The Wayback Machine

It is somehow fitting that the Wayback Machine’s webpage is quite clunky, as if frozen sometime in the Bush years. On the site, we notice the classic trappings of the Internet, 1.0: the announcements and welcome boxes, the discussion forum, the unstandardized fonts. Its most arresting visual element is a gray-scale as a banner. Sorry, the Wayback Machine webmaster: your website sucks.

The Machine, of course, is a government-funded Internet archive that scours the web, preserving the corpses of long-forgotten sites—an Internet taxidermist of sorts.  Finger-waggers like to cite the Machine as proof that online posts on Facebook “never really go away”; it is bizarre to consider that Library of Congress funding ensures that our middle-school selfies, or work-inappropriate tweets, will long outlast a hasty pre-job interview deletion.

Your initial spin with the Machine is good fun—you’ll check out a big-name site (I investigated nytimes.com) and see that in 2002, for example, the website looked different. Curiosity piqued, your second go-round is a little frustrating—you’ll see that most social media sites are, in fact, protected by a special plugin. (As far as I can tell, posts do disappear, at least from this web-crawler.) It is in the third search that you discern something more substantial. I learned that The New Yorker, now one of the prettiest webpages out there, must have hired a suburb web designer sometime since 2004, when its webpage was deflated and gray, a flat tire of a site.

And that’s about it. I doubt many people make it to a fourth or fifth search.

Now, those running the Machine believe it is more than a silly time-waster, going so far as to claim in the Machine’s about section that it will prevent the Internet from the Library of Alexandria’s fiery fate. This isn’t so outlandish, actually: the Internet, as the most important cultural medium since the written word, should be preserved for scholarly research. Imagine the possibilities if we had a searchable database of nearly every written artifact in existence, all the way down to the self-published family newsletters from 1950 or the exhaustive compilation of Sumerians’ wheat trade records.

Whether or not the site is really being used for this purpose is unclear. A Google Scholar search indicates that the term “the Wayback Machine” has been cited in just over 1,800 results. Not a bad number, until we consider that “dermestes maculatus,” a beetle species, has been referenced in 1,600 results. All we can say with certainty is that the Wayback Machine has, thus far, been of equal scholarly interest as an ugly brown bug with a 7-week life span.

From my perspective, the best immediate use of the Wayback Machine is to track the ongoing evolution in online aesthetics. The New Yorker isn’t the only business that got savvy about its website. A distinct webpage aesthetic, organized around click-reduction, recognition of readers’ short attention spans, and pristine white backgrounds has emerged in recent years. Now websites from as 2009 look positively archaic. Content can no longer speak for itself; websites’ beauty must attract consumers.

It was not inevitable that the Internet would become beautiful. Most people have not thought too carefully about the design of their favorite magazine, and fewer still have thought about the layout of the last book they read. Using the same crude method of determining relative cultural importance, there are 200,000 more Google hits for “beautiful website” than “beautiful book.”[1] As the Wayback Machine instructs us, that’s not accidental. The reading experience we get from reading a book hasn’t changed in centuries, and there were never many job listings for “book designers.”  But as anyone who does even a little bit of online reading knows, there has been a paradigm shift in reading media on the web.

The Internet has long been thought of as a democratic medium—a transformative force that has increased access to knowledge and encouraged cross-cultural exchanges. For all the attention-deficits it has instigated or silly flame wars it has facilitated, it is nearly unarguable that the Internet has dramatically improved quality of life. And, using an insight gleaned from the Wayback Machine, we can pile on one more benefit: the Internet has encouraged people to think about creating beautiful experiences. Design has always mattered, but the Internet has made it visible.

 

[1] There are 14 million more hits for “beautiful women” than either one.