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Not OK, Computer

How digital things age, or don't

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The middle-aged band Radiohead has mostly erased its Internet presence—Twitter, Facebook, website, etc. Here’s the news (breathless!) from Pitchfork:

Radiohead’s internet presence is disappearing. As Reddit users noted, their website slowly decreased in opacity until it went entirely blank. It appears that tweets and Facebook posts from their accounts have been steadily disappearing. Update (5/1, 2:00 p.m. ET): There are no longer any tweets or Facebook posts on the band’s accounts. Their profile pictures and cover photos have gone completely blank, as well.

Which is interesting because Radiohead in times of yore had a pretty great Internet presence. They had this little bear thing and—

Well, you had to be there. All gone now, but if you visit their site today you’ll see a new video. Maybe it’ll be back some day. Maybe they’re rebooting. Maybe they’ve gone all Marie Kondo on their Internet presence. We all need to simplify as we get older.

Whether web things should stick around is one of the fundamental tensions of online life. You buy a paper book, you own a book. Unless there’s a flood, it remains readable. You leave it somewhere and it’s there when you come back. But web pages can disappear if you just unplug a wire, or install some new software.

Back in 1998 (so: between “OK Computer” and “Kid A”), Tim Berners-Lee, the original architect of the WWW, published a web page that is still there, and still unchanged, called “Cool URIs don’t change.” URI stands for “Uniform Resource Identifier”—a web address. And the argument is: If you make a web page and give it an address, it should stay available when someone points to that address. Berners-Lee’s document has a section entitled “Why should I care?” (Every page on the web should have such a section.)

When you change a URI on your server, you can never completely tell who will have links to the old URI. They might have made links from regular web pages. They might have bookmarked your page. They might have scrawled the URI in the margin of a letter to a friend.

When someone follows a link and it breaks, they generally lose confidence in the owner of the server. They also are frustrated — emotionally and practically from accomplishing their goal.

Enough people complain all the time about dangling links that I hope the damage is obvious. I hope it also obvious that the reputation damage is to the maintainer of the server whose document vanished.

Of course this has not happened. If you browse anything of sufficient age—and this includes Wikipedia—a huge number of the links to the exterior web don’t work, often more than half; this is often called “Linkrot.” The average life span of a web page is, it turns out, 9.3 years. God knows what the average age of a REST call URL or a mobile app view are. Minutes.

Digital things don’t age well. They get decrepit and stop working. Browsers change, users change, data changes, culture changes. And yet there is something amazing about stumbling across an old URL, one that I designed a decade or more back, and to find it still standing. There’s a real art to naming things.

The one part of the web that I believe is truly genius, and that keeps standing the test of time, is the URI. The Web gave us a way to point to anything, forever. Everything else about the web has changed and grown to encyclopedic lengths, but URIs have been killing it for decades.

And yet the numbers show we’re hell-bent on screwing all that up with link-shorteners, moving URIs without redirection, and so forth. As always happens in technology we’ve taken a simple idea and found expedient ways to add fragility and complexity to it.

Designs change, things get relaunched and reskinned, new content management systems come online. It’s nerdy but I take pride when I see a page in the same location ten or fifteen years after it first went up. URIs are the true public interface to ideas on the web, a way to take vast numbers of abstractions and give them reliable, permanent names. Everything in its right place.

Paul Ford is a co-founder of Postlight. 

Story published on May 6, 2016.