Illusions of Publishing and Permanence

I had a great meeting with my colleague who’s in charge of helping with grant developments and applications the other day. The best part was the he recognised the project, and said ‘by the second paragraph I was thinking, “This is really exciting”’. He has abundant intriguing suggestions for where to go with the project, and we’ll be working together to parlay the ideas into events, impact, publications, and so on.
One of his suggestions, though, turned me off — and (paradoxically, for my identity as a techno kind of humanist) that ‘No, no’ suggestion was that we develop my project into a website. Now, you know that I’m not against the Web; perish the thought! His suggestion did trigger reflections about bespoke websites for projects. Too often I’ve seen websites devoted to X or Y good idea, or exhibition, or promising venture, that manifestly haven’t been touched by an updater’s hand in years. They often promote ‘future’ developments that haven’t materialised in years; they discuss ‘contemporary’ states of affairs that have now become past history (and often the future these sites foresaw missed their target by embarrassing margins).
But even more ‘project’ websites have simply disappeared. They aren’t there. They’re the targets of dead links. The pointers that lead to them indicate something of what might have been going on back then, but the void at the end of the link slaps the interested researcher in the face.
All of this came to mind, because this is a respect in which web publication differs from print publication and even to most film/video projects (Hugo illustrated this phenomenon winningly with regard to early cinema). I’ve often looked for back posts of Tom Matrullo’s, because Tom gave articulate, prescient, and lucid characterisations of the Web we saw at the turn of the century. But Tom was blogging with Dave Winer’s platform, a brilliant pioneering effort at the time, but with several complications. In the first instance, they relied on Dave’s servers. That meant that when he felt that some spiderbots were hitting his servers too often, too hard, he scripted his servers to exclude those bots with a request that they let up. That meant that (for instance)’s Wayback Machine was fenced out from archiving Tom Matrullo’s blog. But then in the second instance, when Dave suddenly gave up on (some blogs were carried over and preserved; others were not), Tom’s blog vanished from the digital record. Similarly, when Seabury ended its seminary teaching program, various of my digital documents were eradicated. I had back-up copies, so I can retrieve what I need — but a browser who looks for anything of mine at will find nowt. Any volunteer columnist for a local weekly newspaper has a better-documented oeuvre than some unlucky bloggers and researchers who wrote in the age of infinite reproduction.
So when I hear ‘project’ in conjunction with ‘website’, I think of dusty neglected sites, or of weeks/months/years of labour consigned to the void. Someone imagined that ‘the future’ would perpetuate her or his work indefinitely, and the future turned around and smacked down those notions, hard.
One way around that, of course, would be to develop a hosting environment specialised for ‘project’ destinations — comparable to a ‘publisher’, with concomitant interests in archiving, discoverability, searchability, and so on. I’m not sure what the business model might be — perhaps eliciting subscriptions from sponsoring institutions, perhaps an arrangement with, perhaps just plain philanthropic interest in preserving noteworthy digital ventures. But until I see pretty clearly how a web venture might be sustained into an indefinite future, I’ll decline to invest much time and energy into that particular mode of representation.

One thought on “Illusions of Publishing and Permanence

  1. This is something I also struggle with, having seen several web-based projects of mine vanish (I do have some backups, but most of the material is dated, and I’m pretty sure I still owe you an essay for the Disseminary!). If all I want to do is affect my students’ searches, I should probably become a Wikipedia editor, but the process is unwelcoming in an entirely different way than peer review is, and I do prefer to get some credit for authorship and/or editing which I perform in a professional capacity.
    It’s also tricky from an institutional standpoint: when and how do we give credit for “publishing” an ongoing project which may or may not still be around in five years? If the institution archives “complete” web-based projects through its library or digital gateway, when do we consider a project “complete”? And who’s responsible for those archives in the event that an institution (like Seabury) vanishes or remakes itself?
    I do wonder if the humanities-based aggregator sites (NINES, 18thconnect, REKn, MESA) might offer some sort of model for web-based scholarly production going forward. So far, though, the ones I’m familiar with are organized by chronology rather than discipline.

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