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.
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