Building Webpages That Last (Also, a Lament for Absent Websites)

If we consider our webpages important, then we ought to take the necessary steps to ensure their perpetuity.
Timelapse Night Sky
Will your webpages survive the passage of time? (InstaWalli, Public Domain)

Over the last few weeks, I’ve made a concerted effort to import hundreds of older posts from previous incarnations of Opus. (Why I undertook this particular task is a topic for another post.) Not surprisingly, many of these posts haven’t aged too well, often because their information is outdated and no longer relevant. A large reason for that is ​“link rot,” i.e., they contain links to URLs that no longer exist, either because the target website was restructured and nobody implemented redirects or (more likely) they shut down years ago and all of their content was taken offline.

There’s certainly some personal satisfaction in knowing that my humble little blog has outlasted websites that were far bigger in terms of staff, resources, and budget. However, it’s also been a sad, sobering reminder that so many great little, independent sites like Opus have disappeared into the ether over the last 20+ years.

These were sites that I felt a certain camaraderie with, whose content and design inspired me, and/​or with whom there existed some measure of idiosyncratic community (before social media came along and flattened everything). There were discussion forums like The Vagrant Café; webzines like Action Attack Helicopter, Bandoppler, Fine Print Mag, Noise From the Spleens of Space, Rocket Fuel, Splendid, Stranger Things, Tapehead, and Wondering Sound; and personal homepages that were blogs before ​“blogs” were a thing.

Some of the sites that I’ve linked to over the years — e.g., The Dissolve, Godbit, Neumu, Stopdesign, Stylus, Tangzine — are still around, but they haven’t been updated in years. I fear it’s only a matter of time before their owners tire of paying for their hosting and maintenance, and allow them to fade away, as well — thus adding to the ​“link rot” that’s already so pervasive around the web.

Link rot” may seem like something that only web developers and engineers need to care about. After all, what does it matter if people can no longer visit that Dragon Ball Z fansite you built on Geocities back in 1997? On one level, it probably doesn’t matter (and you might even be relieved at that). But from a broader perspective, it is disturbing that web content in general is so fragile and ephemeral, that it’s all too easy for it to go away forever. After all, not everything is a mere Dragon Ball Z fansite (no offense to the Goku fans out there).

Which is why I found Jeff Huang’s ​“This Page is Designed to Last” so interesting. As he notes, the problem of ​“link rot” is not a simple one:

The problem is multi-faceted. First, content takes effort to maintain. The content may need updating to remain relevant, and will eventually have to be rehosted. A lot of content, what used to be the vast majority of content, was put up by individuals. But individuals (maybe you?) lose interest, so one day maybe you just don’t want to deal with migrating a website to a new hosting provider.

Second, a growing set of libraries and frameworks are making the web more sophisticated but also more complex. First came jquery, then bootstrap, npm, angular, grunt, webpack, and more.

[…]

Third, and this has been touted by others already (and even rebutted), the disappearance of the public web in favor of mobile and web apps, walled gardens (Facebook pages), just-in-time WebSockets loading, and AMP decreases the proportion of the web on the world wide web, which now seems more like a continental web than a ​“world wide web”.

Huang proposes seven solutions to the problem, most of which revolve around simplifying the general process of creating and maintaining webpages (e.g., returning to plain old HTML and CSS, using fewer pages in all) — something I wholeheartedly condone as web development grows increasingly (and unnecessarily) complicated and convoluted.

As Chris Coyier notes, some of Huang’s suggestions (specifically, using fewer webfonts) don’t actually address ​“link rot,” but they’re still good general practices to follow. But even if I disagreed with all of Huang’s suggestions, I still wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of his piece.

The web can often feel ephemeral, unimportant, trivial — and yet it’s arguably been the most important mass communication tool in… well… ever, and especially so for individuals like you and me given its democratic and populist nature. You may think the Geocities or Blogspot site that you built over a decade ago doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and yet, it’s still something you made and invested time in; it’s something that you did think was special at one time.

I’m not saying that everything that’s ever been posted online should still be available in its entirety, for a host of reasons (e.g., technical, personal, business). However, Huang’s article is a good reminder that we ought to think more carefully about what we do post online, and how much we really care about it. And if we happen to consider it to be important — however we define ​“important” — then we ought to count the cost and take the necessary steps to ensure its perpetuity.

Or, as Coyier writes in his aforelinked response to Huang:

[Here’s] the real trick to a site that lasts: you need to have some stake in the game. You don’t let your URLs die because you don’t want them to. They matter to you. You’ll tend to them if you have to. They benefit you in some way, so you’re incentivized to keep them around. That’s what makes a page last.

Finally, I’m going to put my money — and my website — where my mouth is. If the owners or maintainers of any of the aforementioned sites, or sites similar to them, read this, please know that I’ll be happy to re-post your content here on Opus so that it exists somewhere online. Obviously, you’ll be given full credit to ensure that people know where it originally came from. If you’re interested, contact me.

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