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Virtually Dead: Picking at the Bones of the  Web's Graveyard

 By Eric Gardner (ericgardner@wwwiz.com)

 Ever wonder what it might  be like to walk among the dead?  Believe it or not, you might have already tread that path–without  realizing it.

          The Internet, it turns out, is quite a haunted place these days.  Millions of Web sites die–but many of  them don't exactly ``pass away."  What really happens with Web sites when the people that create them  abandon town?  The answer might  astonish you.  Could the Internet be  the digital age's answer to the old adage:  ``the only certainty in life is death"?

          Ask Steve Baldwin.  As Web's  resident Grim Reaper, Baldwin has been collecting the souls of long-unupdated  Web pages–``ghosts"–for three years now.  And if Baldwin's accomplishments prove anything, it's this: The road  between life and death is a lot shorter than it used to  be.

          Baldwin's inspiration came late one night, on a sailboat no less.  Navigating his way back to land, Baldwin  worried about hitting an old propeller, a lobster trap or possibly something  worse.  His pulse racing, Baldwin  had an inspired moment: ``It popped in my mind that the Internet is just like  that–there is all this dead matter out there, all these strange things.  I thought of the Flying Dutchman, the  legend of these lost ships with no crews that continued to float across the  ocean."

This epiphany led him to  finger a phenomenon that few had noticed before: ``Ghost Sites," those breathing  pages of HTML code that lurk on a vast Internet domain, abandoned or forgotten  by creators. Working at Time Warner's Pathfinder at the time, Baldwin put up his  first Ghost Sites list without the knowledge of management.  Later, Baldwin's lists generated a  following on an obscure corner of GeoCities, before finding its home and loyal  fan base at the irreverent zine Disobey.  Baldwin's ghosts have included  everything from personal home pages like Sabrina's sensual pictures of herself  to corporate start-ups like Pathfinder itself.

          What's it like traveling in a ghost town?

          Baldwin's lists serve as a good map for anyone who dares to try it.  Enter a ``ghost site," and you're most  likely in a place whose ominous sign on the door reads, ``Updates Coming  Soon."  Search harder, and you may  be able to locate the notice that makes the ``death" official–something like  ``Last Update: November, 1995."

Keep digging: Many of the  links may still be working. But don't believe everything you see: You'll be  hard-pressed to see ``live 1996 Summer Olympics action" or a ``countdown to the  year 1999" no matter what you're promised. Look even closer: graphics and color  schemes pop up which are often cringe-inducing, designed in a time when Web page  builders were mostly archaic tools few knew how to use.  Most important, find the key piece of  evidence from this autopsy: the signature, most likely represented as an  opportunity to email the Webmaster. Think about this person for a second,  because this ``ghost" probably has forgotten his own whereabouts. 

          Why would anyone let this happen?  The ``novelty" of the Web might be one season, Baldwin says.  As millions of individuals adjust to  this new presence in their lives, sites will often go up for goings-up sake.  Many have yet to figure out precisely how the Internet can be useful or  profitable to them. Baldwin points to the example of Christ.org, a site containing only one  picture, whose real function, he says, is for Christ.org's Webmaster to hold the  domain name as a ``place holder" for future speculation.  Or he points to YPN.net (Your Personal  Net), a corporation that failed to make money and then proceeded to fire its  entire staff.  Why did YPN.net then  survive as a ghost for more than a year?  ``I guess the last person out of the office that night just didn't purge  the server, and they never took the time to get the password from the chief  administrator before they locked him out," Baldwin says.

          Ghosts on the Web provoke some pretty serious questions as well.  Like the time a student in Finland  killed himself and left no word on what to do with his Web site.  ``Is it better to leave it up or take it  down?" Baldwin asks.  Or the  instance when a stockbroker lost $300 million on Wall Street, and all of a  sudden had an embarrassing Web site on his hands promoting his ``Grade A  Investment Firm."

``Let's say you get wiped  out tomorrow or your house burns down," Baldwin says.  ``You're not going to update your Web  site at this point–the hell with that!  Now you're trying to keep a roof over your head.  This guy was so totally wiped out that  he could not even get that down–an eerie case of real life interrupting the  virtual one."

But these ghost sites  don't have to be provocative to raise a fuss.  After all, they are everywhere, and it  is Baldwin's mission to point them out.  Lose your password?  Don't  have access to your university server anymore?  Have a Mentos Fan Appreciation Page that  hasn't been updated in a while?  If  so, you're a ghost (and who you going to call?).  Baldwin says:  ``I've had a lot of reports from people  who have said, `Hey this is my site!  And I'd love to remove it, but I can't get to it anymore.'  "

Sometimes, even when a  site is taken down, as was the case when the FBI took down the notorious  Heaven's Gate home page, the entity still manages to find an afterlife.  In the case of Heaven's Gate, Baldwin  says, the FBI took it down only to find 11 other mirror sites it had no control  over. Many of these sites still remain  (see for example http://www.webcoast.com/heavensgate.com).   ``When you look at these sites, you are looking at the actual graphics created by  someone who is no longer around," Baldwin says. ``It is kind of spooky if you  think about it."

          For his part, Baldwin says he has no plans to ditch his efforts to  classify these ghosts.  He says that  if he's late with his Ghost Sites update–even a week–some joker will send in his  URL and suggest, ``This is a ghost site."  And Baldwin laughs off any suggestion that fate might catch up to him and  his pet Web site one day.  ``The  ultimate irony is if Ghost Sites ever became a ghost site," he says.  ``I would be virtually crucified.  I would become the biggest hypocrite on  the Internet. For reasons that I never anticipated, I have committed to keeping  this thing going for as long as I keep going."

 

Chicago-based writer Eric  Gardner, 22, is alive and well, making sure his virtual identity is properly  taken care of.  His articles have been featured in Upside, Adbusters, and  Inter@ctive Week.

 

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