21 Jan 2010 10 am eastern

Posthumous Hosting and Digital Culture

The deaths of Leslie Harpold and Brad Graham, in addition to being tragic and horrible and sad, have highlighted the questionable long-term viability of blogs, personal sites, and web magazines as legitimate artistic and literary expressions. (Read this, by Rogers Cadenhead.)

Cool URIs don’t change, they just fade away. When you die, nobody pays your hosting company, and your work disappears. Like that.

Now, not every blog post or “Top 10 Ways to Make Money on the Internet” piece deserves to live forever. But there’s gold among the dross, and there are web publications that we would do well to preserve for historical purposes. We are not clairvoyants, so we cannot say which fledgling, presently little-read web publications will matter to future historians. Thus logic and the cultural imperative urge us to preserve them all. But how?

The death of the good in the jaws of time is not limited to internet publications, of course. Film decays, books (even really good ones) constantly go out of print, digital formats perish. Recorded music that does not immediately find an audience disappears from the earth.

Digital subscriptions were supposed to replace microfilm, but American libraries, which knew we were racing toward recession years before the actual global crisis came, stopped being able to pay for digital newspaper and magazine descriptions nearly a decade ago. Many also (even fancy, famous ones) can no longer collect—or can only collect in a limited fashion. Historians and scholars have access to every issue of every newspaper and journal written during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, but can access only a comparative handful of papers covering the election of Barack Obama.

Thanks to budget shortfalls and format wars, our traditional media, literature, and arts are perishing faster than ever before. Nothing conceived by the human mind, except Heaven and nuclear winter, is eternal.

Still, when it comes to instant disposability, web stuff is in a category all its own.

Unlike with other digital expressions, format is not the problem: HTML, CSS, and backward-compatible web browsers will be with us forever. The problem is, authors pay for their own hosting.

(There are other problems: the total creative output of someone I follow is likely distributed across multiple social networks as well as a personal site and Twitter feed. How to connect those dots when the person has passed on? But let’s leave that to the side for the moment.)

A suggestion for a business. Sooner or later, some hosting company is going to figure out that it can provide a service and make a killing (as it were) by offering ten-, twenty-, and hundred-year packets of posthumous hosting.

A hundred years is not eternity, but you are not Shakespeare, and it’s a start.


Filed under: Accessibility, Advocacy, Blogs and Blogging, business, Community, content strategy, data, Formats, glamorous, HTML, Ideas, industry, Publications, Publishing, Respect, State of the Web, The Essentials, The Profession, W3C, work, writing

60 Responses to “Posthumous Hosting and Digital Culture”

  1. Terry Eaton said on

    I like the one hundred year hosting idea but this presupposes that a particular hosting provider would actually be around for that length of time or, if acquired, that any organization that consumed it would honor its hosting agreements.

  2. Rich said on

    You may want to take a look at what the folks over at The Digital Beyond are doing. They’ve been noodling on this stuff.

  3. Michel said on

    Interesting thoughts…

    Maybe the best is to allow your family to continue to pay for hosting + domain, in case you are no longer here. So maybe websites should be made part of our testaments that we leave? ;-) “50% of the money in my bank account, I give to X. MyCoolDomain.com + its hosting I give to Y, which will take care of … ” ? :)

    Archive.org preserves some of the Web history… but only a small part, unfortunately…

  4. Tommy Weir said on

    So the Internet is going to be filled with dead people.

    And their numbers will mount.

    Will it become vaguely depressing to go online? Or deeply wondrous? Will we be surrounded by the legacies of prior generations? Or will it appear to be the dusty detritus of past days? Will services emerge? Sites who clean up after you online, archive everything, delete it so you can rest easy, knowing your great grand children can’t see your grumpy tweets?

    I had wondered before in relation to Twitter and Facebook. I guess other free services too. It would be am interesting thing to check out, how Manu dead people already are on Facebook? .

  5. Aaron Burrows said on

    This is something I had never thought of, but it makes a lot of sense. Some sort of service that exists to archive your collected works once you pass would be a cool idea. Maybe you sign up, provide your account info, and in the event of your expiration (your domain names, content, etc., that is), a notification is sent to you and possibly one or two other contacts (family, close friends) who can then decide to renew (maybe you’re not dead, but just let your content expire) or begin the archive process.

    The service would then collect the content you provided (blogs, Facebook, Twitter posts) and renew hosting for a predetermined amount of time, but also collect everything into an archive. The archive would be a place to access the content once the original accounts have expired or been closed. The content would be preserved, in context, as much as possible (that is, Twitter backgrounds would be preserved, blog article formatting, especially for the Jason Santa Maria magazine-style guys out there). Then, the world (or maybe just some loved ones) could visit your archive to see everything you created/wrote/programmed during your life.

    Web hosting will inevitably become less expensive in future years, and demand for the content will most likely wane, so the long-term cost should be minimal. The cost/effort will likely be in the collection of data, and maintenance of the contacts.

  6. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    So the Internet is going to be filled with dead people.

    Well, the bookshelves, libraries, museums, music bins, and concert halls are filled with the work of dead people. Is it so bad to have access to Charlie Parker and Jane Austen?

    But, at best (assuming a web hosting company figures out how to offer this service), it would be a minority indulgence.

  7. Rich Clark said on

    Nice article and something I’ve been thinking about recently, particularly in relation to social networking sites (facebook, twitter, linkedIn) etc following the death of our CEO.

    I’ll be following the comments closely on this to hear peoeples thoughts.

  8. Joe said on

    It seems like it could be offered in a progressive life insurance policy. Pay an additional monthly fee depending on how long and/or how much bandwidth you’d like after you’re gone.

  9. David Orlowski said on

    “Historians and scholars have access to every issue of every newspaper and journal written during the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, but can access only a comparative handful of papers covering the election of Barack Obama.”

    Reading this hurts so much that I feel like clutching my stomach.

  10. Good Web Work said on

    Several things come to mind for me:

    It’s a weakness of the web as a medium. We often take the attitude that the web does everything every other medium does and more all at once. That’s not really true.

    It’s a weakness of publishing content via 3rd party sites, social networking or otherwise. If you publish everything you want to publish on your own site, then posthumous hosting and possibly some type of curation will keep the stuff around. As you said, Jeff, with Twitter et al., who knows?

    I’d like to see some way for the best of what certain people do to be preserved but not every single 1 and 0 they ever published. There has to be an energy conversation issue in there somewhere trying to preserve a bunch of digital garbage forever, doesn’t there? I know it’s a question of who decides what’s good and what’s to be deleted but I think it’s always worth thinking about the energy implications of what we do.

  11. Troy Gilbert said on

    A close friend died last fall. I had hosted his email account for the last decade. Just last week I was going through the server, cleaning up logs, etc., and ran across his account. I didn’t know what to do. His inbox was full of email — much of it spam, much of it messages sent to him immediately before and soon after his death. I didn’t know if his family had the details…

    So, I just archived it. Tucked it away.

    His Facebook page is still up. No status updates, of course, but he continues to receive messages from loved ones. In a way, a Facebook profile is a modern gravestone, a communal place for remembrance. I know that one day the profile will disappear into the ether, and it’ll be a sad day when that happens.

  12. John Lascurettes said on

    Sheldon Brown was an indispensable internet aficionado for the bicycling community. While no UI expert (it pains me sometimes to look at the scattershot of links on his sites), his content was always king. He died in early 2008, but the bicycle shop that he worked for made a commitment to continue hosting all of his material on various sites with his family’s permission.

    Some of the technical articles of Sheldon’s will eventually become out-of-date for most people; however, it will become all the more valuable for people tinkering with then vintage bike parts. Other articles of his will be as useful as the day they were written.

    It’s a shame Leslie Harpold’s family wasn’t as receptive to all the folks that offered to do the same. I am grateful for the Brown family and Harris Cyclery leaving Sheldon’s material up for all our benefit.

  13. Doug said on

    I remember Tantek talking about this topic during @media 2007 in San Francisco. I don’t remember his solution but I remember being impressed with it, hopefully he can join in on the discussion.

  14. Christian said on

    The closest to a 100 year hosting package that I can think of is the life-time hosting that was for sale many years ago by Joyent (back when they were called TextDrive). Technically speaking my site(s) will be around until the company goes bankrupt or decides to drop those early promises. My domain names, however, will long have been expired thus rendering those URL meaningless even though the ‘data’ is still online.

    This all reminds me of the work by the Long Now Foundation.

  15. Pete B said on

    Some thoughts off the top of my head:

    Google does a good job of caching pages, but maybe this could be applied in a more ‘standardised’ way; some kind of automated spidering and packaging of website contents, perhaps a site summary page and a homepage screenshot with a compressed archive of the cached pages and assets.

    A meta tag could be used to indicate which pages are ‘archive-able’ so domain archives are not stuffed with temporary files from product pages.

    Given the ebb and flow of companies and individuals that offer services only to withdraw them at a later date (geocities, magnolia etc.), any ‘archiving process’ would better be managed by individuals so authors and their peeps can be responsible for managing their own archives.

  16. Iva said on

    I never thought of this in such a rational manner, but I did think of leaving a complex project I run to someone in my will, if I die unexpectedly.

    Now I have a whole new paranoia.

  17. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I’m named after my maternal grandfather, who died in a plane crash. My mother, who was eleven at the time of his death, never recovered emotionally from the tragedy. She passed her fears on to me. For years, I was afraid of flying.

    When I first began traveling to speak at web and design conferences, I used to contemplate contacting close friends to ask that they “watch over” A List Apart and zeldman.com if I should die while away.

    I contemplated it, but held back, because it felt too neurotic and crazy.

    I also used to write vaguely elegaic posts here before leaving for those early web and design conferences. I always thought, “I may never see these people again” (not that, by publishing here, I actually see any of you).

    With time, I learned that flying was not deadly so much as it was deadly boring, and I moved on to worrying about different things. But I’ve never stopped wondering what happens to A List Apart, or {fray}, or Textism. (This partly accounts for my freakout when Dean Allen took down Favrd. It was a willed foretaste of the death that is coming to everything we create.)

  18. Tantek said on

    @zeldman:

    (There are other problems: the total creative output of someone I follow is likely distributed across multiple social networks as well as a personal site and Twitter feed. How to connect those dots when the person has passed on? But let’s leave that to the side for the moment.)

    Short answer: self-host your own content, and use other sites only for “backup” or secondary syndication purposes.

    It became clear to me after Pownce.com’s permalinks were abandoned by their acquirer Six Apart (ironically, a *blogging* (hosting, products) company whose interest it is to set an example of trust and the social value of persistent permalinks), that if you want persistence, you can’t trust a hosted service.

    I’m working on fixing a small part of this problem. More soon on tantek.com (hopefully within a few days).

    @Christian:

    This all reminds me of the work by the Long Now Foundation.

    Indeed The Long Now is interested in broader perspectives of persistence, yet even they need help getting this right on the web. See this related blog post on their blog:

    http://blog.longnow.org/2009/09/23/team-digital-preservation-is-back/

    @Doug:

    I remember Tantek talking about this topic during @media 2007 in San Francisco … hopefully he can join in on the discussion.

    Indeed this has been a topic near and dear to me for quite some time. Here is a blog post with some of my thoughts on the matter: http://tantek.com/log/2006/06.html#d17t2231

    In the beginning of one of my talks at Web Essentials 2005 I also touched on the subject of archives. The talk was podcast, ironically, on a domain/server which since died (we05.com). However, due to the Creative Commons licensing of the podcast, the MP3 file itself was copied by others, replicated, and eventually I was able to find one of those copies on the web (thanks to knowing the filename and search engines) and host a copy on the microformats.org server:

    http://microformats.org/media/2005/09/we05-14-tantek-celik2.mp3

    So if you’ve read this far, here is a summary for the persistence of your memory:

    1. Use open data formats
    2. Self-host your own content, *and* use other sites for backup or secondary syndication purposes
    3. Use Creative Commons licenses to encourage others to make copies

    And thanks to Jeffrey for allowing me to essentially write a blog post in his comments (ironic, given the topic) – my blog will return this year.

  19. Terry Eaton said on

    So, Jeffrey, since it is something that you did contemplate, did you come up with anything close to a contingency plan for zeldman.com?

  20. Roger said on

    I’ve dealt with 2 clients in the last year that had no idea where they were hosting. Design firms had gone away, hosting companies had been bought and sold. No one was getting a bill (!?!?) for the hosting. It was only when one of these clients’ websites came up with a 500 error that they could be convinced to move. I really think if the domain name was kept up these sites might have gone on forever.

  21. Billee D. said on

    Interesting post once again, Jeffrey. In light of recent “artistic” cut-backs in our school systems I think the idea of art and culture fading away into the digital oblivion is a huge concern for all creative types.

    You’re absolutely right about our inability to cut the chafe from the wheat with regards to what important artifacts need saving now. We simply have no way of reliably predicting what artistic and/or cultural works will benefit future generations. Our libraries are now desolate places full of ghosts. Our museums are slowly being replaced with digital exhibitions and “gee whiz” light shows projected onto the sides of buildings.

    When someone who writes brilliant commentary or prose passes on it might just be up to us to continue their legacy in their absence.

  22. giorgio_v said on

    Maybe they’ll look back at this time in the same way we look at prehistoric times.

    I think that digital culture is incredibly fragile: the overwhelming majority of the content produced will be gone or irrelevant in a very short time.

    The same could said about hosting companies and search engines. How many of them will be still around fifty years from now?

    Thank you Jeffrey for this brilliant post.

  23. Todd Sieling said on

    > So the Internet is going to be filled with dead people.

    Most of the laws, words and food we live by was created or discovered by people now gone. The dead rule the living, it would truly be wondrous to continue some of the presence they had in life after they leave us.

  24. Erin said on

    For those interested in this subject, I highly recommend checking out the work of Jason Scott. He is to preserving digital content to what Mr. Zeldman is to web standards. Mr. Scott comments often on this matter, but he also makes the effort to seek and backup these vulnerable works.

  25. Shelley said on

    When Emily Dickinson died, she left instructions that her little hand sewn books of poetry be burned. Her sister did not follow her wished and published her works, to the benefit of us all. She is still one of my favorite poets.

    Should her sister had gone her wishes? Was it right to publish the work, even though Dickinson didn’t wish it to be published?

    Could we say the same about online material: do we have the right to preserve material if the person doesn’t wish it?

    Consider this then: I believe, after reading much about Emily Dickinson’s life[1], that the reason she wanted her poetry burned is that once she did send her poems into a publisher to publish. A friend of her’s in fact[2]. He edited the work so that it would follow that rather insipid style expected of women poets of the time.

    I believe that Dickinson would rather her work be destroyed then have all of her uniqueness edited out. Luckily, though, her true work was published in the end, and I think she would have been content.

    So what’s the moral to this overlong comment? That perhaps we should spend less time worrying about preserving the work of those who have died, and more time encouraging the fresh voices of those still alive. I have a feeling if we follow this philosophy, it will all come out right, in the end.

    [1] http://shelleypowers.burningbird.net/reflections/people/me-and-emily-getting-know-you
    [1] http://shelleypowers.burningbird.net/reflections/people/me-and-emily-sweet-whispers-betrayer

  26. Nathan Youngman said on

    Interesting thoughts. I still have that Joyent VC “Lifetime” account, not sure how long it will really last. But domains can only be registered 10-years out, so the idea of putting something in your Will seems like the best idea.

  27. Dan Connolly said on

    2 words: endowed publication.

    The public library of science does it.

    In September 1996, I was invited to The Research Library in the 21st Century symposium. My notes (http://dig.csail.mit.edu/breadcrumbs/node/159 ) include:

    “I spent the first day getting a feel for this community, where evidently a talk by Clifford Lynch of CNI is a staple. … He noted that traditionally, publishers disseminate and libraries preserve, but we’re shifting to a world where the library helps disseminate and makes decisions on behalf of the whole world about which works to preserve. He said there’s a company (I wish I had made a note of the name) that has worked out the price of an endowed web site; at 4% annual return, they figure it at $2500/gigabyte.”

    Transcripts and audio recordings of Lynch’s talks (and all the others) are online.
    http://www.lib.utexas.edu/symposium/

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  30. Paul Ford said on

    This subject interests me as well. I spidered Leslie’s sites soon after she died, so I was able to keep a record–but I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing it. I don’t feel it’s my place. It’s an incomplete record in any case, with broken links, missing files, and so on (there’s a *.ogg file of her talking, though, which is nice to hear). It’s not how she’d want to be represented, I don’t think.

    I’ve been thinking the optimal strategy is to use the DVCS model pioneered by the Linux kernel with git and create an HTML death club. No central archiving authority, but a group of people with similar inclinations.

    Recently the Ruby world lost a programmer/artist who went by _why; he pulled all of his files and disappeared. _why did not die–but the situation was analogous to the one you’re describing. His work was open-sourced, though, and much of it had found its way into GitHub, which meant that people had not just copies of the code but copies of the entire source history and the legal right to reproduce it. In time there appeared http://whymirror.github.com/, an archive of his works that continues to be available and extensible by other coders.

    There are issues of content ownership that I don’t want to explore in this comment box. Pubbing things under a CC-sharealike license may not be a good option for some people. But seeing the reaction to _why’s disappearance, one solution could be to have a centralized-but-private git repository that a group of likeminded people use.

    So: If Jeffrey Zeldman checks in changes to zeldman.com–a process that can be automated–Paul Ford can then pull those changes and have an exact copy of Jeffrey’s code. Ford could do this nightly, say (it’s also automated). A few other people can do the same. Git tracks changes, so these are very small binary updates coming across the wire. Not a big deal, resource-wise.

    Jeffrey should, of course, have told everyone in the group what is to happen with his site(s) after he shuffles off–i.e. the sites are to remain at zeldman.com unless zeldman.com is nonresponsive for more than a week, at which point anyone in the group who wants to should feel free to reproduce the entirety of his site wherever they choose. Or something. There should be a policy and an understanding and something signed and/or publicly available.

    In return for my mirroring of his web presence Jeffrey would mirror my git repository. The way git works makes it ideal for this situation: If the central repository disappears then people still have full copies of everything; if I die, Jeffrey and the other people in the group would have copies of my sites. If a natural disaster strikes and the hosting and local copy of Jeffrey’s site is lost there are multiple complete backups. If Jeffrey freaks out and erases everything AND figures out a way to crash the repository, etc., then a friend or friends would have a source history so that if he changed his mind in the future they could help him restore his work.

    (As to issues of authorial intent, etc.–If the person who takes over hosting the site decides to extend it or change it then git can always take you back to the way it was when the original creator gave up or died. DCVSes have interesting implications this way. You could have many people building atop your work, subsuming it, etc. Git plus Web = Xanadu [without micropayments]. I digress.)

    As of six months ago my sites now save out a copy of the text in the my database every two hours and pull that record, nightly, from my server to my home machine. The code is already in git. So I can return to any combination of code/image/content between now and six months ago with a little work. I’m not ready to CC-license everything yet, but I wouldn’t mind having a copy of the current mess on someone else’s machine, preferably many other machines–esp. someone who’d know how to restore it to the web. HTML Death Club is a club I would probably join!

  31. Tommy Weir said on

    Jeffrey and Todd… don’t get me wrong. I quite agree, the dead have a lot to offer.

    It’s just odd to think that at some point they’ll outnumber the living online. It’s certainly going to feel different…

    But mostly your excellent article made me wonder about tail-off and how things will decline and recede online. A Twitter account is pretty dead after a weeks neglect. I have friends whose sole Facebook activity is to appear in those loathsome FB reminder boxes in the top right corner of the screen… Sites and blogs have a longer life of course, and perhaps free hosting could end up being some form of eternity. I’ve had blog posts responded to after three years.

    But a timely article Jeffrey, I’ve often thought of having my account details available to my best friend, with instructions on a last post / tidy up / see y’all email.

  32. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Paul:

    I like.

    Q: I have , like, 10 years of static content here as well as five subsequent years of database-stored content created in WordPress. How would you account for static content in this scheme? (Could you?) Also, how would we account for platform differences? Would we standardize on a database and just be sure all platforms dump to it? (We may already be there with MySQL and ExpressionEngine, WordPress, etc.)

  33. A LOATHSOME TROLL said on

    LOL @ HTML/CSS will be with us forever. Give me a break, HTML and CSS are a hindrance more than a benefit. Do you know what the movie studios use to create the fancy interfaces you see in spaceships?? Flash. They use Flash because Flash is the FUTURE, in the movies, and life. We all know the often told tale of the cell phone showing up first in Star Trek. But, what Star Trek couldn’t even get was the touch screen, the malleability of the interface that is soon coming and already showing itself in mobile applications…

    CSS and HTML are OVER, DONE, EMPTY AND OLD, IRRELEVANT, POINTLESS, and most of all, JUST PLAIN STUPID.

    We need a real interface technology, bitmaps and archaic markup are most certainly NOT the future. LOL. LOL at you, Zeldman, LOL at you…

  34. Paul Ford said on

    Jeffrey:

    You wrote:

    Q: I have , like, 10 years of static content here as well as five subsequent years of database-stored content created in WordPress. How would you account for static content in this scheme? (Could you?) Also, how would we account for platform differences? Would we standardize on a database and just be sure all platforms dump to it? (We may already be there with MySQL and ExpressionEngine, WordPress, etc.)

    Sure, the static content is no problem–images, code, javascript, whatever. Change one file, change ‘em all, git keeps track. No need to standardize on anything, really, as long as there’s a predictable dump format. The goal is not really hot-swappability as much as it is to have a complete archive. I use PostGres and dump all my django DBs, and MySQL at work, into textfiles. Things get weird for me with git if I have a single 3Gb+ file, but those are pretty rare and there are ways to deal.

    The way I have it now is that I have my sites and all my works-in-progress (short stories, LaTeX stuff, etc.) in a single source repository. I have a “sub-repository” that contains database dumps. I keep those two aligned between home and server. Sometimes home changes and it pushes to server, sometimes server changes and home pulls it. It all works fine, even if it sounds confusing. If my host suddenly went down or jettisoned me I’m sure I could be back up and running and configured in a day or five.

    HTML Death Club could work this way: you set up a central repository somewhere (probably run by a member of the club rather than a paid private account at GitHub etc. because this will be low-bandwidth but relatively high-disk-usage compared to code because of media–not really the sort of thing public repositories are for). Every night a cronjob pushes the main branch of your whole online existence to the central HTML Death Club repository. After the initial push this will typically be a small file–a few images, text deltas, etc., packed up into one changeset. Every morning or whatever everyone in HTML Death Club pulls all the changes. We’re all giving up say 10-20Gb on our home drives to host everyone’s stuff (all my stuff in my repo–images, MP3s, novel text, code, etc. is 973M right now, for instance).

    In truth you don’t even need the central repo. You could be even more decentralized than that, just pulling off each other’s web servers. Might make more sense and require less foolery.

    Maybe we should just do it as an experiment and write it up for ALA? I’d be curious to see if it really worked and what sort of problems arose (copyright? legality? what if I want everyone to erase everything–do I have the right?). There are real concerns. You’d want to keep each club very small because code, etc, tends to contain database passwords and suchlike (that said this also will contain the database itself, so maybe it’s less of an issue). You’d be giving people the ability to screw you bigtime if they wanted. But you want to keep the club big enough to make it properly redundant. 3-4 people max, maybe, per Club? But you could belong to more than one club. There would be policies: Every machine that downloads your changes should be firewalled (i.e. not another server). Etc.

  35. Brandt said on

    Was your casual use of a URI shortener to link to Amazon meant to be quietly ironic in the context of this post? If bit.ly dies, nobody will know what you meant by “even really good ones”, even though Amazon may live on.

    You say that in this case format is not the problem, but it is a tangled web we weave. To the extent that our meaning is embedded in that which we link to, the format is part of the problem in preserving modern writing. For example, it’s now impossible to decode half of the meaning of Mark Pilgrim’s Things I wonder about Leslie Harpold, because much of the meaning of his words depends on what those words link to.

    To rephrase that, the nature of HTML allows our writing to employ forms of expression that were previously impossible: we can use hyperlinks to say one thing and mean another, as we often do using non-verbal cues when speaking. So preserving our HTML and CSS may guarantee the preservation of much of what we mean, but our writing will still inevitably lose part of its meaning unless we can also preserve that which we link to (and that which it links to, etc).

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  37. Derek K. Miller said on

    I’ve had nasty, metstatic, stage four cancer for over three years. It’s never been in remission, only treatment, so I’ve thought about this a lot. It’s even put me on the radio and on TV here in Canada.

    Right now, if you’re in a position like me to think about it for some time before you die, I think digital legacies need a few things:

    1. Decide what online of you want to live, and what you want to die. I’d like to preserve my blog and site at my own domain, my Flickr photos, and maybe a couple of other things here and there. Maybe a “memorialized” Facebook page. But most of the rest, from Twitter to various online purchasing accounts and memberships at services I rarely use, should be deleted.

    2. To that end, I’m compiling a list of login and authentication information for the various services I use, so whoever cleans up after me has easy access to it all.

    3. Then you need someone trustworthy to maintain your plans. Maybe a family member, maybe a trusted nerd pal. They can do through and delete what should go, check hosting arrangement for what remains, and keep paying the hosting bills for those that need them to keep running.

    Dave Winer suggested something like this years ago: some sort of large-ish “lifetime fee” for keeping a static site hosted and online at its original domain — from a company that is likely to survive decades beyond your own death, like Amazon or Google, or whatever.

  38. Don Ulrich said on

    It all comes down to the physical latency of the medium.
    A cultural archeologist did study of landfill samples. What survived the longest? Newsprint. The temporal characteristics of any work is directly related to its physical bounds.

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    [...] Posthumous Hosting and Digital Culture (Zeldman): “…there’s gold among the dross, and there are web publications that we would do well to preserve for historical purposes. We are not clairvoyants, so we cannot say which fledgling, presently little-read web publications will matter to future historians. Thus logic and the cultural imperative urge us to preserve them all. But how?” [...]

  41. Jay Fienberg said on

    One thing to add to Paul Ford’s suggestion: use some kind of spider / site downloader to capture wholly “static” HTML / CSS / JS versions of the websites (aka the visible “output”), and then use version control to distribute copies of those files. This avoids the pitfalls of distributing the databases and other system files that might expose passwords or other code that could compromise a present “live” site. And, it removes the more elaborate dependency on system architectures (e.g., being able to run PHP and MySQL).

    Back in my digital librarian days in the 1990s, we always looked at the text-based output as the format for digital archiving (and then printing-out that text on archival paper and/or microfilm, for going beyond that). SGML / HTML definitely fit well enough into that model, even then.

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  44. alsanan.info » Un nicho de mercado: Alojamiento "eterno" said on

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  45. Don Ulrich said on

    To insure any kind of latency shouldn’t your work at least validate and be well formed?

  46. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    @Derek K. Miller:

    Thank you.

    And, I’m so sorry.

  47. Evan Skuthorpe said on

    I see web hosting going the way of email. That is to say; free and unlimited. It will happen, there’ll be no need to charge as storage will become a given of society as with street lighting, the internet and air pressure pumps in petrol stations.

    Or…

    It’s all part of the wireless future with everyone having their own data hub in the household. Computers and such will no longer hold data but a central ‘server’ of information, if you will, will become the next digital revolution. Tie this in with cross/backward compatible file formats and the world will truely be connected…

  48. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    Evan, that is a fascinating idea.

  49. Alex said on

    Practical example. British hacker, blogger, founder of MySociety and ORG, Chris Lightfoot died unexpectedly in 2007. Some of us could tell when because the referrals from the RSS aggregator script he had on his home server stopped.

    Mythic Beasts Ltd., his hosting provider and ISP, where most of MySociety and ORG are still based, undertook to keep the entirety of his work online. This isn’t a generic solution, though; he started Mythic Beasts…

  50. Frank Meeuwsen said on

    I am currently working on a book on the history of the Dutch blogosphere and it is shocking to see how much great information is actually gone after a period of just 10 years. It is wonderfull to see we can read books from 500 years ago. Books, from paper, which is conserved in a scientific way by experts. But digital content wasn’t that important in the early days I think? Also, changes in hostingprovider, weblogsoftware, domainnames, give way to a breakable web. Which is really a shame.
    One more thing, why hasn’t anyone mentioned Archive.org and the Wayback machine? These have been really important for my research and writing and I feel we should see more (local/national) intiatives like these. Perhaps some sort of P2P archiving network? I love the idea of Evan with the domestic data hubs and society/government giving access to unlimited storage.

  51. Het verlies van digitale herinneringen said on

    [...] Nederlandse sites te gaan archiveren, een nobel initiatief wat ik toejuich! Maar lees ook eens dit verhaal van Jeffrey Zeldman eens over postmortem hosting, vergeet daarbij ook niet de zeer inzichtelijke en [...]

  52. Martin Kliehm said on

    I’d rather have my websites stick around for a while. Actually I ended up hosting several sites for friends and small projects, and they all would be gone when I die. But I’m switching to WordPress MU, aggregating all the sites in one system. So if my friends keep maintaining their sites, my site will be just another one in the database — given that somebody can afford the 6 € per year for the domain registration.

    Apart from that at least the German National Library has a program to archive digital material one can actively contribute to, I would assume that other national libraries do the same?

  53. Jeffrey Zeldman said on

    I would assume that other national libraries do the same?

    Not in America, anyway. :(

  54. buy r4ds said on

    Thank you for such an amazing post. I have been researching and speaking about death and digital legacy for almost a year and, although, I had extrapolated that this type of scenario might occur between a family and an online friend’s community, Leslie’s is the first tangible evidence of this happening that I’ve come across. I would very much like to speak with you privately about your experience, and if appropriate, speak about Leslie and this scenario in my talks. Please feel free to contact me directly by email at your convenience.

  55. Suramya’s Blog » Posthumous Hosting and making yourself heard after you die said on

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  56. Ben Smithett said on

    This is a crazily thought-provoking post Jeffrey, one of those things
    that never even crossed my mind.

    @Jay is there even such a thing as a “static” version of a site any
    more? Ajax, photos from Flickr, videos embedded from YouTube, etc
    etc…

    I think if we are looking to do this realistically on a large scale, we need to accept that there are limitations. Saving a web page in its entirety, with all the links still pointing to the same places and everything appearing in the same context as the day it was published, isn’t realistically possible at the moment on a very large scale.

    But just because we don’t have the original moon landing tapes doesn’t mean we didn’t manage to save the gist of it.

    I don’t think we need to look for a silver bullet. Nobody set up a central repository for every book, artwork or piece of music ever created. We just saved what we could, where we could, how we could, and ended up with the pretty decent collection we have today. So let’s just start preserving what we can.

    My suggestion: A print journal.
    Right now I can think of 5 or 10 blog posts from the last month or so that have been very influential, but now they’ve disappeared down my feed reader somewhere and I’ll most likely never look at them again.

    What if we had a regular magazine to publish those articles in print form, with the author’s permission, to survive for as long as anything else in print (i.e. a long time.)

    If we want to preserve the design we could basically take a screenshot of a page and print it.
    Not worried about the design? Just print the article text and images.
    Video or audio required to get the full experience? Throw it on a CD and include it with every issue.
    We could even get creative with the format (rather than a normal magazine, how about preserving the format and printing the whole thing on one long scroll!)

    Some issues:
    People would need to buy the thing.
    It doesn’t need to make money, just cover the costs of printing and freight. I’d subscribe. Hopefully someone else would. There are enough universities teaching web design now to warrant an industry journal subscription, just like they have in every other area of academia.

    You can’t replicate the full web page experience on paper.
    True, but you can preserve the gist of the content. Which is better than nothing at all.

    There’s too much content out there to preserve this way.
    True, but again, it’s better than preserving nothing at all. We don’t have every single piece of writing from 2000 years ago, but we do have some of the things that people back then thought most important to preserve and reproduce.

    Who gets to choose what’s printed?
    I don’t know. Maybe it’s purely a voting thing, maybe it’s up to a committee of industry heavyweights, maybe it’s up to a single editor. Not everyone will be happy, but Nature doesn’t publish every single science project on the planet. That doesn’t make it any less valuable.

    Like I said, this isn’t a silver bullet, but I think it could be a start. Anyone keen to work on this?

    (Apologies for the novel of a comment, Jeffrey)

  57. biurka said on

    I’m from Europe, small country and I agree with J.Z. – “Not in America, anyway. :(“

  58. Theo said on

    I think this is the best post i ever read. I lost my brother and some people real close to me in my early years, so i do store data everywhere i can, i even use gmail to store data and yes i have a some small Moleskine full with passwords

    @Derek K. Miller: I`m really sorry !

    @Zeldman: Thank you for this post !

  59. Caroline van Oosten de Boer » Daily Digest for February 9th said on

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  60. Don Marti said on

    100 years is good, but safer would be “until the copyright expires, plus n years.” Trust that it will get mirrored or published after expiration if someone still wants or needs it (Side effect: it gives the hosting co. an incentive to lobby against future copyright extensions.)

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