Archaeology of the web

by Dan Donald threading through
Published on  — #btp_33

When you’re old and grey, looking back over your lifelong career in web creation, what artefacts will be left to dust off and pick through? What will be left to guide the future?

In years to come there will be a generation of us that will have worked in creating for the web our whole adult lives. That thought really grabbed my imagination. To think back over perhaps a 40 year career beginning in the mid 90′s, seeing all the changes and progression since those first furtive web sites is an exciting prospect indeed.

We can’t begin to think of what the Web will be at that point but we maybe we can imagine ourselves in that position reflecting back on these times. The sites we make will have been long since replaced. The footprint left by our work, long since learned from and improved upon by others and then largely discarded or archived. Don’t despair – it’s unfair to say that this is all doom and gloom!


Illustration by Sam Hardacre (@nocturnalmonkey)

I’ve enjoyed trawling through the Wayback Machine at more recently and started to encourage others to do the same, especially if they’re new to the industry. It’s a cache of sites from times gone by, which serves as a great reminder of the journey some companies have taken, like the BBC, Apple or Yahoo!

Every so often you might stumble on some work you did years ago and have a chuckle at the way things were done back then or remember how far you’ve come with your skills. Imagine that over a whole career. Imagine that over our whole industry.

The forward looking nature of working with the web is what keeps it exciting. We should just consider our legacy a little more.

With the transient nature of the work we do, it’s not bricks and cement; it’s sometimes as short as an advertising campaign and if we’re lucky, perhaps sometimes we’ll make something that’ll be useful and last for longer. There may be times this could be lamented but I think the forward-looking nature of working with the web is what keeps it exciting. We should just consider our legacy a little more.

Looking through some sites on the Wayback Machine you can already find those that require a long-since-outdated plug-in in order to view it, or perhaps don’t render well because they were specifically made for a certain model of browser. What if there’s a point we’ll reach where few sites of old could be experienced and learned from?

Learning not just from the sites themselves but contextualising them through the times they were created in, really helps us to learn about the path our medium has taken. Perhaps increasingly we’ll see the history of the web taught at schools or as part of degrees (as I hope it is already). Those of us that lived through the first browser wars know what it was like but in years from now will it matter or should we give a thought to preserving this heritage as we go? The way we create for the web will no doubt change and we’ve already gone so far with how we consider and approach projects, it would be a shame to have little left behind.

Certainly keeping our own personal archives is important; showing not only our personal progression but to mark how web sites were at a point in time. Sometimes we need to wipe the slate clean on the public web.  Between these perspectives, we could use something…perhaps an enhanced Wayback Machine we could add to ourselves?

Think about plug-ins we may have used in years gone by, frameworks, mark-up or techniques we wouldn’t or couldn’t use now. Preserving a sense of this gives the creators of the web in future some means to contextualise what they do. A path that can be traced for those learning their craft. Without some awareness of archiving what we do, there may well be a gap from Tim Berners-Lee to the sites of tomorrow.

Unlike buildings, our past work on the web can’t so easily unearthed.