September 7, 1996
With millions of aspiring webmasters returning to their university computers, thousands of dormant web sites will likely be updated again. But some unlucky sites will never again feel a human touch. Come Halloween, Thanksgiving, and yes, Christmas, they'll sojourn on, unchanged -- digital shadows knowing no season, awaiting an FTP session that will never occur.
These are the sites we call Ghost Sites: spectral members of the Electronic Legion of the Damned. And this is Issue 4 of their saga -- if you're new here, you can browse Issue 1, Issue 2, and Issue 3 to read about dead sites we've reviewed before.
A few years ago, people hypnotized themselves into thinking of cyberspace as an actual "place", with actual compass points. Many sites experimented with "map interfaces" -- the saner ones quickly gave them up when users squawked about the tremendous GIFs required to convey a simple navigational message like "Go Back".
Not the Planet Oasis site. This sprawling site, billing itself as "an internet colony" has enough huge (100k to 300k) GIFs to stop a T1 in its tracks. Its not hard to guess why Planet Oasis's streets are so empty: all its colonists have choked to death on the bloated images.
What is the sinister force responsible for the desolate and airless Planet Oasis? Sony? Disney? Moloch? All traces of authorship have been erased from this site, suggesting a cable modem experiment that went disastrously awry.
Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum
When I first heard the tragic news that Turner Interactive's youth-oriented Spiv site had been shut down, I immediately copied the whole site to my hard drive, fearing that it would be unceremoniously turned off and forever lost to historians. But miracle of miracles -- at press time, Spiv continues to blithely float on as if the axe had never fallen, like 2001's Discover spacecraft orbiting Jupiter with a dead crew. Although Spiv's Movie Review remains half-alive, the rest of this site has flat-lined.
A lot of hand-wringing speculation has accompanied the loss of Spiv. Is Generation X no longer a fertile electronic market? Are web users sick of "net culture" sites? Is the web dead?
The answer, of course, is that tax-paying Americans have had it up to here with silly, absurd, and meaningless names beginning with the letter "S" (i.e. Slate, Suck, Stim, etc.). The only exception to this rule is the word "Sex", which will produce instant commercial success when used on a web site.)
Admire Stim, I mean Spiv, while you can. You won't see it again in your lifetime.
Site is Dead, shows Advanced Decay
When hot air freezes, it crystallizes into a site like Absolut Kelly - a joint venture between Hotwired and the Absolut Vodka Company. This site's cryogenically-preserved core is a rambling pseudo-scientific book written by Wired Executive Editor Kevin Kelly which reads like a woozy New Age Dianetics Handbook. Savor these visionary chapter titles: "Decentralized Remembering as an Act of Perception" and "A God Descends Into His Polygonal Creation". How about "The Toilet: Archetype of Tautology"?. (Would someone please pass me that vodka bottle?)
If sites like Absolut Kelly really reflect what Wired -- "the official magazine of the digital revolution" -- honestly thinks is in store for us on the Web, the future is indeed a chilly one, where a few screwy bots provide the only action. On the other hand, hawking old remainder books on a glossy web site and bottling this as "emergent wisdom" does indicate a certain New Age genius.
Site is Dead, but Well-Preserved
Who could fail to admire a progressive site like Net Chick, run by a young woman named Carla Sinclair who's been widely described as "smart, sexy, and computer-savvy" - just like the spunky Sandra Bullock character in "The Net"? Unfortunately, Net Chick's self-promotional content would make Narcissus blush: gobs of adulatory praise from smitten fans, umpteen ways to buy Sinclair's book, and an oddly sexist "dress up doll" game involving a partially-nude cartoon Carla.
Perhaps Net Chick is indeed "the only guide to stylish, post-feminist modem grrrl culture", but if so, we can only wonder why this site's "What's New" page was last updated in January. Maybe being smart and sexy means you're always too busy to update your pages.
Site is Dead, but Well-Preserved
City of Bits
Just as the first truckload of books about the Net often contained nothing but lists, many first-generation web sites contained nothing but links: tons of 'em!
City of Bits, a weighty tome published by MIT Press, might have made a great coffee table book, but it's utterly dead as a web site, and hasn't been updated since 1995.
Even though City of Bits is as stiff as a board, I found a wonderful passage buried within this old electronic book which really stands the test of time: "Sites in cyberspace do not live forever, so this list will eventually become -- like the traces of a city that is no longer inhabited -- a piece of digital archaeology." City of Bits is a beautiful, stately ruin. May it attract many tourists (but not too many smelly cats).
Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum
Howard Rheingold's Brainstorms
It's hard to avoid running into Howard Rheingold on the web. Like an arrogant surfer who claims the entire beach as his own personal property, Rheingold would have you believe that he single handedly invented net "communities", personally coded the first hypertext, and is still the only soul in the world who thinks the CDA was idiotic. As a result of this sort of bravado, Rheingold is widely revered as a true "deep-thinker". Trust me: any ideas that you have in your head were already conceived, and probably already discarded, by Rheingold back in 1983.
Unfortunately, something terrible seems to have happened to Mr. Rheingold's Brainstorms on or about June 2nd, 1996. That's when his futurist "Tomorrow" tracts trail off into silence. The files in his "roadshows" area haven't been refreshed anytime in 1996, nor has his biography page been updated for a year or so.
To his credit, Rheingold at least explains why his site has become such a ghost: he's been sucked away to form a new global publishing empire funded by Japanese yen. Although it's unlikely, perhaps we can all survive for a few months without benefit of his deathless wisdom.
Site is Dying in ICU
You're on the web a lot. You've seen many a dead site. You've forgotten our email address... and you don't feel like coming back here to get it.
What do you do?
The Ghost-o-Meter opens a small, movable window... if you've found a Ghost Site, fill in the blanks, fire it off, and go back to foolin' around. Its that easy.
You can also use this form:
What the ??!
Well, this is all very interesting, but what the heck is Ghost Sites anyway? Why devote a live site to Dead Sites?
If you're interested in this Ghost Sites thing, it is a project that I began in the summer of 1996 while I was working for Time-Warner's Pathfinder. Late in the evening of July 4th, while piloting a small craft across Long Island Sound, I had what only can be described as an epiphany.
From out of the depths came a cruel vision of the World Wide Web. It wasn't a friendly place - an innocent place of community, commerce and chat. It was a great and utterly pitiless electronic ocean that swallowed up sites, careers, and venture capital like a ravenous killer whale. Great sites - sites like Mecklerweb and iGuide - were going down with all hands. Great fortunes were collapsing and proud content sites lay wrecked on the bottom. No one seemed to care. The future was a vast abyss - who would record these days of New Media folly, disaster and despair?
Back on shore, but still haunted by this vision, I launched Ghost Sites as a modest attempt to document the great disappearing fleet of web sites sinking beneath the waves. This project briefly made me spectacularly famous, and then I was quickly, and completely forgotten.
By March of 1997, Ghost Sites had succumbed to the same deadly entropy that had settled over the Internet, and became a crewless wreck itself. For six cruel months, it drifted like a despised garbage barge, broke its keel in a summer squall, and finally washed up on Geocities.
On an icy November morning, Morbus boarded the wreck, inspected the damage, and offered the captain a safe harbor. The bilge pump was started, and the squealing, rusty hull lifted off the sands again. It soon arrived here - in the dark, unquiet waters of Disobey.Com.
If you want to see the article that made me briefly famous, check out Ghosts in the Machine. I became so famous because of this article that there were women lining up to see me - I felt like Elvis! But then... the fall from grace...
If you have a favorite rotting site that you'd like to mention, email me at Steve_Baldwin@hotmail.com.
Ghost Sites has appeared in a number of places including Time Magazine, ZDNet, The Netly News and more. For a list of all those we know of, as well as links to online counterparts, click here. You can also take a look at the limited edition t-shirt we once offered.