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Monday, March 28, 2005

The Ghosts of Steve Baldwin

Steve Baldwin is the author of Netslaves 2.0: Tales of Surviving the Great Tech Gold Rush. In the mid-90s, he was working on Time-Warner’s Pathfinder. A successful site which, like many, is dead today. Steve in his museum of e-failures and blog preserves ghost sites like these. I talked to him via email.


You were working for Pathfinder. What was Pathfinder? How did you get to work there, and what did you do?

Pathfinder represented Time-Warner’s deep dive into the unknown, perilous world of New Media, and it launched in October of 1994, well before most Americans had even heard of the World Wide Web. When it launched, there were really only two very large commercial sites in business; ZDNet (Ziff-Davis), which published a lot of computer magazines online, and

I was working at Ziff at the time and I had grown impatient with what I saw as the company’s timid, cautious attitude toward publishing web content. I saw what Pathfinder was doing, which included a daily online only news supplement called Time Online, became convinced that Pathfinder was the wave of the future, and was hired there in May of 1995 as an associate editor.

Pathfinder grew very large over the next several years, from a staff of about 20 to a staff of more than 100. It never made money for Time Inc., and it was shut down in 1998, well before the “dotcom meltdown”. Personally, I believe that had Pathfinder succeeded, this success would likely have precluded Time-Warner from merging with AOL, which happened in 2000, and was a far greater disaster.

I was surprised to find that you had the idea for recording “dying” site back when the dotcom burst was still far away, around 1996. Were there already many dying sites back then?

I became interested in the problem of sites becoming “unstuck in time” early on. As long as I can remember, web site operators have been having problems keeping their sites current. And as more and more people “piled on” to the web in the late 1990’s, the problems got worse. People didn’t seem to realize that putting up a web site wasn’t the same thing as hanging a picture on the wall.

A web site was an organic entity – more like a plant than a picture – and it required lots of care and feeding over time. Like one of those Tamagotchi toys so popular in this era, people soon got tired of nurturing their little virtual pets and many died of neglect.

Of course, back in those days I did get to poke fun at larger sites that drifted for a long time after being closed down, sites such as (Michael Wolff’s site),, and of course, Pathfinder.

In retrospect, what kind of things do you find missing in your archive, stuff you now wish you’d have kept?

There are a lot of things that I wish I’d saved, especially video streams of early dotcom “visionaries” which, sadly, are no longer online anywhere, including the Wayback Machine. These and banner ads – I’ve saved quite a few but there must have been hundreds of thousands that were created and have literally disappeared.

Would you say’s Wayback Machine is doing a good job as sort of automated e-museum? Do you think even today, we need to better preserve today’s web for the future?

I think the Wayback Machine is an absolute miracle. As a researcher, I’m often frustrated by the fact that the Wayback Machine doesn’t always capture complete sites, i.e. it only goes so many levels down, and stops. It also doesn’t seem to have recorded many sites online in the very early years (95-97). As an example, it never archived Pathfinder in its prime. I don’t think it saves multimedia objects either. So you’re never going to get a complete picture of the web’s early days with the Wayback Machine, but it’s still an amazing achievement.

How do you feel digital preservation compares to more traditional ones, such as encarving something into stone? What do you think makes ideas survive, if not at the same URL, then at least in the mind of a culture?

Digital preservation is different because you not only have to deal with archiving the content but with archiving the software used to render that content. In other words, in order to really experience the web of 1996, it’s not enough to have the page, but also a copy of the browser that was in use at the time. We all assume that people 20 years from now will be using computers that render HTML, .JPGs, and .GIFs, or at least have access to machines that can, but this is just an assumption.

We also assume that the CD-ROMs, hard disks, and tape used to backup data will be readable in 20 or 50 years. But anyone who’s tried to retrieve data from a 5 1/2-inch floppy disk recently knows that it’s almost impossible, unless you happen to be one of those strange people who collects old computers (like me)! And the lifespan of CD-ROMs is far less than once thought, depending, of course, on the environment in which they’re stored.

I’ve often speculated that 100 years from now, we may have a very poor picture of our age, because durable media (such as magnetic recording tape) are being replaced so rapidly. There will be many “holes” in history but there will likely be small “oases” of well-preserved data, and it will be up to future historians to connect the dots. Whether they’ll do so accurately is of course unknowable.

What makes ideas survive on the web or in the culture? That’s a hard question. I think there were a lot of good ideas that failed on the web not because they were unworthy ideas, but because the timing was wrong, or the tools weren’t ready, or there were business mistakes associated with their execution. I suppose that if an idea is really good, it will emerge again and again, until somebody makes it “stick”.

You are right we need to preserve web page and web browser (and possibly, monitor and mouse too!). I was thinking your approach of just making a screenshot of the page actually could have a longer life-span compared to, because of problems with multimedia objects or changing HTML.

I decided to do the screenshots because I wanted some kind of visual record that preserved the “context” of a particular site, i.e. the banners that were running at the time, any Javascript tickers, any active elements, etc. I played with the idea of actually “whacking” certain sites, but I really didn’t have the room (in terms of hard disk space) or the patience.

I also wanted it to be easy, i.e. just a matter of hitting “ALT-PRNT-SCR”, because Ghost Sites is just a hobby project, and nobody’s paying me for my time. And I wanted the shots to be compact (under 100K each).

But who knows – maybe the screenshots are a more durable form. Once you’ve take a shot, one can be assured that nothing will “break” subsequently.

How can we preserve tools? 20 years from now, what do I do to find out how Google reacted on user input?

I think it may well be impossible to do something like this. Well, perhaps not impossible. Google may have enough extra bandwidth to archive user behavior. And perhaps they’ll make it available for future generations. But if experience is any guide, there’s usually so much information flowing through a thing like Google that the sysadmins are usually running ragged trying to keep up with current issues. Historical preservation is usually the last thing in most peoples’ mind.

The issue of tool preservation has been taken up seriously by certain European educational institutions wrestling with the issue of digital preservation. But I’m not sure that much progress has been made. I don’t think anybody’s prepared to stock a vast room full of old computers just because somebody might need to dig into this data in 20 years!

You mentioned someone 100 years from now might have a hard time connecting the dots of our present. Archaeology in real life basically means digging into the earth – what could “digital archaeology” mean?

It’s a fascinating question. I think it’s quite unlikely that people will be able to dig down into a landfill or dump, retrieve a hard drive or CD, and get anything useful off it. We will, because of paper, be able to read about what certain people wrote about the web, but this of course is just a secondary source, not the real data.

We’ll have movies, of course (in whatever form they’ll reside in). There are many machines and technologies that have come and gone whose only ghostly presence lives on in early films. But the web is, of course, not something that really lends itself to preservation in film, or in music, or in oral tradition. So I think it’s quite likely that people of 100 years from now will have a very muddy, very partial picture of what happened during the “Dawn of the Internet”.

My grandmother kept news magazines from the 60s. Maybe it’s ironic that for me, the most interesting parts of these magazines were the glossy ads -- somehow they most strongly captured hopes, emotions and consensus of people living at that time. Which parts of today’s web do you think will be most interesting for future generations?

I’ve always been a big fan of old commercials, because they reveal so much about the unconscious assumptions, stereotypes, hopes, dreams and fears of people of the time that were unknown even to to the copyrighter and illustrator.

Similarly, I think that future historians will notice things about our web sites and, more generally, web behavior revealed by such things as search engine term popularity that we don’t even notice today. Many commercial sites, notably those of enron and many other slick e-commerce sites of the late 90’s, reveal a picture – and I think it’s only now becoming obvious - of life in the early 21st Century that’s extremely romantic.

You see these young, well-coiffed, well-wired people, all facing the future, all looking beautiful and it’s almost like looking at Socialist Realist art of the 1930’s (I suppose I’d call this “Digital Revolutionary Chic”). Some of this is laughable to us now, knowing how many of these companies (and people) were scam-artists, but I think future historians will deal with our culture’s various web expressions more neutrally. What they’ll see is anybody’s guess, but I think we’ll see new forms of scholarship that analyze web content in completely new ways.

Today’s weblogs have permalinks, meant to be permanent archives. Do you think that’ll help the decay?

I think that weblog publishing technology has generally helped reduce “linkrot” just because it’s so much easier to keep one’s web site current. The mere fact that Blogger auto-archives old posts is, I think, a very good thing.

I do think, however, that weblogs, because they’re so easy to use, have the potential for creating even more “ghost sites” (or ghost blogs) than we’ve ever yet seen. Again, you have the same effect we saw in the late 1990s: people “piling on” to the web because it’s “the thing to do”. Because having a weblog is seen as a requirement for social status/advancement, everybody’s doing it, and a large percentage of these people will give up once the novelty factor runs its course.

With the recent Google IPO, do you think we’re on a way to see the dotcom history repeat itself? And do you think time’s ripe to try again some of the tools and approaches that died with the exploding bubble?

I think we’re in a very different place today than we were in 1995 or even 1999. People generally realize that the web isn’t some kind of multimedia ATM machine. They’ve known enough people who’ve bet their careers on this medium and gone bust. The bloom is off the rose and most of the “stupid money” is long gone.

Google, love it or hate it, did solve one of the most difficult problems in the first 10 years of hte web’s history – how do you find something? And I know, as a small publisher, that it’s actually possible for me to make a few actual dollars a day now running ads through Google. This was not possible a few years ago.

Web content often comes and goes in “fads” or “memes”. The market for, say, dating sites becomes “hot”, then oversaturated, then it consolidates, then a few survivors become established.
I am convinced that there are many good ideas that came along, failed, and, if rediscovered and redeployed, could be successful. As an example, the “Six Degrees" idea has been around for a long time. It was tried, failed, but there are multiple companies that do this now and they seem to be succeeding.

By “Six Degrees” sites, do you mean sites like Friendster or Orkut?


How did you personally experience the dotcom hype, and later on, the bust? Can you recall some of the emotions for those like me who were too far away from the epicenter?

Well, I was a critic of the New Economy long before it went bust. I suppose it was because I had experienced the problems at Pathfinder, which served as an ominous foreshadowing of what happened a few years later.

When I wrote Netslaves with Bill Lessard in 1999, we had a VERY hard time convincing people that there might be dark times ahead. People called us “naysayers” and “negativists”. It was really impossible to pierce peoples’ personal bubbles of unreality. They were sane after all, and the proof was that they were making money. We were the crazy ones.

When the shit hit the fan, these same people simply ignored the fact that we (and others, I don’t mean to suggest that we were the New Economy’s only critics) had warned them. Some turned around and created a whole “anti-hype" bubble typified by sites such as FuckedCompany.

I’d say that my career as a working writer was almost destroyed by the dotcom bust, and also wasn’t helped that I wrote a critical book. This business was and is driven by boosterism, glad-handing, and optimist. Nobody wants to be around a pessimist, and everybody hates a guy who can stand there and truthfully say “I told you so and if you had listened to me, you’d still have your money”. Was I blackballed from the industry? Probably not. But I certainly didn’t make any friends from my involvement in the Netslaves project.

I suppose my real problem was that all of a sudden there were thousands of unemployed former tech writers, and I found it very difficult to get paying work. I’m doing a little bit better this year but it’s been a miserable 3 years!

In the book “FuckedCompany”, in hilarious ways the author makes it look like the dotcom bubble was an obvious one – like companies stupid enough to pay to deliver goods to people. In the book “DotCon”, however, a much more shaded picture is painted. Was it obvious to you back in the late 90s a bubble was about to burst?

It was obvious that the situation was unsustainable, but I think that everybody was in a deep sense of denial. Even critics of companies’ excesses rationalized continued optimism by saying “OK – the stupid money is going. This will be good for everybody else.” The idea that the whole market might crash wasn’t in anybody’s mind.

Again, as long as people are making money, or are getting rich on paper, it’s almost impossible to convince them that the Golden Goose is really ill.

When things went bad, then there was a feeding frenzy in the media. the “obvious idiocy” of these schemes became a popular game, and FC, for a brief time, became the arena of schadenfreude. But very few people, and that includes Phil Kaplan, were saying anything critical when things were still OK for most people.

Have you ever used Google to dig up old pages? Say, by searching for “last changed: 1997”.

I used to do this with AltaVista a lot. My approach with Google is usually to do a keyword search on terms such as “no longer updated”, “cannot update”, “this is my last post”, “goodbye”, “apologies+customers”, etc.

When was the first time you got on the web, and what were your thoughts? What was your connection with computers and the internet before that?

It was in 1994 that I first saw the web. I was editing Computer Shopper’s Online section, which consisted mainly of listings of text-based BBS systems. My boss called me into his office, and my jaw really dropped. The web (viewed with Mosaic 0.9b) was the greatest thing I’d ever seen – and I knew there had to be a place for me on it!

Before that, I’d done some COBOL and FORTRAN programming with old IBM 360 systems at my college, and later, gotten into Apple II’s in the mid-1980’s. I sort of hated IBM PC’s at the time, but then Apple dropped the Apple II line and I’ve never forgiven them. In the early 1990’s, when I started working at computer magazines, I got heavily into PC’s (286’s and 386’s), and I’m still a PC guy.

I suppose when you saw the web you knew BBSes were doomed?

Yes. I’d been following the BBS scene closely, because the Computer Shopper online section covered them closely. We’d review them, do round-ups, interview their founders, etc. I had played with BBS software packages, but was appalled by how crummy the graphics were. The tools were very hard to use, there wasn’t much standardization in image formats, and yet in 1993 and 94 the number of BBS’s was exploding.

What was the BBS scene like? I saw you recently linked to, a BBS archive. Were you actively participating?

Not really. I covered BBS’s as part of my job, but I really didn’t dabble with them at all. I spent much more time on CompuServe and the very very early version of AOL. I suppose that if the web hadn’t come along when it did, I might have moved more aggressively into BBS-building.

Morbus, the guy who runs (which hosts Ghost Sites) was much more into BBS’s than I was. I wrote about him in the first Netslaves book. For him, the BBS scene was very much an “underground" for him to play in in these early days.

I am a big fan of ANSI art because it’s so delightfully cheesy and crudely expressive, and have written about it.

1994 was really early... did you catch any great domain names – or regret you didn’t?

I do regret not being more “goldrush-minded” in those early days. I can only blame my own limited imagination, i.e. my complete inability to imagine how insane the domain name rush would be.

A guy I used to work for, Josh Quittner, was prescient enough to reserve the domain name “”. He could have held out for big money from the food giant but instead gave it up to McDonalds in exchange for a pledge from the company to give some money to a local public school.

It’s funny. A few years ago, it seemed much more difficult to find good, pronounceable, one or two-syllable domain names than it does today. I suppose the hype deflation in the overall market has depressed the upside potential of domain-name speculation, which is probably a good thing.

You saw both the early Compuserve and AOL. What made AOL become so much more successful than Compuserve in the long run?

AOL, even in its earliest incarnation, was easier to use than CompuServe. Its interface (which I believed was built by an outfit called GeoWorks) was mouse-driven, icon-oriented, but its content was very poor in comparison. At the time, CompuServe was “for geeks” and AOL was, in Apple’s terms “the online service for the rest of us” (meaning “for dummies”, of course).

I suppose you’d have to talk to someone more knowledgable than myself about the battle between AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, GEnie, and other online pioneers to get the full blow-by-blow. But I think that AOL simply promoted AOL very well, by “carpet-bombing” the U.S.A. with free disks. It was almost impossible to avoid being enticed by AOL with seductive hours of “X hundred hours of free time”.

So ease of use and marketing would, in my opinion, be AOL’s keys to early success.

Did you ever see Compuserve’s “Worlds Away” virtual world, with avatars and so on?

No I didn’t, but I remember something called “The Palace” that was very similar.

There was a whole clutch of “VR"/VRML based environments that were poised to be the next big thing in the mid-1990’s. I think AOL had one too called “Cyberpark.”

Steve, what are you doing today? I suppose your ghost sites are not the full-time focus.

I’m a freelance copywriter/web Content area and while I enjoy the freelance life, I’m actually looking for a fulltime job, which isn’t an easy thing to find these days, at least in New York. Ghost Sites continues to be my main web-based creative outlet, but I’ve lately branched out into other, non-cyberhistory areas, including bird-oriented sites.

What do you think are the most interesting developments on the web today?

For small web-based publishers such as myself, Google’s AdSense program has been a very exciting one. For the first time, I can make a few dollars each day, which actually goes a long way toward defraying the costs of hosting a free information service.

Where do you think we’re heading, online?

I don’t see any “revolutionary” things coming down the pike, but this may simply be because I’m an outsider who isn’t close to a company with any revolutionary fervor. I do think that the online world is becoming a sort of “utility” like electricity; something that people need to simply live their lives, and few people write poems or songs about the humble light bulb these days.

What would you say is worth preserving online today? Do you make screenshots of today’s site? There’s just too much it seems!

Because of weirdnesses in my personal life (I had to move recently and will have to move again in the next month or so), I haven’t had continuous access to a computer recently, and so spending lots of time archiving stuff today is out of the question.

Thanks to institutions such as the Internet Archive, there is less need for hobbyists such as myself to try to archive sites today. So I would try to save things that I know aren’t being systematically preserved, such as banner ads. I’ve also tried to spend less time archiving and more time writing about the objects. Each web site in my Museum has a “story” behind it and my eventual goal is to write stories for all 1,200 or so sites (I’ve written only a couple of hundred so far). This means doing research into their fates, trying to find people who worked there, and attempting to reconstruct the “zeitgeist” of the times.


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