ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

The Splendiferous Story of Archive Team —

I figured I’d show you what I wrote as notes for my presentation at the Internet Archive.
The audio from this presentation is here. (20min, 28mb).

PRESENTATION BY JASON SCOTT
PERSONAL DIGITAL ARCHIVING CONFERENCE 2011
FEBRUARY 24, 2011
INTERNET ARCHIVE, SAN FRANCISCO HEADQUARTERS

There is nothing more tiring than an activist. They’re boring in
conversation, hard to have within earshot, and there’s a sense, coming
back to them later, of nothing having changed, because they’re saying
the same things again, and again. They’ve got this single dimensionally
about them. It’s just… tiring.

My name is Jason Scott, and I am an activist. I’m an activist about a
bunch of things, but today I’m going to talk about being an activist
concerning digital heritage.

Before I fill the full fifteen minutes, all I can say in my defense is
that even though I’m an activist, even though I can keep a shrill
one-note symphony going for way too long about the subjects I care
about, I also have a sense of humor.

I have a cat named Sockington. At this moment, my cat has nearly 1.5
million followers on twitter. He’s been featured in magazines,
newspapers, television and has fan art made about him. In the past few
years he’s been discussed during morning drive radio, and just this past
week, he was a question in a quiz in the Ladies’ Home Journal. He’s been
bombarded with endorsement deals and offers of representation, all of
which he ignores. He is after all, a cat.

So if nothing else, you can say you met the guy who has the most popular
animal account on twitter. But I hope you’ll remember the rest of what I
have to say.

I’ve been a collector for years. (I’ve learned, over time, that there’s
places to call yourself an “archivist” and places not to, and a room
full of archivists
who spent a lot of time and money on degrees and
training is not one of those places). As a collector, I had already made
it a point of going after marginalized data, the textfiles and message
bases
of dial-up bulletin board systems of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. It
turns out that in many cases, I had one of the only copies of some of
this, pulled from printouts or late-night visits in my teens, and my
immediate urge was to share and provide them for as many people as
possible.

I could go into this further, but there’s no time. Let me just leave it
at that – history is something I care about, that I learn from, and
which, when I acquire it, I work as hard as I can to share to the
maximum amount of people.

This all became a site called textfiles.com, which continues to house a
terabyte of bulletin board system history, as well as a range of other
interesting collections that have fallen into my hands. From this, I
moved into documentary filmmaking, hosting events, and giving
presentations. And with that came being known as someone who would take
old stuff off others’ hands, and with THAT came being contacted when old
stuff is in danger.

Obviously, a phrase like “old stuff” means a wild amount of things, and
in my case, I mean customer-grade home computer stuff. Old floppies, old
machines, piles of magazines, printouts. I became the go-to guy for this
– half of what I acquire comes from a group of people discussing what to
do with old material, and someone says “Jason Scott”, and one of my RSS
feeds gets triggered, and I show up an hour later asking what I can do
to help. I’m like an EMT for computer history.

And while I’m defining things, let me say what I mean by “Danger”. I
mean danger of deletion, a danger of being lost, a danger that a piece
of history, with its value unrecognized and a lack of interest in what
it might mean, might just be lost forever. That kind of danger.

And what happened in the last decade or so, is that an awful lot of
computer history is in danger. A lot of it has been deleted. In fact, if
you step back and look at it, the loss of data has moved to epidemic
proportions. I use the term epidemic specifically here; I mean that
there is a mental condition to accept the loss of data as the price of
doing business with computers. And beyond that, the expectation that
data will be lost, and the spreading of this idea to the point that data
loss becomes no big thing.

Well, it’s a big thing. It’s a huge thing. It’s so terrible that I don’t
even know how to frame it half the time. So let’s start with what I
guess could be called my awakening to the problem.

The shutdown of a site called AOL hometown, which was actually a bunch
of previous sites put together, was only the most recent of occasional
shutdowns of user-content sites. They gave two months notice, and then
completely deleted the data, with no recourse for people to get it back.
Two months, for a site that had been up for a decade. In a lot of cases,
e-mail was out of date. Or it went to an address people didn’t use. And
when it was gone, it was gone.

Something about this really cranked me out. I guess it was that sense
that all this stuff people had made online was being wiped away as if it
all meant nothing, all that writing, all that creating, all those sites
that, even though nobody was maintaining them, still had information
other people were referring to. It was all just… gone.

I said, in an angry entry on my weblog, that there ought to be a team of
people who could rescue this data, who could swoop in and grab a copy
before it was all gone, before some decision from nowhere wiped it out.
Some sort of Archive Team.

Well, people took me seriously, and within a short time, dozens of
people offered to be around to help save sites. And so we formed
archiveteam.org, we made some fun logos, and we waited.

And then Yahoo! announced they were closing Geocities. And by announced,
I mean they quietly stuck a side mention of it in a FAQ answer buried in
the support pages. But regardless, geocities was being shut down.
Geocities!

The reactions I saw from websites and press were awful. “Good riddance.”
they’d say. “The blink tag is dead. Who needs crappy animated GIFs and
MIDIs in the background and webrings, don’t get us started about
webrings.”

But I think what they lost was that Geocities arrived in roughly 1995,
and was, for hundreds of thousands of people, their first experience
with the idea of a webpage, of a full-color, completely controlled
presentation on anything they wanted. For some people, their potential
audience was greater for them than for anyone in the entire history of
their genetic line. It was, to these people, breathtaking.

This is a site created by a mother to commemorate her lost son, who died
as an infant. What struck me, if you look at the dates, is that he died
in 1983, a full 15 years before Geocities came along, and her feelings
were still strong in two ways – she wanted to keep his memory alive, and
she saw Geocities as the way to do it. Wiped away completely with the
shutdown.

Again, I don’t have time to walk through other examples of user
creations worth studying or considering, but rest assured, there’s
plenty. And with an arbitrary, vicious, heartless move, Yahoo! shut
Geocities down.

But not before some copies got made.

Archive team used dozens of people on hundreds of IPs, imitating other
search engines and utilizing a whole bunch of tricks, and we duplicated
as much of Geocities as we could. There were other parallel efforts and
those are appreciated, but we got 900 gigabytes of Geocities. We have no
idea what percentage of Geocities we got, but all I know is that
Geocities fits, continues to fit on a hard drive the size of a pack of
cards.

In the time since, we occasionally get contacted by people who watch the
geocities shutdown happen, watched their own sites get shut down, and
tone-deaf policies and lack of response meant they sat back and watched
it happen, feeling entirely helpless. In one case, a widow had her
husband, a veteran, upload all his photos from his enlisted years into a
geocities account, then die off, and never give her the password. She
could browse the site, but she couldn’t change it. Imagine that horror
as she watched the site come down, to have her husband die again. And
imagine the letter we got when she got it all back again.

We took our copy of Geocities, that 900 gigabyte collection, and we
compressed it down to 645 gigabytes. 645! And then we did what I think
any reasonable person would do – we released it as a torrent.

That torrent will be fully seeded by the end of the week, and a few
dozen people will have Geocities to study, to research, to work with.
And a half-dozen USB drives recently went out to waiting and grateful
people as well.

This got a lot of attention, a lot of press – I read a lot of articles
and listened to a lot of podcasts about what Archive Team represents,
what it means, and the rest. And here, as I start to wrap up, is what I
think needs to be understood.

New York City is on the verge of banning smoking in public places. It
may or may not pass, but previously, a few decades earlier, it was
considered impolite while you were smoking in a restaurant to blow the
smoke into a baby’s face. I lived in Waltham, Massachusetts for years –
and decades before I lived there, you could tell what the next year’s
fashion colors would be by the colors of the dyes in the Charles River.
My point is, things were a certain way once. People who did things then
were just following the general order, and to do differently would be
strange. Friendly, or accommodating to an unexpected degree, but
strange.

Right now, we live in a world where the wholesale destruction of a place
like Geocities is a punchline, a tossed off puff piece. The natural
order of doing business. It IS the natural order of doing business.

The current natural order of things for hosting user-generated content
is this: Disenfranchise. Demean. Delete.

Disenfranchise. Cut off any amount of support or awareness by users of
their environment and what they are putting their lives into.

Demean. When a site falls out of favor, act like it’s an electronic
ghetto, not worth consideration as a valid entity. Think Friendster,
orkut, myspace, geocities and a dozen others. Say their name in the
company of people who understand the technical issues, and they snort.
For a lot of people, these sites are parties, and the party is over.

Delete. Give a random amount of warning, and I mean, it really is
completely arbitrary and made up, and then delete, with no recourse,
nobody to ask for a copy, nobody to contact to retrieve your lost data,
your husband’s history, your child’s photos. I’ve seen periods as long
as a year and as short as 48 hours. There’s nothing, no standardization,
no agreed upon procedure for decommissioning these sites. It’s all just
being made up as it goes along.

Somewhere around now, people start using phrases with me like business,
profit, how the world works. This isn’t about business. This is about
understanding that user data is a trust, a heritage, history. And
because we’ve turned it into just another thing just as millions and
millions are going online, the disasters will keep coming.

So until this gets straightened out, before we stop blowing smoke in
babies’ faces, we have ad-hoc solutions like Archive Team.

Archive team doesn’t ask. It takes. It takes and it dupes and it saves.
Sometimes, it’s been cheered as it does so. Sometimes it’s been
ridiculed, criticized, threatened. But this isn’t a party, or a
nightclub, trying to be the new popular thing and the new way to pump
your fist and act like you did something. We’re getting stuff done.

As I speak here, dozens of people are downloading Yahoo! Video, which
announced late last year that it was closing on March 15th.
Specifically, they announced they were deleting all user-generated
content, but keeping the general site. We’ve been coordinating
bandwidth, disk space, and how to get the most data out in the most
efficient manner. We expect the resulting collection will be 25
terabytes of data. Perhaps that sounds like a lot now, but you can buy 2
terabyte drives for $80 on special. It is, in fact, not a lot. So we’re
doing it.

Besides the scraping of millions of Delicious users, a small subset of
archive team has formed URL team, dedicated to pulling down the content
of URL shorteners. URL shorteners may be one of the worst ideas, one of
the most backward ideas, to come out of the last five years. In very
recent times, per-site shorteners, where a website registers a smaller
version of its hostname and provides a single small link for a more
complicated piece of content within it.. those are fine. But these
general-purpose URL shorteners, with their shady or fragile setups and
utter dependence upon them, well. If we lose TinyURL or bit.ly, millions
of weblogs, essays, and non-archived tweets lose their meaning.
Instantly. To someone in the future, it’ll be like everyone from a
certain era of history, say ten years of the 18th century, started
speaking in a one-time pad of cryptographic pass phrases. We’re doing
our best to stop it. Some of the shorteners have been helpful, others
have been hostile. A number have died. We’re going to release torrents
on a regular basis of these spreadsheets, these code breaking
spreadsheets, and we hope others do too.

I’m glad to have made your acquaintance. It’s been a fun ride. Come
along. And if you find yourself in a position of making a few key
decisions about user-generated content, and exporting, and retention or
shutdown policies, I’m always available to chat.

Or, you could just follow my cat.

Thank you.

 


Categorised as: computer history

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10 Comments

  1. John H. says:

    I had no idea Sockington was _your_ cat!

  2. Marcelo says:

    Yea Jason, your work truly rocks!
    It is amazing that so few people care about digital archiving in a so called ‘digital world’!

  3. Margot says:

    Fascinating! As someone with a background in digital archives (starting in 95 at the Library of Congress) I’ve found it challenging to find work in this area. Most of my career has been managing finite grant-funded projects. Right now I’m managing a serial number for the film industry (zzzz) while someone’s on maternity leave. It’s too bad preserving what’s going on now for the future isn’t valued more in our profit-oriented society.

  4. josh says:

    I definitely appreciate the work you’re doing, that’s awesome. It’s awesome in a sense like “One day, when all the data is gone, I’ll have reason to care and I know that, so I appreciate it now”. If I were to be asked to help, I’ll be honest, my response would be something along the lines of “this shit happens” or “There is a lot of bad stuff going on in the world, and this doesn’t ding the priority bell right now”. So, it’s appreciation with a side of guilt that I don’t feel at all compelled to jump in and help.

    With that said, where a sense of responsibility should exist is these companies who buy an entire domain and content, then make an arbitrary decision to just wipe it clean. Think of how easy it would be for them to do what you are doing. I agree with you 100% about “It’s business” being a bullshit excuse. It does hit a hot button for me, I’ve been researching the native american side of my family recently… talk about records that were treated like garbage! An entire culture was wiped away… So I guess for me it boils down to “It sucks, and it doesn’t suprise me. In this world of “what’s it worth to me”, caring about others rarely registers unless there is some sort of a price tag attached.

  5. josh says:

    I’m experiencing what I would like to call “A return to giving a shit…” right now. In my comment above, I sounded a lot like the people I despise. The worst part is I felt that way too… “Shit Happens… It sucks but what can we do…” It’s a response I’ve never accepted, so for me to actually start taking it on and become part of the complacent masses… disgusting! I started browsing some of the saved Geocities stuff, and it is registering quite clearly why this is so important… So I just wanted to say, thank you for reminding me to give a shit! You have no idea how much that means to me!

  6. MCbx says:

    The extinction of data is currently a big problem – in the beginning of 2011 I noticed that one of Polish popular free hostings closed its services WITHOUT ANY WARNING. I think ~2TB were lost (number of sites from Google times maximum account size). And the acceptation of data deletion (as the cost of Internet commercialization) is not the biggest reason here – the main thing here is a false conviction that the knowledge still is somewhere, maybe a miror, maybe a forum – but searching the Internet shows that it isn’t.
    If it will go further, the Internet will end up with P2P/RS/MU, social networks, company sites (online shops with business card), and Wikipedia.
    There’s not only historical value – Much of these web sites described useful techniques, technologies, tips – which are now gone. I don’t know how many times I visited Internet Archive site looking for site about specific thing, especially in electronics and programming. These sites where maniacs described their “McGyverism” methods to do wonders with software and hardware were mainly gone…

    Sorry for my English.

  7. [...] to make sure our legacies persist – with amateur enthusiasts in the vanguard. One of those is Jason Scott, a film-maker who recently staged an effort to save Geocities, a vast collection of personal [...]

  8. [...] to make sure our legacies persist – with amateur enthusiasts in the vanguard. One of those is Jason Scott, a film-maker who recently staged an effort to save Geocities, a vast collection of personal [...]

  9. [...] Yahoo suddenly announced they were going to shut down all the accounts. I found Jason Scott’s blog post on that subject to be actually quite touching.Just last month Google announced they were taking [...]

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