29 August 2014 (age 24) Web Life

Losing the internet

When I was fifteen years old, I came across a web design forum called Open Source Web Design (OSWD) and fell in love with the community there. Members would create XHTML/CSS templates that anyone could use for free. We gave feedback on each others' designs, chatted about trends in the industry, and the more experienced folk were more than happy to show the ropes to a young grasshopper like me.

There were never that many people in the OSWD community -- maybe 100 active users at the most. Logging into the forum felt like entering a cosy clubhouse, one that was small enough to get to know everyone. Not that it was an exclusive club; it's just that not many people knew about it.

OSWD was headed up by a man named Frank Skettino. Beyond that, I didn't know anything about him. But that was fine; he was the site's benevolent dictator and nobody really gave it much thought -- until he stopped approving new submissions. Shortly thereafter, the forums were removed. The site has been frozen in amber since.

Members of the community tried to find a new home, but it was never the same. This thread on GetFreeWebDesigns.com shows a few of the "old guard" trying to make sense of just what's been going on (I'm acousticsam). But by that time, the community had begun to dissipate.

They say the internet never forgets, but really it's so easy for years of content to be erased in the blink of an eye. At the end of the day, a website's users are at the mercy of whoever holds the keys.

The web loses chunks of its history every day. The masses of small- and medium-sized web services that are being snapped up by the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, & Co. follow a well-worn pattern: build up a loyal following, sell out to a major corporation, then delete all your users' data. When Yahoo bought Geocities, then subsequently shut it down, millions of webpages died.

This past week, the phenomenon hit closer to home. WonderfulWaterloo.com, a forum for urban issues and development news in Waterloo Region, has been "temporarily" shut down, after users started voicing their discomfort with the way the site was being managed. I feel like this is going to be OSWD all over again.

Once a site is down, there's not a whole lot you can do to recover the content. I've set up a central repository with some last-ditch methods people can use to recover what they can from the ether. But it's like setting a library on fire and then trying to rescue the books. We'll never be able to get it all back.

Curiously, I received an email today from the owner of WonderfulWaterloo, who had evidently caught wind of my rescue attempt:

Please remove the images/files from your recovery page: https://github.com/samnabi/wonderful-waterloo-recovery. You don’t have their licences.

I spent hundreds of hours taking photos such as this, they aren’t for you to post publicly on any other websites: https://github.com/samnabi/wonderful-waterloo-recovery/blob/mas...2b%20R.jpg

I believe that people have a right to the content they've created. That includes the right to delete it from public record, and if I can ascertain the veracity of the owner's claims, I'll happily erase his photos from the repository.

The irony here is that when site owners pull the rug out from under a community, it's a huge betrayal of trust. OSWD could never get back on its feet after the first unannounced shutdown, and it will be difficult for the WonderfulWaterloo community. Years of photos documenting the region's growth, discussions, and debates about important community issues have been wiped clean.

Even if the site comes back online, will users trust WonderfulWaterloo with their data anymore?

Sam Nabi