February 20, 1998

by Steve Baldwin

A friend of Ghost Sites recently took me to task because it seems we're increasingly attaching our bright yellow "Condemned Website" notices on the doors of small sites run by hobbyists and other plain folk.

"Don't turn Ghost Sites into Slander Central", this friend advises, and he makes a good point - if the best that this column can do is attack old sites devoted to wood burning or needlepoint, we're strafing the wrong boats.

So I want to assure you all that Ghost Sites' orders are very clear on this matter - our mission is "to find, identify, and attack the largest, most lumbering, most out-of-date, most derelict sites on the Web."

If we occasionally send our torpedoes toward a small rusty trawler full of innocent hobbyists, we are failing in our mission, which is to gun for the big fish: the hulking 50,000 ton web sites piloted by clueless corporate captains, money-grubbing venture capitalists, sleepy academics, and overvisionary digiriti.

It is these malconceived HTML giants which put the Net's sea lanes in jeopardy - not the small craft. They are not the enemy.

Agreed, crew?

Well, with that out of the way, it's time to surface.

The Millenium Whole Earth Catalog

The Millenium Whole Earth Catalog should have made for a world-killing web site. Based on the best-selling print compendium of touchie-feelie technology that sold millions of copies back in the 1960's, an electronic WEC could have been a monster on the Web - an organic, renewable, anti-business shopping bible for today's quirky, rumor-driven, anti-establishment Net consumers.

With just a dash of West Coast attitude and a dollop of holistic cross-promotion in the pages of Wired, the WEC could have drawn so many millions of eyeballs that it would have made Howard Rheingold and Stewart Brand rich beyond their wildest wireless dreams.

But instead, we're left with this ridiculous wreck of half-completed link pages, outdated references to early activist online resources, and rambling prose introductions from 1994. And the site points to a sampling of current content from the Whole Earth Review which dates from Spring '96.

The whole mess suggests that the Whole Earth Catalogers fell asleep before a single finished page was fetched onto WEC's secure servers. How could these guys have dropped the ball like this?

If I had a million dollars, I'd buy the rights to the WEC tonight and immediately pitch it to Microsoft as a kick-butt, alternative shopping guide for '60's graybeards running Fortune 500 companies. Of all the Ghost Sites I've seen, this one has the highest upside dollar potential - bigger than Dr. Weil, Dr. Ruth, Web Monkey and Michael Kinsley combined.

There's just one problem with my plan - the whole damned Internet has deteriorated into an "alternative shopping mall" for grownups who think like teenagers. With this much competition ahead, maybe Rheingold and Brand were right to let the electronic WEC sink beneath the waves back in '95.

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Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum


AOL killed this sprawling game site before it had a chance to collect a cyber-penny from online gamers, leaving this twisted shell of marketing material behind. The outfit that hatched it, WorldPlay Entertainment, will be absorbed into AOL's Games Channel, which leaves CyberPark's 65 employees out in the cold.

Would CyberPark really have become "the new fun button on the Internet?" We'll never know, except by leafing through its demo pages and doing a little Monday morning quarterbacking. Ask yourself whether you'd have actually paid money to play Baldies Online, TrophyBass2, or Spunky's Shuffle. How many hours a week would you really have spent in CyberPark's Body Boutique, choosing a "gender, body type, hair color and style, skin tone, facial shape and other features to show who you really are, or who you want to be"?

I have a simple theory about game sites like this. They fail because there's just too much competition from the legions of truly great PC shareware games out there. Who needs TrophyBass2 when you can play Quake (which appeals to every redblooded American, regardless of gender, body type, or hair color)? Want to switch sexes? You don't need a Body Boutique - just become SusieQ at Hotmail.Com! And would the Net really choose Spunky's Shuffle over Duke Nukem? In a pig's eye!

Seriously, AOL - if you're going to spend millions on a Gamers site, hire some hardcore nerds to run a site chocked full of TombRaider cheats and clues, or FlightSim 5.1 terrain patches and control panels. That's where the money is, folks - not in Baldies Online.

CyberPark is dead, and I'm sure its jobless staff will soon begin to tell us exactly what evil befell the project. Until they do, I offer you this tantalizing clue lifted from a description of one of CyberPark's stillborn games called Schwa Pyramid:

"You'll be abducted to the mysterious, mesmerizing world of Schwa Pyramid...You'll lose track of time. You will begin to feel powerless. Conspiracy theories and the nagging tingle of thought control and deja vu will persist in your mind. Even loyal friends will turn on you."

If you've ever worked in New Media, you know exactly what this writer is talking about.

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Site is Dead, Shows Advanced Decay

The Spot

Thought you'd see a day when you'd be free of Carrie, Lon, Michelle, Jeff, Jordan, and Hunter? Forget about it - these smooth-faced digital harpies will see us all dead.

Yes folks, the ill-fated Spot site - which wowed so many "visionary" content managers in 1995-96 that it spawned a gaggle of lookalike (and equally doomed) soap sites, lives on today.

What's remarkable about The Spot is how much it tells us about Hollywood's narrow, passive, and low-brow approach to Net entertainment back in the mid-90's. The idea that the world would swarm to watch phony people do phony things seemed a good one - after all, entire media empires had already been built on this premise.

But when The Spot's cotton candy content failed to attract more than a spoonful of the Net's mindshare, it sent a shocking message to the West Coast which (amazingly) they'd never heard before. A message so shocking and disturbing that it's still resonating among the clueless content barons of Bel Aire: If you build something utterly stupid, nobody will come!

Although this Ghost Site clanked to a halt in June, 1997, it still houses some live programming elements, including live banner ads (I wonder how much live banner ads on dead sites go for today? Half the going rate?).

And most of The Spot's deathless prose lives on, frozen in time, for Net historians and lit-crit grad students to pore over, including this haunting goodbye message from Leslie, date-stamped 6/97:

"God. What is with everyone around here today? They all might as well be draped in black and standing around a casket. Me? I'm wearing bright red today. Lookin' good. Shakin' my groove thing. Uh-huh."

Man, I wish I could write like that.

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Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum

Entering the World-Wide Web: A Guide to Cyberspace

Let your mind ease back to 1993 - a pastoral time when there were "at least 100 hypertext Web servers in use throughout the world". Recall how optimistic you used to be back then: the Great Content Crash of '97 was four carefree years in the future - even the Cyberporn Scandal wasn't yet a glimmer in the watchful eyes of Carnegie-Mellon's researchers. The ad banner - push media - even Slate had yet to be conceived.

Yes, these were the Web's glory days, and you can eternally relive 1993's reverie of hope and unspoiled innocence, courtesy of this frozen site at Honolulu Community College.

Like a fading photograph of a beautiful little town free of noisy traffic, tract housing, ugly billboards, and hordes of carpetbaggers littering the sidewalks with spam, this musty WWW Guide illustrates what a neat place the Web used to be, before its peaceful common space was trampled into the mud by the likes of you and me.

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Site is Stuffed, Embalmed, and Ready for Internet Museum

NCSA Virtual Reality Faclities (sic)

Okay, so they can't spell. But what's keeping NCSA's 3-D eggheads from keeping their VR information site up-to-date? Doesn't the military industrial complex need to know about the latest MIPS-sucking 3-D advancements such as the ImmersaDesk and the VROOM BOOM ROOM (which wowed 'em at SIGGRAPH '94)?

NCSA's cutting-edge site was last updated 5/22/96 - that's too long a nap, even in a prestigious university. C'mon, you VR Jocks - don't we deserve more than a few dusty links to the SuperComputing '95 site? Why keep the world in the dark about this stuff? Are you helmeted geeks afraid that we're going to laugh at your funny 3-D goggles and your odd habit of walking into walls in dark rooms?

Of course, there's another possibility why this site is so quiet - the whole NSCA VR staff, plus a ruggedized ImmersaDesk 2, are on a C5A transport jet flying to the Persian Gulf.

Hell, it beats playing Quake.

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Site is Dead, Shows Advanced Decay


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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