A mausoleum for Internet ghosts

Old Web sites never die, they just drift aimlessly in cyberspace. Steve Baldwin has given them a place to spend the afterlife.

January 10, 1999|By Patti Hartigan | Patti Hartigan,BOSTON GLOBE

Steve Baldwin didn't set out to be an online ghost-buster: It just sort of happened. It began on a summer night in 1996. He was drifting in Long Island Sound on a pleasure craft. The captain and crew had fallen asleep, leaving Baldwin at the helm. Now, Baldwin is a Webmaster (as in World Wide Web), not a shipmaster: In other words, he didn't have a clue. What did he do?

"I had this sense of peril," he recalls, "and all of a sudden, I started thinking about the Internet." Of course.

"I was working at Pathfinder [Time Warner's erstwhile pioneering Web site] at the time, and I suddenly realized that everything we were creating is immortal. It all crystallized for me: Web sites are like ghost ships, like the Flying Dutchman. Unless you keep a crew on board, they'll drift like haunted phantoms in the night."

Metaphorical musings aside, Baldwin had a slightly more pressing problem in the real world. He was steering straight for a jetty.

As the story goes, the captain woke up just in time to put the ship back on course. Baldwin got off the boat, retired his deck shoes, and proceeded to set up Ghost Sites, a Web page that offers a whimsical chronicle of abandoned Web sites gathering cobwebs in cyberspace.

It's a sort of online mausoleum, with witty commentary about sites that continue to broadcast the "latest" news from, say, two or three years ago. Baldwin seeks out mothballed pages and rates them with a little ghost system (three ghosts for a site that is "dead, but well-preserved"; five for a site that is "stuffed, embalmed and ready for an Internet museum.")

A few examples: The "official" site hawking Woodstock '94, featuring pages counting down to the day of the event; posted in the infancy of the Web, they are quaint displays of simple text and images that give you the same feeling you get when reading an essay you wrote in grade school.

Then there's the site commemorating the death of Jerry Garcia, offering the "latest" photos of tie-dyed mourners. One site connects you to breaking news on the Blizzard of '96; another celebrates the 100th running of the Boston Marathon -- too bad it happened two years ago.

This is amusing stuff for online archaeologists, but these specters represent a deeper problem. What happens to a site after the novelty wears off and the creator just lets it slide (or forgets the password required to update the content)? The answer is: nothing. Such sites drift aimlessly. And they can be annoying obstacles for folks who use the Internet for research, slowing users down when ghost sites haunt search results.

By nature, the Internet is decentralized, without an official archivist or librarian. That's part of its chaotic beauty -- and a source of its frustration.

"This isn't the Dewey Decimal System; it's a very imprecise way of finding information," Baldwin says. The best way to avoid surfing ghost sites -- albeit an imperfect solution -- is to use the advanced options available on some search engines.

One search engine has even made dead sites part of its national advertising campaign: The television spots for Hotbot.com feature a bunch of old cronies offering investment tips: "I've got a hot one," a gray-haired suit advises. "Asbestos. It's a new miracle fiber." You get the point.

Andrew DeVries, director of marketing and communications for Wired Digital, Hotbot's parent company, says the ads aim to stress the fact that the search engine updates its database every three to four weeks to weed out "dead links" that lead users to a "Document Not Found" message. It doesn't do anything about the ghosts, though.

"Those sites show you the triteness from the beginning of the Web, when everybody went out and created a site and then realized it's actually a lot of work to maintain them," DeVries says. "You end up with all these little islands in cyberspace that no one has any interest in."

Baldwin stalks those islands to get a good laugh, but he's also a strong proponent of a serious project to archive the Internet -- phantoms and all -- for historical purposes. Founded in San Fran-cisco by a pioneer named Brewster Kahle, the Internet Archive -- www.archive.org -- aims to preserve the ever-changing world of cyberspace. It has already documented sites from the 1996 presidential election in an archive housed at the Smithsonian Institution.

As for Ghost Sites, it's had a rather spotty life itself since the idea was spawned that fateful night at sea. Baldwin let it fossilize for about six months last year, but now it's up and running again at a cool Web 'zine called Disobey.com.

"It's an almost unpardonable sin," Baldwin concedes about the period when he let Ghost Sites become, well, a ghost site.

As for the reluctant sailor himself, he's no longer working at Pathfinder, one of the first publishing experiments on the Web that has lost its early promise. Instead, Baldwin is free-lancing these days. His primary gig? He's a ghost writer for Time Digital.

Pub Date: 01/10/99

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