Why the Internet Needs the WayBack Machine, the Site That Archives the Web
“The Wayback Machine is used by hundreds of thousands of people every day, presenting snapshots, back in time, from more than 1.5 billion websites,” says Mark Graham, director of the Wayback Machine.
The site was founded by Brewster Kahle, who also sold Alexa Internet to Amazon and is in the Internet Hall of Fame.
To celebrate the birth of the world wide web, we caught up with Graham to talk about the Wayback Machine, how it benefits the public and some surprising facts about the service:
1. How does Wayback Machine work?
The Wayback Machine offers access to the billions of web pages collected through many partners and technologies. Even though it is a huge collection, it only takes hundreds of computers to serve thousands of requests per second. It is a testament to how far our computer technology has grown.
2. What do we risk if something like this doesn't exist?
Without things like the Wayback Machine, we would deny future generations an ability to explore and learn from history that is increasingly digital. Oh, and for historians to try to piece together what that whole Pokemon (see: Go Pokébarbarians at the Gate) phenomenon was about.
3. Why is this an important service to have? How does it benefit people?
The average life expectancy of a web page is only 100 days before it is changed or deleted. The web is a record of our time, and without a record will lose history.
4. How many staff members did you have when you started? How many do you have now?
There are 150 employees of the Internet Archive, but there are now more than 1,000 librarians in 400 institutions shaping the holdings of the Wayback Machine by curating thousands of individual web collections through the archive-it.org service.
5. What does this service tell us about how the internet has changed?
People love to share and people love to learn, and people love cats. What is changing is how people are doing this. The web’s evolution, which now includes Youtube and Facebook, is making this easier and easier.
6. What are the most striking changes in how we use the internet that you've noticed?
That it is no longer a “nice to have” but so influential that governments block access to certain websites, or the whole internet, when they think they are threatened. The other obvious difference is that most people now access the internet via mobile devices, which are location aware by default, supporting a wide range of services that require that information.
7. What are some surprising uses you've seen for your tool?
On July 17, 2014, Igor (Strelkov) Girkin, a Ukrainian separatist leader, claimed responsibility online for the downing of what he thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane near the rebel held Ukrainian city of Donetsk. When reports that Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, with 295 passengers, had been shot down in the same area, his post was removed. But not before it had been preserved several times by the Wayback Machine, where it is available today.
And on May 1, 2003, the White House issued a statement that said "President Bush Announces Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." Later the word 'Major' was added to the title and on Oct. 1, 2003, it read "President Bush Announces Major Combat Operations in Iraq Have Ended." Later still it was removed from the live web altogether, but you can see preserved copies of it.
8. What are some facts about the Wayback Machine that most people don't know?
That the inventory of more than half a trillion web captures is not the result of a single continuous crawling process but rather millions of separate crawls, defined by thousands of people, over the years.
That the home for the Wayback Machine is a former Church of Christian Scientists, which is now a digital library where the hymnal page numbers of the wall have been replaced with mathematically significant numbers. We have a new beta that allows people to search for a site with keywords: https://web-beta.archive.org.
9. What's ahead?
We are trying to help build the internet into the Library of Alexandria version two by making all the published works permanently available to everyone that is curious enough to want access (all books, music, video, software and web pages). That is the opportunity of our generation, and one we are trying to help make real.