Using Flickr to archive Internet ephemera

Earlier tonight, I was curious how different business news websites were covering the breaking story of the JPMorgan Chase acquisition of Bear Stearns. As there are now plenty of heavily-staffed business news websites that represent traditional magazine and newspaper companies, I thought it would be interesting to compare how quickly they each jumped on the story on a late Sunday afternoon. I used the Firefox Add-on Screengrab! (thanks, Jon Henshaw) to record the front page of five business news websites and then posted them in a set on Flickr.

What did I discover from my two-minute exercise? Well, at around 8:15 p.m. EST, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times both had staff-written breaking stories — indeed, multiple breaking stories. And while Fortune.com and Portfolio.com had Bear Stearns stories in the lead position, they were not about the breaking situation, rather that story was relegated to “headlines” from wire services. Forbes.com didn’t even have a link to a wire story. (My apologies to my friends at BusinessWeek.com for not including them, but, I got distracted by NCAA tourney bids.)

Here are links to each screengrab on Flickr:

WSJ.com – 8:18 p.m. EST
NYTimes.com (business) – 8:18 p.m. EST
Fortune.com – 8:17 p.m. EST
Forbes.com – 8:15 p.m. EST
Portfolio.com – 8:16 p.m. EST

This exercise also reminded me once more of one of the reasons I’m a fan of the reverse-chronological, perma-linked and time-stamped nature of blogging. As Scott Karp noted the other day, other approaches treat online content (and by content, I mean photos, video, articles, maps, etc.) with traditional editorial approaches and story-telling conventions. But by transporting the conventions of print online, traditional media sites provide no way in which to “follow” the timeline of a developing story. At least with print, historians can easily go back later and revive a day-by-day time-line of coverage of an event. Try that with a typical online news site.

There is a TV news archives at Vanderbilt University that has captured the ephemera of broadcast news since the 1960s. Is there such a thing for the Internet? (Later clarification: Is there such an organization that uses such a model of the TV New Archives that attempts to capture the day-by-day changes that occur on major news websites?) I know that the San Francisco-based Internet Archive, in a rather broad-sweeping way, is, it says, “working to prevent ‘born-digital’ materials from disappearing into the past.” However, when historians in the future try to dissect, for example, the 2008 Presidential Election, will the Internet Archives be able to help them?

Perhaps, but I think a more helpful source may be Flickr. For example, look at Patrick Ruffini’s Flickr set of day-by-day candidate websites. Or, click through Dave Winer’s photo-stream and you’ll be able to get a sense of what the campaign pundits were discussing on a daily basis for most of the past three months.

Until I noticed what Dave and Patrick are doing, I never really thought of Flickr as being a personal “Internet Archive.” However, now I do. And thanks to them, I plan to do more “snap-shots sets” on my Flickr account.

Sidenote: The blogosphere is chattering today about “video and Flickr” and how, when it is added as a feature, it won’t be able to compete with the dominant YouTube. Here’s a way it will compete: People like me will use it to archive in collections and sets the video that goes along with the photos already in those sets.

  • Thanks for pointing out that the Vanderbilt Television News Archive as a source for news coverage. You say that we’re not on the Internet, but we are, to the largest extent we can. Our comprehensive collection of news broadcasts (1968 – present) is digitized. The key issue is that while we have recordings of the broadcasts, the networks own the copyrights, and we cannot stream them to the general public. Our key mission invovles preserving news broadcasts; we provide access to the collection in several ways, including loans on DVD. I’m happy to answer any other questions that you might have about the availablity of news broadcasts.
    -marshall breeding,
    Executive Director
    Vanderbilt Television News Archive

  • Rex Hammock

    Thank you, Marshall. I apologize for writing this is such a way as to imply that you do not make available online. I was blogging about my curiousity as to whether there is something analogous to what you are doing that captures the ever-changing nature of new websites. Because of what you’ve done for the past 40 years, historians can go to one place and see/hear a day-by-day record of what happened on that day. I do not know of an institution like yours that does the same for the Internet.

  • Photography survived the TV, VHS, Beta, Surround Sound, DVD, Tivo, DVR, High Def, and a slew of audio & video advancements I’m sure I’m leaving out. I’m sure it can survive YouTube.

    Further, the quality issue still plagues YouTube. For the next decade, Flickr should be fine as long as they improve usability a bit and keep up with the innovation in the social community 2.0 space.

  • Rex Hammock

    i’m sorry, Nathan. I wasn’t complaining about Flickr or YouTube. I was complaining that when something shows up on a typical website, it can get lost in flow. I like the way Flickr let’s me organize things — like scans of what a website looks like at a time-specific. I like the way in which it helps me make things that are not permanent, a little more permanent. However, I’m sure that’s just a “sense” of permanence, as anything that is “virtual” and that exists merely in a digital form is not truly “permanent,” I suppose.

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