Channel 4: showing the fruits of ‘content lifecycle’ idiocy
The BBC have been proposing for the last few weeks that they are going to shut down a variety of websites. They’ve prevaricated over what they mean by the word ‘close’. They aren’t going to delete them. But they are going to, oh, burn them on a DVD-R and leave them floating around the office or something.
The BBC have to save “domains”, by which they mean top-level directories. Because apparently, there is no need to still have a website called “election97” because nobody visits it, but the BBC absolutely have to purge the directory just in case they want another website called “election97”. Unlike IPv4 exhaustion, the next time you’ll need “election97” is 2097. By that time, I’m sure a disambiguation link from “election97” saying “If you want to read about the current 2097 election, please go to our new website” or somesuch will do the job.
The usual crowd of people who understand that the Internet is not running out of space are getting righteously angry about it. Leading the charge has been Jeremy Keith, who has pointed out the absurdity of the BBC’s actions repeatedly.
Now, for commercial industry to not see the value in long-term preservation and having cool URIs that never change is one thing. For commercial bodies to make short-term cost saving matters that destroy digital heritage and break links, that’s understandable although bloody stupid. (Yeah, it was GeoCities last time. How long until it is Flickr?)
But for the BBC not to see that £3 a year in hard drive space or whatever it is is so worth it because you don’t actually get anything by deleting old content. Gmail taught us that, right: hard drive space is cheap, so you hit ‘Archive’ not ‘Delete’ unless it’s completely and totally worthless like viagra spam.
But, no, the BBC have this idea that content has a “lifecycle”. This is old world thinking. Pre-Internet, once a single had dropped out of the charts it was deleted. The CDs or records or whatever were no longer produced. You can’t go and buy a new copy of the CD single for almost every piece of popular music ever recorded. The economics don’t make sense. If you want that music, you either have to get it off the Internet (sometimes legally, sometimes not), buy it in album form or hope you come across it in a second-hand shop or at a flea market or something. These days, you could use eBay or Amazon Marketplace.
Today, there is no point in doing that online. If someone really wants to come and buy the MP3 equivalent of a CD single with a B-side or a remix or whatever, the only cost is some hard disks and some Internet connectivity. Rather the point of getting music online, whether legally or not, is you never have to delete anything. If someone wants something really obscure, the costs are low enough. Insert relevant bit of “long tail” spiel here if it makes you feel happy.
For a public service broadcaster, or any media outlet, there’s no point in having such a “content lifecycle”. If you designed a car or a computer or a book with built-in obsolescence, that’s a bad product. If you are producing creative works (even–dare it be said?–works of art), the point is that they should strive in some sense to have lasting significance. Unless, you know, you are subverting that for artistic effect. But that’s not really applicable to the BBC News coverage of the 1997 General Election or websites containing war stories solicited from British citizens who lived through World War II. (Yeah, seriously. That’s fucked up beyond all measure. You can have considerably more latitude fucking around with the collective memories of sci-fi fans than you can with the ever more rapidly vanishing generation who fought Hitler. Nobody can justify getting rid of chunks of the historical record about World War II.)
To see how stupid this is, let me give you one example from today.
I was doing a Good Article review on Wikipedia. This is where you get an uninvolved editor to have a read through a Wikipedia article and see if it meets a set of criteria that allow it to be called a Good Article. Not a ‘featured article’, mind. That’s different. That’s A*-with-a-cherry-on-top. This is just saying it’s good.
I was doing the GA review for the article on Ronnie Barker. To pass GA on Wikipedia, you have to meet this criteria:
A good article is […] Factually accurate and verifiable: […] it provides in-line citations from reliable sources for direct quotations, statistics, published opinion, counter-intuitive or controversial statements that are challenged or likely to be challenged, and contentious material relating to living persons
As part of doing a GA review, I try to ensure that all links in the article are working. If they aren’t, I try to find suitable replacements. It is a fundamental pillar of Wikipedia that articles ought to cite reliable sources. And various parts of the BBC website, as with other broadcasters, are reliable sources. For the Ronnie Barker article, it cited a link to Channel 4. This page on Channel 4 was for a microsite created to accompany a programme called 50 Greatest Comedy Sketches. It’s one of those insufferable list programmes.1 Number four on said list was a Two Ronnies sketch: the Four Candles sketch.
The link to the page on the Channel 4 site was broken. But it wasn’t just 404ing or, even better, 410ing. It was 302ing to what ought to be a 40x page. This is the kind of attitude we are dealing with here. If you can’t even bring yourself to say that a resource is no longer available, what hope have we of having broadcasters who keep those resources around in the long run.
Said annoying list show was broadcast in 2005. And the actual results of the programme are no longer on the web (if you exclude archive.org).
A web page about a crappy TV show may seem like ephemera, but it is used as the basis to establish a fact in the most read encyclopedia on the planet. Not a groundbreaking fact. This isn’t the discovery of DNA, it’s a crappy TV show that establishes the notability and significance of a sketch in a comedy show broadcast on British TV in 1976.
But why should it be removed? The URI doesn’t need to be reused for anything. The page is 23k. $1 USD would ensure that this single page would be accessible (at Amazon pricing) for roughly the next 33,000 years. Make it $2 to cover inflation. If you extracted all the design elements and dependencies and just put the raw information in an HTML file, you could probably double that.
The value of a single factual page of information produced by a reasonably reliable source like the BBC or Channel 4 in terms of reuse and reference, even for the most trivial thing you could possibly think of like referencing a Wikipedia article about Ronnie Barker far exceeds the cost of $1 every 30,000 years or so.
Why do I have to keep explaining this to people? This seems to require no more complex reasoning or analysis for a normal educated person than pointing out that two times two is four or that the moon goes around the Earth. The cost of arguing about whether to delete a web page far, far exceeds the cost of keeping it there until the demise of mankind. Why cannot people working for the BBC or similar organisations not get this?
If the web has a content lifecycle, it’s a good 500 years at least. If the Dead Sea Scrolls can last as long as they have, surely we can make content on the web last much, much longer. We live in a literate, scientific age. If it was worth publishing in the first place, why throw it away? Because you think you are a better judge of historical worth than history?
Eventually someone will make The 100 Most Annoying List Shows and because the show itself will be one of the most annoying lists, it’ll eventually start replicating and a giant, universe-devouring infinite regress of never-ending list shows will kill us all. ↩