The Million Dollar Homepage is a Million Dollar Graveyard

A 2005 web experiment speaks to the difficulty of archiving the web.

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Jul 24 2017, 12:00pm

Immagine: Million Dollar Homepage

In 2005, a British student named Alex Tew launched the The Million Dollar Homepage, where internet users could "own a piece of internet history" by buying individual pixels on a giant digital canvas for a buck apiece. A total of one million pixels were for sale and anyone could buy a minimum of a 10x10 pixel space on the site. Although the last bit of real estate on the Million Dollar Homepage was sold over a decade ago, the page still loads and you can see the ads people bought for everything from online casinos to Tahitian noni juice.

In fact, the site has outlived a good chunk of the websites linked through the pixels. According to a new blog post from John Bowers of Harvard's Library Innovation Lab, the Million Dollar Homepage serves as a sterling example of the problem that link rot poses for those trying to archive content on the internet.

At first glance, the Million Dollar Homepage appears to be a perfectly preserved internet artifact: The only real difference from its original visual incarnation is a link to Tew's Twitter account. We're seeing it basically as we would have when George W. Bush was still president. But as for the 2,816 links included on the page? Only 1,780 remain properly in use, with 489 of the remainder redirecting to resale or similar sites and 547 being completely dead.

Bowers argues that the Million Dollar Homepage can't act as a proper internet artifact unless these links are restored to their original functions.

"While it has clear value as an example of the internet's ever-evolving culture, emergent potential, and sheer bizarreness, the site reveals itself to be little more than an empty directory upon closer inspection," Bowers says.

The internet, fortunately, hasn't been entirely unwise in this regard. There's the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, for instance, which captures "snapshots" of most web pages. (Fittingly, I ended up consulting it for an earlier imprint of Bowers' post as Harvard's site wasn't working while writing this draft.) Bowers believes resources like the Wayback Machine could be used to restore the Million Dollar Homepage to the full experience someone might have enjoyed in 2005 by linking visitors to snapshots of the web pages as they existed at that time.

This is the idea behind Harvard's Perma.cc project, which attempts to provide permanent links to scholarly articles to aid in future research. Aside from archiving fun bits of internet history like the Million Dollar Homepage, there's clearly a large demand for internet archival services, as demonstrated by the $700,000 grant awarded to the project by the Institute of Museum and Library Services last year.

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Both approaches aren't without their problems, and sometimes content providers actively attempt to thwart archival efforts. Consider the recent rumors of the imminent demise of the audio streaming service SoundCloud, which led concerned users to start archiving SoundCloud content in case millions of audio creations disappeared without warning. SoundCloud itself shut the archival project down only a handful of days later, claiming that "any action to take content from SoundCloud violates our Terms of Use and infringes on our users' rights."

Archival records have always been an important way for people to connect with history. But as the Million Dollar Homepage serves to remind us, in the information age the preservation of this history is never guaranteed.

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