The MW files: Ghost Song

(First published in Man’s World, 2002)

When the time comes to figure out what we should call the century that’s just exited offstage, many lofty suggestions will be made. One, I suspect, will stand out on grounds of accuracy: we’ve just lived through the Age of Junk. In retrospect, it seems like the classic human trait of our times. Neil Armstrong takes one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind and the next thing you know we’ve left derelict satellites and other debris in space, hoping vaguely that alien housekeeping services will eventually get around to the Solar System. Hillary and Tenzing make it to the top of Everest, and 60 years down the line, tourists have left their mark too, in the shape of tons of discarded oxygen cylinders cluttering up those icy wastes.

Cyberspace operates on a compressed time frame, so it should come as no surprise that we’ve taken far less time to litter those vast expanses of pristine space. About six years ago, when I first started browsing seriously, everything had a minty freshness to it. Personal home pages sang with the pride of men and women who’d just knocked the first fence post into the Promised Land. They were here! Their homestead was all pegged out! Generations to come would see and admire! Soon their 2×2 squares of Internet real estate would expand into mansions, ranches, vast farmlands that would live forever and ever. Commercial sites had the same brand new gloss, finished to a smoother sheen, the same exudations of immortality. Ambitious students logging on to their university networks in the States put up their theses, their pet theories, confident that students who hadn’t been born yet would some day mine these nuggets of gold.

It took less than five years for the ghost sites to emerge. Perhaps you’ve come across them already and not noticed much, beyond wondering why an apparently fine page on writers hasn’t been updated since 1996. Or perhaps you stumble across them every so often during the course of ordinary, everyday searches. They come in many shapes, from the gigantic dotcom failure sailing like a derelict hulk across several defunct screens where none of the buttons work and the links don’t take you anywhere, to the almost forgettable site that turned up on a search engine but refused to load onscreen. It doesn’t matter what the scale of failure is, since user response stays the same: you move on, searching for the new new thing, unwilling to waste your time on something that was clearly so unimportant that its original creators aren’t hanging around there any more. These are the discarded pieces of the cyberdream: huge clumps of data that do nothing but clutter up the place until search engine bots and human search teams update their files and toss them off visible pages into the cyberequivalent of the empty, garbage-filled lot.

But they hold a peculiar attraction for me, just as I imagine ghost towns hold a strange appeal for a certain kind of traveller. Like ghost towns, ghost sites testify to the sometime presence of the human will, to hopes, dreams and secret urges doomed to be abandoned or overrun. The curious thing about them is that it’s not necessarily the worst sites that die: in fact, Sod’s Law version 2.0 states that the truly crappy stuff enjoys far greater longevity online than the little gems of human endeavour.

Charting them offers a thrill akin to that experienced by the first mapmakers, the guys who wrote ‘Here be dragons’ whenever they reached the edges of their knowledge. The web is still largely unmapped, though intrepid geographers are hacking through the tangled undergrowth. In the small cluster that makes up ghost sites, there are patterns to be traced.

The most predominant are variations on abandoned or never-built home pages. In several cases, domain names were booked by enthusiasts or by scheming cybersquatters and never put into use, leading to thousands of screens worth of more or less permanent “This site is under construction” notices. A step beyond are the home pages that were put up and abandoned when the owners realised that actually maintaining and running a page is hard work, or discovered that their pet obsession with the classification of boogers had been shared by exactly 14 people from 1995 to 2000. They have their own charm: a sort of TwenCen version of the samplers the early pioneers and Victorians used to churn out with assiduous zeal.

A step up from that are the web pages created and maintained by university students while they were still young and believers in the power of revolution. Some of these were actually quite good, many offered information that wasn’t easily available elsewhere, and several boasted of huge user bases. The reason they ran out of juice was simple: the owners grew up, graduated, got jobs and families, and no longer had the time. “It was an exhilarating time in my life,” remembers free_BillGates, a reformed webmaster who now works with a Fortune 500 company. “Nothing I’ve done since, none of the deals closed, comes close to that excitement. But we put away childish things when we have to, don’t we? No matter how much it costs.”

When you hit the corporate sites, the picture gets more complicated. There are literally thousands of websites out there that testify to the death of the great dotcom boom: these are the potential Flying Dutchmans of the future, gargantuan, almost mythical hulks that crunched much venture capitalist money and many careers before finally giving up the ghost. Ghost sites don’t really threaten the Net at present–though hardcore surfers do notice the increasing persistence of dead pages with concern, the rest of the world isn’t running out of Lebensraum yet. When we do, however, these are going to be among the prime culprits. And there’s one more layer, the one that I find slightly scary because it has echoes in the real world. That’s the site that got taken over by Big Business and mutated into a travesty of its former self. Some years ago, you used to be able to access a site on the Booker Prize that had all the dope–the scandals, the screaming judges, the books that didn’t sell despite the Booker tag, the nasty quotes. That’s been subsumed beneath a Titanic of a site that offers all the information you could possibly want, except for the juicy bits. Likewise, there are thousands of sites that attack world government, Microsoft, Hindu rightwingers, the Sai Baba and other controversial topics that were shut down. Some can still be accessed, though with some difficulty, as mirrors, through other sites that hosted them when the heat was turned up and haven’t kicked them off yet.

The one I’m watching closely these days is a site that tracks ghost sites. It was doing pretty well through 1999 and early 2000, but hasn’t been updated since April 2000. Which has me worried. It’s possible, as has happened before, that the webmaster’s just taken a break. And then again, cyberspace may have struck to create the perfect short story–the sad tale of the ghost site that became a ghost site itself.

Nilanjana S Roy

One comment

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