Creating an on-line memory

By Nicole Kobie

The Web has no memory–unless it is created.

Some things on-line don’t need to be remembered–think porn, pop-up ads and Others however, like news and events, should be. While it’s doubtful the attacks last September will ever be forgotten, headlines, stories and pictures posted on-line in the hours and days afterwards have disappeared.

The fluidity of the Internet means information travels at high speeds, be it from friends forwarding e-mail, late-breaking stories on news sites, or devoted ‘Net nerds trading rumours and details through post sites. As fast as such information goes on-line and spreads, it disappears even faster–headlines change from one hit to the next, text is added and facts are checked and changed. Links once directed to a source now only bring up a "404–page not found."

Many news sites archive their own content, and several archive sites have realized the importance of doing this on a general scale. We can create a memory for the Web, just as we create the content of the Web. To ensure there is an on-line memory of the September 11 attacks, for reasons both therapeutic and altruistic, one man took it upon himself to create one.

Remembering September 11

While surfing around looking for information that day last year, Norbert Specker started taking screen shots of the sites he visited. He soon had over a hundred such images of sites like Google, cnn and the New York Times.

"It was very much personal therapy," explains Specker. "Surf, click. Surf, click. Then I needed people and a beer so I went to a bar and watched on tv what I’d seen on the Web, and realized I had to do the screenshots more systematically so others could view them, too."

On-line since September 17, 2002, the Interactive Publishing site originally had 130 screenshots of news sites from around the world. Another hundred images have since been added by visitors who followed the same impulse as Specker.

With over four million page hits in the past year, and nearly 7,500 people visiting the site every day, it’s apparently a service people appreciate.

"Visitors come in different roles… from the academic and student community we hear that it helped in their work," Specker said.

Sites like Specker’s and Internet Archive make accessing old Web pages easier for the general public. However, we shouldn’t assume news sources don’t archive their content, even if we don’t have ready access.

"The Web is really as permanent as broadcast journalism in terms of the average person’s ability to access archives," explains University of Calgary Communications professor Dr. Rebecca Sullivan. "Just because they’re not available doesn’t mean they’ve been destroyed. If anything, Web-based news is much more permanent and accessible than broadcast–unless you’re in the habit of taping The National Report every night and storing the videos in your basement."

Better than CNN?

On-line content differs from what’s found in print and broadcast, too. Sullivan describes it as a hybrid between the two, offering more story depth faster than print. While sites based on conventional news sources (like The Globe and Mail) are generally just the paper-free version of the newspaper product, purely on-line sites have the chance to offer something different.

"Stand-alone news-oriented Web sites like Salon or Slate tend to rely on in-depth analysis after the events," said Sullivan. "Some of the best analysis of September 11 has come from Salon–it certainly hasn’t come from CNN."

"When there is live coverage, the Web is certainly second in line," added Specker. "The role it filled was to satisfy the need for deeper information, more detailed coverage, various perspectives, opinions and discussions. That it did, very well."

Frantic pace means errors

However, much content that goes on-line as breaking news–like the news sites Specker archived–aren’t subject to as much scrutiny as print media. Information may go up before facts are fully checked; this is another instance where archiving is worth the time it takes. Keeping track–and proof–of errors and exaggerations in on-line media helps hold it accountable.

"One of the problems with the immediacy of the Web is that reports go up at a frantic pace and checking their facts is an afterthought," explains Sullivan. "It can fuel a lot of hysteria."

As Specker’s site notes, unless we create it, the Web has no memory. The question now remains whether such an endeavour will attract the attention of on-line communities and be supported. For the time being, it appears, while creating content is in the hands of many, archiving a memory will be the burden of a few.

Norbert Specker and Interactive Publishing’s September 11 Screenshot archive is located at Internet Archive is at


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