October 19, 1997

by Steve Baldwin

Welcome to Ghost Sites of the Web - your personal barrel of bitrotten relics from bygone days when the Web was still young, hungry, and beautiful.

For this new (October 19th) issue, our skeleton crew of researchers targets the years of 1993 and 1994 - the very earliest years of the Web's history as a pop medium.

Back in '93-'94, most of the action on the Net occurred at shiny new University servers, links were often called "live links", to emphasize the fact that you could (wonder of wonders) click on them, and just about every technology was "experimental", with WAIS and Gopher standing tall, right beside all this newfangled HTTP stuff.

1993-'94 was also a ferile time for crudely bizarre "Hypermedia" sites, pipe-dream business models, and sophomore-style whimsy. Within three years, the party would come to a horrible end, leaving the Net hungover, disillusioned, and haunted by dread. Within four years, the Sherman Tank of Content, Community and Commerce would liquidate almost all signs of intelligent life. But now I'm getting ahead of myself...

Do not dwell on sad endings, good friend - forget the dismal present, and journey back to the heady days when the WWW was new, life had a clear purpose, and Mosaic and Cello were King. Many Ghost Sites from this innocent era remain, reminding us of the world we've lost forever.

So you want to be an Internet Hypermedia Star?

Who says there are no folk songs written about the Net? This dusty Web ditty, credited to H. Morrow Long, was recently exhumed from a creaky old Yale FTP server. It's a musical tribute to the techno-trappings of yesterday's webmasters, and is sung to the tune of the Byrds' old standard, "So You Want to Be a Rock & Roll Star."

Our favorite passage:

"So you want to be an Internet hypermedia star?
Then 'click here' and cut and paste what I say.
Just get a fancy WWW browser
Then scope out CERN and NCSA's online docs
And learn how to make HTML display..."

Now I'm fairly sure future generations will have some dim memory of something called "Rock & Roll". But will people even five years from now have any inkling of what this tune is about? I doubt it.

g g g g g

Site is Stuffed, Embalmed and Ready for Internet Museum

The Jamaican Bobsledders

Say what you will about MIT - they've still got one of the WWW's greatest collection of mint condition digital effluvia. Just take a look at this early student site celebrating what it claims is "the first ice hockey team on the web". Everything about this site is appealingly tenuous - its timid graphics, lukewarm layout, and even it's self-deprecating greeting to those who've "stumbled across it" (remember how in pre-"push" days we used to simply "stumble" across sites instead of being dragged to them by soulless branded robots?).

This charming little Ghost Site has been so dormant for so long it even seems to have escaped the wrath of trademark lawyers, who often smell blood when movie titles like "Jamaican Bobsledders" are appropriated for innocent and noncommercial purposes. (Maybe one of us should start a "Mighty Ducks" Quake Clan and see how friendly Disney really can be).

g g g g g

Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum

Entering the World-Wide Web: A Guide to Cyberspace

Let your mind ease back to October of 1993 and imagine what the world must have been like with only "100 hypertext Web servers in use throughout the world." Study nostalgic pie charts demonstrating that on the Web, "EDU's (not .COM domains) Rule". Repeat the "Cello-Lynx-Mosaic" mantra a couple of times. Finger somebody from your X-Windows terminal and see what happens.

When you're done, note that the document you're looking at was written when the Cyberporn Scandal, the CDA, and the Great Content Crash of '97 weren't even glimmers in the eyes of their respective perpetrators.

Then have a good cry and get on with your life...

g g g g g

Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Coming to a computer near you - it's HYPERMEDIA! Imagine, folks, reading "Alice's Adventures" and being able to (drum roll) click from the Table of Contents directly to Chapter 5, and then back again! Wait - THERE's MORE - if you scroll to the bottom of Chapter 5, you can even JUMP DIRECTLY TO CHAPTER 6 in a single click! WOW - this is even cooler than NAPLPS!

Launched in the summer of 1993 as part of Project Gutenberg, this groundbreaking hypertext adventure was as good as the Web got (for about a day). Even though the basic HTML technology underlying Alice's Adventures is now laughably crude - running across this thing is a real turn on - kind of like finding one of Tim Leary's original lovebeads under a long-lost bong.

g g g g g

Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum

The Law Offices of Brad Lee Axelrod

Take a good look at this plain-vanilla page, and step back into the monochrome world of 1995, where, as Axelrod points out, KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! This guy must have been first among the army of legal pilgrims to arrive here and set up shingles - and to make sure his voice was heard above the others, he pioneered the use of THE ALL-CAPS LITERARY FORM combined with BLAZINGLY BRIGHT WHITE SPACE.

Axelrod's sparse page (which dates from 1995), also appears to have presaged the widespread deployment of GIF production software and was created with WEB Wizard Version 1.1. On the positive side, the page loads like greased lightning!

NO RATING (for fear of lawsuits)

The Unofficial Paul Simon Web Site

This site isn't from 1993-94, but it deserves inclusion here, because it's quite possible "the most average Ghost Site of all time". A typically mild and "unofficial" fan page about a typically mild and introspective musician, it also demonstrates a very interesting, and very dangerous strain of Net Neurosis: the obsessive listing, detailing, and exegesis of each and every update - no matter how insignificant - which the webmaster has made to the site from the beginning of time. Here's a typical example:

6/4/96: Fixed a "type" in the lyrics for Somewhere They Can't Find Me, as suggested by Mike Lanspa. This is probably a good place to mention that I OCRed most of the lyrics for this site using OmniPage Pro 5 for Macintosh, the program which I support at Caere Corporation."

Here's another entry, from a few months later:

11/10/96 - I fixed the lyrics for Thelma and added lyrics for The Side of A Hill. I should also note that as of a week ago, I am now working at a new job, so I'm no longer doing product support for OmniPage (but I still think it's a great product)."

Now I suppose if this site were of overwhelming social importance (if it housed, say, The Contract With America, or the untranslated Diary of Anne Frank), we'd all be on the edge of our seats watching each tiny tweak. But this is a Paul Simon web site - an UNOFFICAL web site. What's the big deal?

I don't know how the Paul Simon webmaster does it, but somehow he succeeds in making us feel as if we should care about all these minor updates and tangentially related stuff - the OCR, his new job, the lyrics to "Thelma". What madness is this?

I'll go to my grave believing that the world really isn't hanging in the balance over minutia like this, and that what I'm really seeing is a new and monstrous form of ego-centricity only found on the WWW. I'd write a FAQ about this, but then I'd be indulging in another form of sickness which is probably more harmful to us all in the long run.

g g g g g

Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum


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?

(javascript required)

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.

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