Virtually Dead: Picking at the Bones of the Web's Graveyard
By Eric Gardner (email@example.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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