pockets of the past
litter the internet

by Patti Hartigan

Boston Globe, December 18, 1998

Steve Baldwin didn't set out to be an on-line ghost-buster: It just sort of happened.

His story begins on a summer night in 1996, July Fourth, to be exact. He was drifting in Long Island Sound on a pleasure craft that belonged to his ex-wife's parents. (Yes, she was his ex-wife at the time - apparently, he got along with the ex-in-laws.) Anyway, the captain and crew had fallen asleep, leaving Baldwin at the steering wheel. Now, Baldwin is a webmaster, not a shipmaster: In other words, he didn't have a clue. "I had this sense of peril, and all of a sudden, I started thinking about the Internet," he recalls. "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 set up Ghost Sites, a site that offers a whimsical chronicle of abandoned Web sites gathering cobwebs in cyberspace. It is a sort of on-line 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 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. There's also a 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 on-line archeologists, but these specters represent a deeper problem. What happens to a site once 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 Francisco by a pioneer named Brewster Kahle, the Internet Archive aims to preserve the ever-changing world of cyberspace, and 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 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. He's no longer working at Pathfinder, one of the first publishing experiments on the Web that has lost its early promise. Baldwin is freelancing these days. His primary gig? He's a ghost writer for Time Digital.

Vic Polk, meet Joan Blades.

The Boston lawyer has never actually met the Berkeley, Calif., entrepreneur, but since September, they've been computer compadres working tenaciously toward a mutual goal. Blades and her partner, Wes Boyd, started moveon.org, an on-line "flash campaign" urging Congress to censure President Clinton and get the whole thing over with, once and for all. Polk, a partner at Bingham Dana & Gould, joined the effort after he received an e-mail from a friend, and he is one of scores of volunteers all over the country. "It's high-tech political activism at a low cost," Polk says.

The grass-roots organization gathered more than 300,000 signatures against impeachment, which, by all accounts, is the biggest on-line petition in history. At press time, it didn't appear that moveon.org made any difference, but its effort represents a gigantic stride in on-line political organization. Minnesota governor-elect Jesse Ventura proved that even a professional wrestler can muscle his way into office by mobilizing his forces on the Internet. And moveon.org was a valiant attempt to empower regular citizens.

"We started this Web site for $89.50, and we had our socks knocked off by the response," Blades says. She's not too thrilled about the likely outcome of this one-issue project, but she predicts that on-line activism is about to blossom. "It's about consensus building," Blades says. "The Internet is a place where people can become active in politics." Win or lose, moveon.org has taken a step forward.

This week, Disney opened a preview of its new portal, Go Network. (The preview is at www.beta.go.com.) It sports a few nifty features, including "follow-me-tabs" that enable you to adapt content as you move through the site, without having to backtrack. It also has a built-in content filter for parents (this is Disney, folks). Other than that, it looks a lot like Yahoo, except that it's driven by Disney-created content, including ESPN, ABC News, and Mickey and friends. The Kids page, of course, takes you "behind the screens at `A Bug's Life"' and links you to "More Fun at Disney.com."

Ah, that's entertainment. But does the Internet really need its own Academy Award-style ceremony? The folks behind the Webby Awards seem to think so. The third annual ceremony is slated for March in San Francisco, and the celebration promises to be a glittery gathering of the digerati. The nominees will be announced Jan. 6. By the way, all of last year's winners are still going strong; no ghosts in this group.

This story ran on page D04 of the Boston Globe on 12/18/98.

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