Fire in the Library

Eugen Leitl eugen at
Tue Dec 27 09:32:32 PST 2011

Fire in the Library

Once, we stored our photos and other mementos in shoeboxes in the attic; now
we keep them online. That puts our stuff at the mercy of companies that could
decide to throw it awaybunless Jason Scott and the Archive Team can get there

January/February 2012

By Matt Schwartz, with reporting by Eva Talmadge

Credit: Peter Arkle

Until a few months ago, held more than 14 million user-submitted
poems, some dating back to the mid-1990s. The site existed to make money: it
had ads and at one point sold $60 anthologies to fledgling poets who wanted
to see their work in print. But to the users, was much more than a
business. It was a scrapbook, a chest for storing precious emotional
keepsakes. And they assumed, perhaps naC/vely, that it would always be there.

On April 14, the owner of the site abruptly announced that it had been sold
and that every poem would be removed by May 4. "Dear Poets," read an e-mail
sent to the roughly seven million users. "Please be sure to copy and paste
your poems onto your computer and connect with any fellow poets offsite."
Users who saw the notice rushed to notify their fellow poets, some of whom
had not logged on in months. At 12:01 a.m. on the appointed date, all 14
million poems disappeared from public view. "Your poems are GONE," wrote
B-1VICTOR, one of the site's users. "This tells me that their intentions is
not on the soul of poetry! But the goal of growing in hits."

This trove of poems might have been forever lost had Jason Scott not arrived
on the scene. Scott is the top-hat-wearing impresario of the Archive Team, a
loosely organized band of digital raiders who leap aboard failing websites
just as they are about to go under and salvage whatever they can. After word
of what was about to happen at reached the Archive Team, 25
volunteer members of the group logged in to Internet Relay Chat to plan a
rescue. "We were like, well, screw that!" Scott recalls. When sites host
users' content only to later abruptly close shop, he says, "it's like going
into the library business and deciding, 'This is not working for us anymore,'
and burning down the library."

Scott and the Archive Team do not seek permission before undertaking one of
their raids, though as a rule they only go after files that are publicly
available, and Scott says most sites do not complain. They devised code that
would copy the poems on and duplicate them in a network of donated
server space in such far-flung places as London, Egypt, and Scott's own home
in New York state. The members working to save the contents of,
who are known by such handles as Teaspoon, DoubleJ, and Coderjoe, met up on
one of the Archive Team's IRC channels and divided the poems into blocks,
ranging in size from 100,000 to one million files. Most of the team began on
the poems that might be considered the bestbthe ones with the most votes and
awardsband worked backward from there.

Unlike other operations, this one encountered resistance. " was
actively working against us at every turn," says Alex Buie, a high-school
senior from Woodbridge, Virginia, who collaborates with Scott on the Archive
Team. Buie says someone from e-mailed to complain that the Archive
Team was scaring away the company that was about to buy the site. The site
even blocked some of the Archive Team members' IP addresses, he adds. But the
group persisted. By the time went dark, the team had saved roughly
20 percent of its poems. Today the site is a wasteland, filled with eerie,
spam-filled forums and promises by the new owner to restore users' poetry at
some point in the future.


People tend to believe that Web operators will keep their data safe in
perpetuity. They entrust much more than poetry to unseen servers maintained
by system administrators they've never met. Terabytes of confidential
business documents, e-mail correspondence, and irreplaceable photos are
uploaded as well, even though vast troves of user data have been lost to
changes of ownership, abrupt shutdowns, attacks by hackers, and other
discontinuities of service. Users of GeoCities, once the
third-most-trafficked site on the Web, lost 38 million homemade pages when
its owner, Yahoo, shuttered the site in 2009 rather than continue to bear the
cost of hosting it. Among the dozens of other corpses catalogued by the
Archive Team's "Deathwatch" are AOL Hometown, (a scrapbook site for
teenage girls that once had 300,000 members), and Friendster, of which the
Archive Team managed to salvage 20 percent. "How many more times will we
allow this?" an outraged Scott wrote on his blog after the AOL Hometown
shutdown. He compared the lost user home pages to "a turkey drawn with a
child's hand or a collection of snow globes collected from a life

The personal quality of such data piques Scott: in his eyes, each page that
the Archive Team salvages bears the singular mark of the person who made it.
Rescued files from Petsburgh, the B-GeoCities subdomain devoted to pets,
include a memorial to Woodro, a Shar-Pei who lost his battle with lung cancer
on January 5, 1998. Woodro apparently loved Jimmy Buffett, so his owners paid
tribute to his life with the song "Lovely Cruise." It is minutiae like
thesebevidence of everyday people expressing themselves in a particular place
and timebthat the Archive Team rescues by the thousands.  Salvaged Mementos

Enlarge Samples

Scott's interest in technology, which began with a childhood love of
electronics and early personal computers, bloomed in the 1980s and early '90s
with the birth of digital bulletin board systems. In 1990 he and a friend
created TinyTIM, a multiplayer virtual adventure that's now the
longest-running game of its kind. Ten years later, Scott founded, dedicated to preserving mid-1980s text files "and the world as
it was then," bulletin board systems and all. In 2009, he founded the Archive
Team, and last March he became an official employee of the Internet Archive,
the San B-Franciscobbased nonprofit behind the Wayback Machine, Open Library,
and other projects to preserve online media. The Archive Team acts
independently and has no formal affiliation with the Internet Archive, but
data rescued by the Archive Team often ends up stored on the Internet
Archive's servers. "I didn't want to bureaucratize the guy," says the
Internet Archive's founder, Brewster Kahle, who hired Scott. "The question
for us is how to have a relationship with a volunteer organization in a way
that's not stifling from their perspective or frightening from ours." Scott's
dual role allows the Internet Archive to take selective advantage of the
Archive Team's more aggressive data-gathering techniques while maintaining an
arm's-length relationship. Many differences between the two groups can be
summed up by the icons that appear beside their URLs in Web browsersbfor the
Internet Archive, a classical temple, and for the Archive Team, an animated
hand flipping visitors the bird.

During my reporting for this article, Scott refused to speak with me for
reasons that he declined to explain, but when contacted by a second reporter
who also said she was working for Technology Review, he discussed his life
and work at length in e-mails and phone calls. Born Jason Scott Sadofsky, he
is 41 years old and divorced. He lives with his brother's family about 70
miles north of New York City in Hopewell Junction, near the Hudson River. In
the backyard is a storage container he calls the "Information Cube," which
holds his vast collection of obsolete electronic equipment, computer
magazines, and floppy discs, all part of his broader calling as an
independent historian of the computer. In 2005, Scott created a five-hour
documentary on early bulletin board services, and in 2009 he raised $26,000
in donations to support his rescues of digital history. His second
documentary film, Get Lamp, about text-based computer games from the 1980s,
debuted in 2010. Scott also evangelizes for data preservation on the
tech-conference circuit, where his affinity for the old is sometimes
reflected in his wardrobe. For example, he has been known to deliver a
presentation in steampunk regaliabaviator-style goggles, a velvet jacket, and
the top hat. Day to day, the widest outlet for his showmanship is the
1.5-million-follower @sockington Twitter feed written in the voice of his
cat, Sockington, who makes such faux-naC/f kitty quips as "#occupylitterbox"
and "crunked on nip." "He is like a 19-year-old guy in a 40-year-old body,"
says Buie.

With his enthusiasm for archaic technologies, Scott is a throwback to the
Internet's early days, when impassioned amateurs would banter on the WELL or
hash out the new medium's technical specifications in request-for-comment
papers, along with computer scientists from government and academia. The
online community was smaller then, and more countercultural. Too primitive to
attract major outside investment, the medium spent the 1980s guided by people
like Jason Scott. Part of the appeal of volunteer projects like the Archive
Team is that they offer a sort of time machine back to an online world that
was less about money and more about fun.


Typically, Archive Team members extract data from failing sites using a
crawling program like GNU Wget, which lets them quickly copy every publicly
available file. The files are then sent to the Internet Archive for storage,
or uploaded to one of the loose network of Archive Team servers scattered
around the world. The hardest part, Scott explains, is knowing when a site is
going down without warning. That happened to Muammar el-Qaddafi's website
during the Libyan revolution that ended in his death. "It's an art, not a
technical skill," Scott says. An Archive Team user who works under the handle
"Alard" was able to copy Qaddafi's site, including videos and audio files of
the late dictator. Now these materials are freely available to anyone.

Credit: Peter Arkle

Another recent rescue: Italy's, which is host to half a million
blogs and announced its impending closure in a November blog post. Scott
heard about Splinder through the Archive Team's grapevine of volunteer
archivists, who will often send him e-mail and Twitter messages or add a page
directly to the Archive Team's wiki. "People put out a bat signal," Scott
says. By November 24, word of Splinder's troubles had reached Scott. More
than a dozen members of the Archive Team "went in with guns blazing," he
says, racing to copy as many of its 55 million pages as they could, causing
the site to crash twice. Ultimately, Splinder's owners acquiesced to angry
users and pushed the shutdown date back to January 31.

The next phase of a typical Archive Team mission is less exciting than
ripping as much information as possible from a website before it disappears,
but just as necessary for the salvaged data to be of any use. Archivists
check the integrity of the downloaded data and then distribute it for
storage. Larger collections may be released as torrents, which anyone can
download over the peer-to-peer service BitTorrent, on sites like The GeoCities archive was so big that at first Scott put
out a call asking anyone with an available terabyte-sized hard drive to mail
it to his home, where he would load the files and arrange for return postage.
More than a dozen people from Scott's network volunteered to help safeguard
the GeoCities cache until it was ready to be released as a torrent.

The Archive Team requires "a certain kind of person who's sort of reckless
while still being methodical," says Duncan B. Smith, who works with the group
under the handle "chronomex." "People live for the big efforts where people
mobilize and download the fuck out of some website run by assholes. After the
fire's out, though, you still have to stick around to clean the fire truck
and put the gear away. You have to upload your data to the centralized dump
to be collated. Then you have to talk over why your data seems slightly
broken. That's the boring part."

Is it legal to copy stuff from websites without permission? U.S. courts
haven't made a clear determination. Andy Sellars, a staff attorney at the
Citizen Media Law Project, says he would argue that it counts as "fair use"
under copyright law. However, he notes that the Archive Team's torrents don't
offer a mechanism for copyright holders to demand that certain material be
taken down, which could hurt its case in a court. "If you look at the letter
of copyright law, it's pushing the envelope," says Jonathan Zittrain,
codirector of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. But because
the Internet Archive has been engaged in similar work for years, Zittrain
says, "now the radical move would be for the courts to forbid it. Soon it
will be another part of the furniture."


GeoCities is probably the best example supporting Scott's argument that
apparently silly or worthless data can have unanticipated cultural value.
Today the 652-gigabyte torrent that the Archive Team made available in
October 2010 is free to anyone who wants to have a look. The most impressive
project this release has spawned is the DeletedCity, a ghostly video
interface that allows users to explore various GeoCities subdivisions and
content. On the micro level, the Archive Team has been able to dig up and
return the content of individual GeoCities users, like a late World War II
veteran who had put his photo archive on the site. After B-GeoCities went
down, the Archive Team uploaded the old pictures to a USB drive and mailed it
his widow, free of charge. Phil Forget, a 26-year-old programmer in New York,
used the GeoCities torrent to dig up his old images from the Japanese anime
series Dragonball Z as well as animated caricatures he had made of his
high-school teachers. The material isn't as significant to him as the widow's
photographs were to her, but it is far from trivial. "It's like if you went
back to your mom's house and found the doodles on the back of your marbled
notebook, from fourth or fifth grade," Forget says. "You get this rush of

Listening to Scott talk about the importance of our collective "digital
heritage" makes the loss of sites like GeoCities feel as tragic as the
burning of the Library of Alexandria, a vast archive of ancient texts, many
of which existed nowhere else. (The library has a joking listing on the
Archive Team's site, which lists its URL as "none" and the project's status
as "destroyed.") Scott scoffs at the suggestion that material like the verses
on might not be worth saving; he notes that the New York Public
Library stores old menus in its rare-books collection. "No one questions
that," he says.

Scott's two holy grails are the archives of Compuserve, which was one of the
major online services of the dial-up era before eventually being absorbed by
AOL, and those of a past incarnation of, which formerly was devoted
exclusively to independent musicians who wanted to share their work. "I
bristle when I see that level of culture wiped away," he says. Scott believes
that the archives of both sites must be out there somewhere; perhaps they are
on reels of magnetic tape gathering dust in a garage. Sometimes he can appear
to have an almost Peter Pan-ish unwillingness to accept the passage of time
and the way information gives way to entropy. To him, the idea of data that
cannot be saved is almost as heretical as the notion of data that is not
worth saving.

Scott approaches today's multibillion-dollar repositories of user databsites
like Facebook, Google, and Flickrbwith intense skepticism. The sister page of
the Archive Team's Deathwatch is called "Alive ... OR ARE THEY?" and makes it
abundantly clear that the data ethics of Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page are
being carefully watched. Facebook "seems stable at the moment," says the
Archive Team, while Google "wants you to think they will be here forever."
Some posters on the Archive Team wiki have already criticized Google for
closing down Google Labs, a section of the site devoted to experimental
projects, and for warning that it might stop hosting previously uploaded
content at Google Video. "Don't trust the Cloud to safekeep this stuff,"
Scott has warned.

"I get very cranky," he says. "You know the Google ad where the parent is
recording family memories on YouTube, and keeping photos on Picasa, and
telling his kid, 'I can't wait to share these with you someday'? Well, not if
you keep it on Google. They make these claims that you can keep things
forever, but in fact it's all temporary."

Buie, the high-school senior, argues that keeping old data serves a purpose
whether or not anyone is using it now. "Take the Friendster stuff," he says.
"Maybe no one will look at it until 2250. That doesn't matter to me. What
matters is that the knowledge is there." Buie found the Archive Team through
his avocation as a historian of early hardware. He had gone to a "too good to
waste" section of his county's dump, looking for early computers to refurbish
and add to his collection. After bringing home an Apple II and scouring the
Web for information on spare parts, he saw a reference to a defunct GeoCities
page that had the information he was looking for, and his search for this
page led him to the Archive Team's GeoCities project. Now Buie frames his
work with Scott as part of the solution to a broader cultural problem on the
Web. "There isn't enough focus on the past, on where we came from," he says.
"And if you forget the past, then the future becomes meaningless, because you
don't even know how you got to where you're standing."

As Scott continues to project his message with maximum bombast, it appears
that some of the Web's leading brands are coming around to his views. When
Google launched its social-networking service Google+ last June, it
introduced a new feature called Takeout that would combine users' posts and
export the files for them. Gmail already let users export their contact
lists, making it easier to switch to competitors' products. "I personally
won't be happy until every last bit of your data is available through
Takeout," says Brian Fitzpatrick, an engineering manager at Google who leads
the company's data liberation efforts. He says Google should do it so that
users trust the company: "It's not because we're nice." Though Facebook
declined to comment for this article, it has added a Takeout-like "Download a
Copy" function for the photos, messages, and other content users keep on the

As for Scott, he is looking further ahead. He's already planning for that
distant day when his most important piece of metadatabthe knowledge he has
amassed of his own collectionsbwill go blank. "Mortality?" he says. "I have a
distributed array of servers. Whatever I acquire, I share out as fast as
possible. None of it is sitting on a hard drive in one guy's house."

Matt Schwartz is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Wired, the New
Yorker, and the New York Times Magazine. He reviewed Foursquare and Scvngr in
the March/April 2011 issue of Technology Review.

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