Jill Lepore discovers that the “average life of a Web page is about a hundred days”:
No one believes any longer, if anyone ever did, that “if it’s on the Web it must be true,” but a lot of people do believe that if it’s on the Web it will stay on the Web. Chances are, though, that it actually won’t.
In 2006, David Cameron gave a speech in which he said that Google was democratizing the world, because “making more information available to more people” was providing “the power for anyone to hold to account those who in the past might have had a monopoly of power.” Seven years later, Britain’s Conservative Party scrubbed from its Web site ten years’ worth of Tory speeches, including that one. Last year, BuzzFeed deleted more than four thousand of its staff writers’ early posts, apparently because, as time passed, they looked stupider and stupider. Social media, public records, junk: in the end, everything goes.
Which is why the Wayback Machine exists:
The Wayback Machine is a Web archive, a collection of old Web pages; it is, in fact, the Web archive. There are others, but the Wayback Machine is so much bigger than all of them that it’s very nearly true that if it’s not in the Wayback Machine it doesn’t exist.
The Wayback Machine is a robot. It crawls across the Internet, in the manner of Eric Carle’s very hungry caterpillar, attempting to make a copy of every Web page it can find every two months, though that rate varies. (It first crawled over this magazine’s home page, newyorker.com, in November, 1998, and since then has crawled the site nearly seven thousand times, lately at a rate of about six times a day.)
The Internet Archive is also stocked with Web pages that are chosen by librarians, specialists like Anatol Shmelev, collecting in subject areas, through a service called Archive It, at archive-it.org, which also allows individuals and institutions to build their own archives. (A copy of everything they save goes into the Wayback Machine, too.) And anyone who wants to can preserve a Web page, at any time, by going to archive.org/web, typing in a URL, and clicking “Save Page Now.”