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The Tomb of the Unknown Website

December 10, 2013

Arguing at the Tomb

First, a few questions:

  • Where do web designs go to die?
  • Do we have an accurate record of a website’s lifespan?
  • Who’s in charge of documenting such a life? And...
  • Why should I care?

These questions have been whirling around in my head for a few weeks now and I get the suspicion that there isn’t really a singular answer to them. With our gaze directed on the new, the innovative, and the Next Big Thing, I think we as designers, technophiles and plain old Internet users have intentionally shunned the past in an effort to bask in our present online wizardry.

It’s no surprise that physical e-waste represents the largest growing form of trash we produce. The pace of technology is trumping our ability to take a step back and think about the kinds of objects we put into the world and their long-term effects. But when it comes to the digital content, visuals, and dare I say “soul” that embodied those machines and devices—what happens to them? Some individuals, non-profits and organizations have gone to task, trying to preserve the digital materials that are either obsolete or obscured by today’s techno-infrastructure. Here’s a few:

Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine

Wayback Machine LogoThis repository may be the most well known archive of websites and online media. The Internet Archive is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing “universal access to all knowledge." Software was developed to crawl the World Wide Web and essentially download as much publicly accessible web material as possible. Any ordinary user can now search previous iterations of crawled websites. The Wayback Machine is perhaps one of the best ways to research how websites looked and functioned in the past, but they’re presented in a format that feels more like a yearbook than a cemetery. A lot of content doesn’t get crawled and goes missing, so the picture feels incomplete at best.

Internet Archeology

IA feels like a mashup between an art project, experiment and library.  Developed by digital media maven, Ryder Ripps, the site attempts to round up old website assets from various parts of the web, creating a solemn gallery dedicated to outdated media formats, fringe aesthetics and a time when the Internet felt quainter.

International Internet Preservation Consortium

This organization is essentially the brain trust of the digital archival world. Tasking itself with the lofty goal of preserving history, media, technology and design all in one go, IIPC’s intentions are virtuous at worst. Perhaps one of their best contributions is a publicly downloadable Chrome plugin called Memento. It allows a user to navigate between the web of the present and the web of the past, using their vast database to serve content and sites in their more primitive incarnations. Check out their video below:


Your Old Crap Website

Bad web design is a topic that most have an opinion on or love to joke about. Making fun of your old, gross blog or site is a pastime among the technically savvy, not to mention the graphically astute. This blog showcases some of the most chuckle-worthy of website detritus ranging from large companies to small potatoes.

I think one thing is missing from all of these archival sites: reverence. Perhaps our industry is to blame for getting so trigger-happy to flip the switch on a new design that we fail to give the old, worn-down site a proper sendoff. Hell, sometimes the only real remnants to an old design are a Photoshop file, development site or screen-grab for reference. Again, I’m not sure there’s really a solution to all of this but I think it says something about our priorities when old design is reduced to a punchline or half-crawled by anonymous spider algorithms.

It also begs the question: have there ever even been any web design masterpieces? Jonathan Harris posed a similar notion about interactive design at a Flash development conference, which ruffled a lot of feathers in the community. There are many reasons not to revere old sites: it holds us back, we had no idea what we were doing, it’s naval-gazing, etc. I think I’m really just wishing I had somewhere to go for a solid perspective on the techniques and intentions that went into a website’s design. Why did animated gifs look so silly? Why are we enamored with certain styles during a certain period in time? I think these questions are important because they raise even more questions about what makes a design good.

For now, I’m going to mourn and salute the designs of days gone by with a passage from Wallace Stevens, who sums up our push into an unknown future:

“To be free again, to return to the violent mind
That is their mind, these men, and that will bind
Me round, carry me, misty deck, carry me
To the cold, go on, high ship, go on, plunge on.”