sands of the Web also leads to an historical impermanence. The Internet Archive plays an incomparable role as online librarian, but the sheer amount of data and the rate at which those page counters tick over makes it an impossibility for one institution to capture it all. That's why web sites have to be self-contained historic entities.

Most weblogs do a commendable job of keeping a public record – their archives are built for just this purpose, as is their usage of permanent URLs to allow people to easily remember (bookmark) and access those less contemporary pages. However, one area in which I feel some improvement could be made is during editing and deletion.

While a web page can be likened to its print counterparts, the two are still markedly different. For current purposes, the most pertinent difference is that I can lend a book to one of my friends and they can read precisely the same story of romantic intrigue in the courts of 17th Century England as I did, but I can pass them the URL to an online debate and they could read an entirely different account to the one I did. Or – worst case scenario – none of it might actually have happened at all. Advantage: the ability to update data instantly. Disadvantage: the ability to erase history instantly.

The most recent example that I encountered of this was when they mentioned the release of Firefox at IEBlog. Understandably, they had to delete a few off-topic comments from well spoken open source zealots, but in so doing it severely disrupted the flow of the debate surrounding the post, given that several of the "valid" comments refer to what was said in the deleted comments. While it may be out of reason to leave the contents of "invalid" comments on the page (and leaving free speech concerns aside), it would have been eminently helpful to me if they had at least acknowledged the deletion of these comments, thus saving me a few minutes of head scratching and analysis as to what exactly people were talking about.

Boing Boing has a fairly admirable self-editing regime using strikethroughs, so you can see corrections to their posts or updates to the content without incinerating prior content. Questionable editing aside, the CSS Vault also lets you follow along with deleted comments by replacing the content but still leaving a reference to it.

The value of preserving data in areas of debate and expression is fairly evident, but I'm uncertain as to its applicability across the Internet as a whole. While it is often interesting to view last season's products, and possibly even valuable to read information on previous incarnations of Adobe Photoshop, the cost and logistics of doing so in a commercial context can often outweigh its value. Still, keep it in mind next time you're about to hit delete – those inbound Google links can be invaluable.

Comments

1/5. 13 December 2004 @ 08:17, Mike D. wrote:

By the way, in case anyone hasn't heard of the INS and DEL tags, they are the best way to edit content so that the revisions are visible.

As much as I thought I knew about HTML, I had never used an INS or DEL tag until a couple of months ago. They are much better than STRIKE tags or simple CSS styling as they have the correct semantic value for what you're trying to accomplish. I generally style my INS content as green text and DEL as red strikethrough text.

2/5. 13 December 2004 @ 09:28, Jonathan Snook wrote:

Spooky. I was just in the middle of writing a post that touches on this very topic. While the first version is a little rushed, I put together a Document Version Switcher http://www.snook.ca/archives/000297.html using INS and DEL tags along with JavaScript and CSS.

3/5. 13 December 2004 @ 19:16, mattymcg wrote:

Great post Cam. Thanks also to the above comments as I wasn't aware of the INS and DEL tags either.

Another aspect to preserving the historical internet is the styling of the page, not just the HTML.

The last time I redesigned my blog, I moved it across from blosxom to Movable Type, and gave it a facelift at the same time.

In hindsight, I really miss my old pages, and should have left them as they were. I was faced with the at-the-time perfectionist dilemma of wanting to have a consistent style across the board. Instead I should have just started fresh, like Zeldman has done with a lot of his archives:

http://www.zeldman.com/misc.html

Reading through them is kinda like picking up one of the books you talked about. All the old-school ways of coding and imagery are there in their proudest forms.

I like Mr Shea's style archive on mezzoblue:

http://www.mezzoblue.com/archives/2004/09/05/a_different_/index.php

which is a pretty good compromise between preserving history without having inconsistent pages. Although you have to search for it...

Then again, the internet ISN'T a book. It is forever changing, and it's folly to hope it won't.

4/5. 13 December 2004 @ 21:45, dusoft wrote:

Have you heard about project Xanadu?
http://xanadu.com/

It was created back in 60's for the same reason you are proposing.

In the hypertext system of Xanadu model everything is archived. Every single byte (character) is being archived when changed. That means, there is infinite number of versions available and you can link directly to the current version of the page. That means if somebody changes it afterwards, anyone other is able to see the same version you had sent to him.

5/5. 16 December 2004 @ 00:09, Unearthed Ruminator wrote:

I've taken to creating screen shots of old layouts and saving those - I've even published some at http://homepage.mac.com/unearthed/history/PhotoAlbum14.html if anyone is interested.

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