410, the Croatoan of the Internet

October 05, 2011
CSSquirrel #87: '410', the Croatoan of the Internet

Last night Twitter was home to a small, short storm of activity around the disappearance of Mark Pilgrim. Which was downgraded to the disappearance of Mark Pilgrim’s websites. Today’s comic (which features Eric Meyer and a random Internet jerk) is not meant to directly relate to Pilgrim’s situation. I’ve certainly poked at Mark before from this site, but I doubt whatever situation made him decide to 410 his online world is a laughing matter. For that matter, it’s also not any of my business.

I was impressed with the speed of online responses to the situation. Tweets led to emails, which led to people scouring contact records, which led to calling the police to get them to check on him. It was a fast, modern response to what could have been a crisis situation, and it helped restore a bit of my faith in people.

At which point, the trolls rolled in.

Meyer made a post about Mark’s online disappearance, pleading for assistance in confirming if he was ok. What followed in his comment section were mostly people hoping for the best or brainstorming ways to contact him.

Then there was a handful of thoughtless comments like this.

I completely agree with Jeremy Keith when he rails at companies like Yahoo for permanently destroying massive corners of the Internet. The thousands of people that made sites (hideous or otherwise) there weren’t the parties responsible for the destruction of the content. In some (admittedly few) cases there were even people still using the aging “first city” of the Web. But there’s also no doubt that many who had made sites there, such as online picture books of their family history, expected their efforts to last forever. Only to have some jerks bulldoze their memories, destroying a huge part of the early Web’s history in one foul swoop.

But when a creator decides they’re done with their own work, let’s not get on our high horses and deny them the right to terminate their own creative endeavors. Is Mark obliged to pay monthly fees for his own websites if he tires of them just because others find them useful? Does a webcomic artist have the obligation to keep his scrawls online forever just in case fans come back to look at them years hence? Does a teenager need to keep all of their embarrassing Facebook posts about how they were crazy-in-love with some girl for 36 hours just so we can all gawk later?

God, I hope not.

Look, if others want to make archives of existing sites in case they go offline, then do so with my blessing. I think preserving our legacy of websites is far better than losing them. But to expect the creator of any work to preserve their own original copy of any piece seems a bit strange. To call them selfish for getting rid of it so is doubly absurd. Should I have preserved every crayon doodle I made in the first grade?

I’ve never seen the 410 status code before now. It’s a strange beast. “Site’s gone, not coming back, move along!” Despite the fact that the Internet’s many sites are so easily lost, we tend to think of them as cast in some sort of digital stone. The idea that a useful site would go away, permanently, on purpose even, is almost too much to accept. But they can go, whenever the authors want.

To me the idea of deliberately burning my own sites seems like it’d be a pity. I did put all the effort into them after all. But I think we all need to remember that there’s a big difference between Nero burning Rome and Mozart throwing away compositions he’s no longer pleased with.

Mark’s many contributions would be sorely missed if they were truly, completely gone. I understand the pain of losing a valued resource. But as others have said, we still have access to archives of them. As for his own sites, they’re his to burn. Here’s hoping he’s going to be ok.

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4 Responses to “410, the Croatoan of the Internet”

  1. You’re completely right to call out the jerks, their unwarranted sense of entitlement is staggering. I was going to post something along these lines on Eric’s site earlier, but didn’t want to start a flame war in the comments.

    From what I can recall, Mark published everything he created with a refreshingly liberal licence (all CC-BY?); part of me’s hoping that this is just an elaborate experiment which he’s done to observe how well the internet routes around his content removal, measuring how long it takes to be reinstated elsewhere and in the process emphasising how important it is to licence your content liberally to allow for this. But sadly I suspect not.

    While I’ve disagreed with some of his snarkiness at times, he’s been a genuine inspiration for many years. Most recently, his HTML5 Up and Running book has been invaluably helpful, such insight and clarity really cemented what a great writer he is. And I think I first learned about error code 410 from his Dive Into Accessibility series, which was hugely influential to me – amongst other things, it espoused the importance of permanence on the internet and the correct use of status codes such as redirects to achieve this, which is why it’s been worrying to witness how devastating effective they can be when used instead to say, ‘sorry, the show’s over.’

    I’ve never met the man and probably never will, but I really do hope that he and his family are OK. Thanks for everything, Mark.

  2. I’m ambivalent, honestly. I get being in an emotional space where you just want to erase yourself from the internet. (Or more, for that matter.) I also get that these are all resources created by him individually, on his own time, in his own paid-for space and all that.

    At the same time, it seems strange (and DRAMATIC!) to just pull a bunch of resources that were honestly important professional resources for a lot of people. Sure, they’re all archived, cached, and Creative-Commons-licensed, but if this had happened when I was looking up stuff in Dive Into Accessibility every day (and there was a stretch of my career when that was true) — or while I was working on converting my blog to HTML5 — I probably would’ve freaked out a little too.

    Blog posts/crayon doodles are one thing; addictionis is one thing; but Dive Into [X]? Feed parsers? Projects on Github or Google Code? I would like to think of myself that if I created things that were that useful that I might take a few moments to contact people I trusted and say: “hey, can I hand this stuff off to you?” It certainly took that long to deactivate all the accounts and set all the sites to 410.

    So: ambivalent.

    Makes one appreciate organizations that provide continuity for publications, in any case. Tim Berners-Lee could get hit by a bus tomorrow (heaven forfend!) but Information Management: A Proposal (http://www.w3.org/History/1989/proposal.html) will still be on the W3C website.

    (Also gives one respect for long-lived publications: I always love reading As We May Think http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/3881/ from 1945!)

    (Also also: I’m somewhat of an archival completist; still have two boxes of paper journals dating back to 1984. And the history of artists/authors disposing of their own works, or trying to and being thwarted by heirs, is fascinating to me.)

  3. And while I was composing that comment the news about Steve Jobs’ death came out. Yeah, legacies and all that.

  4. Totally agree about the jerks. I was really taken back when I saw people typing at the tops of their keyboard (so high right?) about his choice to take it down.

    I took a website down about 12 months ago – old business site that had tons of useful stuff that earnt far bit of traffic, but I hated to leave it there because it’s a pretty shitty memory (Here’s my old business! I sold the customers… <_< It's just a shell of the once awesome…..).

    Not going to keep it around for legacy reasons, but I did take some of the more useful posts off to my own personal site. Mark may have been hit with far more troubling things for all we know – don't want to see/remember/pay-for all that stuff – people are/were smart enough to use google's cache and rehost – which I'm sure he's fine with.

    And the net will survive. Although sad :(