Thursday, April 3, 2008

Tonight on YouTube: The Library vs. The Web

If you look to the left of this page, you’ll find a nifty "Blog Archive" of all of the posts that have ever been put up on this blog – well, the ones that haven’t been deleted. Or edited.

This archive includes such classics as:
The Reality of Reality?,
It Looks Like You’re Writing a Community,
Nit-Picking/The Usability of Virtual Reality,
Patchwork Girl, Hypertext, and Games,
& many more!

But wait. These aren’t the same files they used to be... well, not exactly. I see all the same text, but they’re at different points on the main page. What would happen if someone were to change the layout of the site! These classic, original posts would be fundamentally changed, never to be returned to normal.

But is this so abnormal? When I think of archiving, I think of libraries – archives of book after book after book. There are more similarities between the books in these libraries and pages on the web than you might expect. The big, important stuff – the works of Dickens and Shakespeare in the library, and the various important publications that have been made on the web (of which I’d have to think hard to name; I mean, give the internet a break, it’s only a couple of decades old) – never disappears. It may change covers, introductions, or formatting in the case of books, or layout, pictures or appearance (or even source code) in the case of web pages, but the underlying thought and content stays the same. Furthermore, the location of the book or web page may change around – placed somewhere else in the library, or moved to a different URL – without changing the content.

The same comparison can be made to the relatively unimportant works in each medium. There’s a good chance that the library won’t have a copy of some obscure book written on scrap paper by a waiter-by-day, author-by-night back in the 1920’s. And if it does, it’ll probably be impossible to find. Which is just like a random website created back in the mid-1990’s by some 14-year-old to talk about his favorite cartoons – even if it’s still on the web somewhere, you’ll probably never find it.

The really big difference, then, is not in the maintenance of content, or the storing of the content at some location in the library or on the web. It’s the quantity and accessibility of current content. Thousands of videos are put up on YouTube daily, along with thousands of blog posts, and thousands of websites are edited or contributed to. This isn’t even fathomable for books. This megaton of content is easily found and maintained currently, but almost all of it will disappear in the future. It’s like a poem written on a cocktail napkin, if the poem could be viewed by tens of thousands of people before it’s destroyed by the washing machine because you forgot to take it out of your pocket.

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