The spread of link rot

By Felix Salmon
June 28, 2013

When Anil Dash lamented, last December, about the web we lost, he wasn’t speaking literally — he was talking about a culture which got swept away by a tidal wave of Silicon Valley money. But with today’s news that Google seems to be about to vaporize a significant number of the blogs on its Blogger platform, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the problem of link rot isn’t going away — if anything, it’s getting worse.

I’m a great believer that once something is placed on the internet for free, it should continue to stay there, for free, unless there’s an extremely good reason to delete it. Back when hosting websites was difficult and expensive, that was easier said than done. But now web hosting is effectively free, there’s really no excuse — and one might hope that, as a result, we’d see less link rot.

But that’s not what’s happening. For one thing, the institution of the permalink is dying away as we move away from the open web; if you’re not even on the web (if, for instance, your content comes in the form of a show on Netflix), then the very concept makes no sense. What’s more, we’ve moved into a world of streams, where flow is more important than stock, and where the half-life of any given piece of content has never been shorter; that’s not a world which particularly values preserving that content for perpetuity. And of course it has never been easier to simply delete vast amounts of content at a stroke. (For instance: the Kanye West and Alec Baldwin twitter feeds.)

The Wikipedia page on link rot says (at the time of writing) that “permalinking stops broken links by guaranteeing that the content will never move” — but in the real world that’s not much of a protection at all. Content management systems change, and when they do, many publishers don’t bother to ensure that the old links still work. (Which is why, for instance, old links to Gawker tend to die, even though the website is still going strong.) And of course permalinking can’t prevent an entire blog from getting deleted — as Google is now threatening to do with certain adult sites.

Small personal blogs die every day, of course, but it’s no protection being owned by a huge media company, either. My boss, Jim Ledbetter, used to edit a site called The Big Money, which was unceremoniously killed off by the Slate Group, its archives lost to history; more recently, Thomson Reuters did the same thing to one of their sites, News and Insight. (The press release announcing the move was one of its victims; a shadow of it lives on here.) When these decisions are made, the fate of the archives never seems to matter; the result is thousands more dead links scattered across the internet every day, pointing to once-valuable resources which no longer exist.

These mass deletions are huge; they make me feel almost sheepish about the anger with which I greeted, say, Greg Mankiw’s decision, back in 2007, not only to close his blog to comments, but at the same time to delete all the previous comments which had been made, with no warning. All the conversations which had taken place in his comments section, all the smart rebuttals which had been made — all of them just disappeared, overnight. Today, I’d barely blink at such a thing: after all, it happened to me, a couple of years later, when all the comments on my Portfolio blog got deleted.

What I fear is that the entire web is basically becoming a slow-motion Snapchat, where content lives for some unknowable amount of time before it dies, lost forever. Sites like archive.org can’t possibly keep up; and the moguls who own most of the content online are simply not invested in the ideals of the link economy. When even Google is giving bloggers just three days to save their sites or see their content disappeared — three days when many of them are on summer vacations, no less — it’s pretty obvious that there’s no such thing as a truly benign online organization any more. There may or may not be one or two, at the edges; I have a decent amount of faith, for instance, that the BBC is going to honor its permalinks for many years to come*. At the other end of the spectrum, Anil will, as well. But for those of us who make our livings linking to other things on the internet, it’s simply a fact of life that most of our links will die. If, that is, our own permalinks aren’t killed off first.

*Update: Or, maybe not!

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