Internet Time Traveler Professor Aims to Preserve Web History

To authors, publishing a work bestows on it a legitimizing permanence - those thoughts that once merely lived in one's head now exist in the world for all to see. The modern digital landscape, though, has removed some of that permanence. There's no guarantee that videos uploaded to YouTube or the 140-character aphorisms of Twitter - no matter how brilliant - will remain. That's why a group of 'Internet time travelers' has set their sites on archiving the nearly infinite Web. Schools offering Adult Education degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

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A Culture of the Ephemeral

There's no doubt that a lot of the material that makes it on to the Internet probably isn't worth remembering. Countless Facebook and Twitter updates amount to nothing more than 'had pizza for dinner, watching TV' which - usually - won't make much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. But what about the things that are worth preserving - deeply personal blogs that might get deleted when Internet domains change ownership, photo albums that become lost in the digital shuffle? And what about cases when it's not immediately clear what will be worth archiving?

That's where 'Internet time travelers' come in. These are a small group of dedicated technology enthusiasts who're working on ways to preserve what parts of our Web culture they can. That's an especially difficult assignment, given both the speed at which much Internet content passes out of relevance and the sheer volume of information available.

Time Travel Minus the DeLorean

Yet there are tools available to interested parties that can show an 'Internet snapshot,' capturing static images of what various websites looked like in the past. For instance, computer science professor Michael Nelson and a team of researchers have come up with the browser add-on Memento, which allows users to search previous iterations of web pages, if indeed archived versions exist. They can also specify a certain date on the plug-in and then browse around the web as though it were that date, again, so long as the archived pages are available.

Then there's the Internet Archive at www.archive.org, a massive repository of free information available all over the Web. In addition to including legal copies of films, music, live concerts and books, the Archive features a 'Wayback Machine' that lets users input a desired web address and see past versions of that page. It's an interesting tool, especially for trivia nuts, who might like to know that some pages (like Amazon.com) hardly seem to change, while others (like Google) have evolved significantly.

We Live Digitally

What's the point of all this? The Internet is a reflection of our culture - perhaps its most pure representation. These days, many of us consume and create information primarily through the World Wide Web. It seems wrong - or at the very least shortsighted - that we resign ourselves to the fact that all that creation is lost to Cyberspace. The Washington Post argues that the ephemeral nature of the Web could lead to us losing important works by the 'next Spielberg,' and that's obviously something we can't know until after the fact (though we might hope that directors with such aspirations keep their own copies of any early work).

Beyond individual creators, though, the Web acts as a barometer for our culture. Twitter, Facebook and the like present the primary means by which we process historical events as they're happening. It's been well-reported that recent revolutions around the globe were partially spurred on and archived because of social networking sites. Even many traditional print publications have switched to a digital-only format. While those publications probably have their own archives, why not involve a third-party source for posterity?

The Washington Post points out that, just as cultural critics now look at television and newspaper ads from the 1960s and '70s to gauge those times, so too might future pundits desire to see the means by which we lived in our culture. Internet time travelers like Professor Michael Nelson are working to make that happen, and no literal time machines are required.

A sure sign of the times: Internet lingo has been added in droves to the Oxford English Dictionary.

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