ADRIENNE LAFRANCE OCT 14, 2015 theatlantic.com
The web, as it appears at any one moment, is a phantasmagoria. It’s not a place in any reliable sense of the word. It is not a repository. It is not a library. It is a constantly changing patchwork of perpetual nowness.
You can't count on the web, okay? It’s unstable. You have to know this.
Digital information itself has all kinds of advantages. It can be read by machines, sorted and analyzed in massive quantities, and disseminated instantaneously. “Except when it goes, it really goes,” said Jason Scott, an archivist and historian for the Internet Archive. “It’s gone gone. A piece of paper can burn and you can still kind of get something from it. With a hard drive or a URL, when it’s gone, there is just zero recourse.”
There are exceptions. The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has a trove of cached web pages going back to 1996. Scott and his colleagues are saving tens of petabytes of data, chasing an ideal that doubles as their motto: Universal Access to All Knowledge. The trove they’ve built is extraordinary, but it’s far from comprehensive. Today’s web is more dynamic than ever and therefore more at-risk than it sometimes seems.
It is not just access to knowledge, but the knowledge itself that’s at stake. Thousands of years ago, the Library of Alexandria was, as the astrophysicist Carl Sagan wrote, “the brain and heart of the ancient world.” For seven centuries, it housed hundreds of thousands of scrolls; great works of philosophy, literature, technology, math, and medicine. It took as many centuries for most of its collections to be destroyed.
The promise of the web is that Alexandria’s library might be resurrected for the modern world. But today’s great library is being destroyed even as it is being built. Until you lose something big on the Internet, something truly valuable, this paradox can be difficult to understand.
* * *
Before the Internet, if you wanted to look up an old newspaper article, you usually had to find it in an archive. Which was how, one day in 1985, Kevin Vaughan found himself hunched over a microfilm reader, scanning Denver Post headlines from the winter of 1961. Vaughan, then a journalism student at Metropolitan State College, wanted to read an account of Skid Row on Christmas by one of his favorite professors.
“I was spinning my way through December,” Vaughan said, “and I stopped and I saw this headline that said 20 children had been killed in bus-train collision. I can remember just staring at the screen and thinking, ‘I’ve lived almost all my life in Colorado: How have I never heard of this?’”
After college, Vaughan became a reporter himself. When he covered a particularly gruesome train-crossing accident for the Fort Collins Coloradoan, his mind returned to the collision of 1961.
By this time it was 1992. One of the web’s first browsers, Netscape Navigator, was still two years away from being introduced. The New York Times wouldn’t launch its website for four more years. Google wouldn’t be founded for another six. So Vaughan did what investigative reporters have done for years. He asked a police officer he knew if there was any way to find a man who didn’t want to be found—the driver of the school bus from all those years ago. “He had some computer system right in the front seat of the squad car,” Vaughan said. “He looked up the bus driver in the system and he jotted down his date of birth and his address and handed it to me. I carried around that scrap of paper for years.”
Fifteen years, to be exact. Then, in 2006, as a reporter with The Rocky Mountain News, Vaughan’s editors agreed to let him explore what had happened to the families affected by the 1961 tragedy in a series they would call “The Crossing.”
The collision had new resonance for a community still aching from the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, a shooting in which 12 students and 1 teacher were murdered. “‘The Crossing’ grew out of Columbine,” said John Temple, who was the editor and publisher of the Rocky at the time. “We realized that, as a newspaper, we would not be able to tell the community what the lifetime ramifications—on all the people who were in that school and were connected to that school—would be. Because it needed time to unfold. But this event gave us the ability to show how a single moment in time affects people for a lifetime."
Vaughan spent the better part of a year reporting the story. And in that time, a team of web designers, photographers, videographers, and engineers worked with him to build a web experience around the series—the first time the Rocky had built something digital of this scope. “From a production perspective, it was a logistical monster,” said Mike Noe, the interactive editor for the series.
It was worth the effort. Vaughan’s story about the 1961 crash, a 34-part series that spanned more than a month in early 2007, was a sensation. “I don’t want to overstate it,” Vaughan said. “But I feel like it was transformative for the people who went through that tragedy. I’ve had people tell me, for instance, that the series cut loose all this emotion that they had bottled up inside, most of them for their entire lives.” Readers wrote in to say they’d sit at their computers at midnight, refreshing their browsers until the next installment appeared. “It had tremendous impact,” Temple said, recalling a community meeting that drew 800 people in response to the series. “It was a big deal.”
“We did a couple of those public forums,” Vaughan said. “In one of them, somebody asked John Temple how long the series was going to be on the Internet, and John said, ‘Forever.’”
In 2008, Vaughan was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing for the series. The next year, the Rocky folded. And in the months that followed, the website slowly broke apart. One day, without warning, “The Crossing” evaporated from the Internet.
* * *
What happened to the people of Greeley, Colorado, on December 14, 1961, was twice lost to time. To tell the story of “The Crossing” in the first place, Vaughan excavated a meaningful event—only to have the story he told require its own excavation. Before “The Crossing” was lost, before Vaughan could even tell it, he had to outline the filigree of events that traced back to a terrible and distant winter morning. The accident had been largely forgotten.
“It seems weird to think about something that killed 20 people having a very short period of time in the public consciousness,” Vaughan said. There were newspaper accounts of the crash from 1961, but they raised as many questions as they answered. There were allusions to public documents Vaughan would need to review—records that, for all he knew, could have been destroyed decades ago. In some cases, he got lucky. Like the time he was searching for a transcript from the trial of the bus driver, a 23-year-old man with a newborn daughter at the time of the crash. Vaughan wanted to read the man’s statement, which was referenced in old newspaper clippings as having been long and dramatic, but never reprinted in full. A court clerk from the small county where the accident had happened agreed to accompany Vaughan outside town to an abandoned missile silo that had been converted into an archive of public records.
In 1994, there were fewer than 3,000 websites online. By 2014, there were more than 1 billion.
“I still think about it. It’s almost dreamlike, surreal in my mind,” Vaughan said. “You go in this door on the side of a hill and all of the sudden we arrive at this whole underground complex, which was built to withstand nuclear war.” The room was the size of a basketball gym, and flooded with row after row of boxes, stacked up 20 feet or higher. It was, for the most part, a mess. There was no clear organizational system. So it was by chance that Vaughan caught a glimpse of a box, on a tall shelf far out of reach, with the last name of the prosecutor from the trial scratched onto the side. The clerk climbed a ladder to retrieve the box.
“First of all, the room looked like this scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Vaughan said. “I swear to God, I lifted the lid off this box and I felt like a shaft of light came down from heaven. I could see these big manila envelopes with the bus driver’s name on them... Several dozen black-and-white photos taken over the course of the investigation that I had never seen before, a transcript of the court hearing held the day of the accident, all the letters the prosecutors got from across the country. It was just amazing.”
Later, after Vaughan had a chance to sift through the materials and make copies for the series, the clerk phoned the district attorney’s office to ask what should be done with the box. “They told her throw it away,” Vaughan said. “She hung up and she looked at me and said, ‘We are not throwing this away.’”
Many of the never-before-published documents and photographs Vaughan unearthed became key components of the web series, appearing only online and not in printed versions of the series. These weren’t just extras, but key chapters of the story, told digitally. And when the website disintegrated after the Rocky’s closure, these stories weren’t relegated to an old box on an unreachable shelf; they were gone.
“The day-in, day-out maintenance [of the site] just stopped happening, and so pretty quickly, some stuff didn’t work,” Vaughan said.
Vaughan began to think about how he might save the series. Was it even possible? “I wanted it up for a lot of reasons, but mostly I kept hearing in my head John saying, ‘It’ll be up forever.’”===============================================Good Netiquette And A Green Internet To All!
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