Sourcing Persephone

We are what we do.

We are more than that, of course, but it helps to have answers to the questions “What do you do?” and “What have you done?”

Among many other notable things l did was survive breast cancer. It was a subject that came up often during the year we shared as fellows at the Berkman Center. It may not have been a defining thing, but it helped build her already strong character. Persephone also said she knew that her personal war with the disease might not be over. The risks for survivors are always there.

So it was not just by awful chance that Persephone showed up at a Berkman event this Spring wearing a turban. She was on chemo, she said, but optimistic. Thin and frail, she was still pressing on with work, carrying the same good humor, toughness, intelligence and determination.

The next time I saw her, in early June, she looked worse. Then, on June 24, Ethan Zuckerman sent an email to Berkman friends, letting us know that Persephone’s health was diminishing quickly, and that she “probably will not live through July.” He also said that she had moved to a hospice, but was doing well enough to read email and accept a few visitors — and that he had hoped to visit her on July 6. Just five days later, Ethan wrote to say that Persephone had died the night before. I had been working in slow motion on an email to her — thinking, I guess, that Ethan’s July 6 date was an appointment she would keep. This post began as that email.

Persephone is gone, but her work isn’t, and that’s what I want to talk about. It’s a subject I wanted to bring up with her, and one I’m sure all her friends care about. We all should.

What I want to talk about is not “carrying on” the work of the deceased in the usual way that eulogizers do. What I’m talking about is keeping Persephone’s public archives in a published, accessible and easily found state. I fear that if we don’t make an effort to do that — for everybody — that we’ll lose them.

The Web went commercial in 1995, and has only become more so since. Today it is a boundless live public marketplace, searched mostly through one company’s engine, which continues to adapt accordingly. While Google’s original mission (“to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”) persists, its commercial imperatives cannot help but subordinate its noncommercial ones.

In my own case I’m finding it harder and harder to use Google (or any search engine) to find my own archived work, even if there are links to it. The Live Web, which I first wrote about in 2005, has come to be known as the “real time” Web, which is associated with Twitter and Facebook as well as Google. What’s live, what’s real time, is now. Not then.

Today almost no time passes between the publishing of anything and its indexing by Google. This is good, but it is also aligned with commercial imperatives that emphasize the present and dismiss the past. No seller has an interest in publishing last week’s offerings, much less last year’s or last decade’s. What would be the point?

It would help if there were competition among search engines, or more specialized ones, but there’s not much hope for that. Bing’s business model is the same as Google’s. And the original Live Web search engines — Technorati, PubSub, Blogpulse, among others — are gone or moved on to other missions. Perhaps ironically, Technorati maintained an archive of all blogging for half a decade. But I’ve been told that’s gone. is still there, but re-cast as a news engine. Only persists as a straightforward Live Web engine, sustained, I suppose, by Mark Cuban‘s largesse. (For which I thank him. IceRocket is outstanding.)

For archives we have two things, it seems. One is search engines concerned mostly about the here and now, and the other is The latter does an amazing job, but finding stuff there is a chore if you don’t start with a domain name.

Meanwhile I have no idea how long tweets last, and no expectation that Twitter (or anybody other than a few individuals) will maintain them for the long term. Nor do I have a sense of how long anything will (or should) last inside Facebook, Linkedin or any other commercial walled garden.

To be fair, everything on the Web is rented, starting with domain names. I “own” , only for as long as I keep paying a domain registrar for the rights to use it. Will it stay around after I’m gone? For how long? All of us rent our servers, even if we own them, simply because they use electricity, take up space and need to be maintained. Who will do that after their paid-for purposes expire? Why? And again, for how long?

Persephone worked for years at I assume her work there will last as long as the organization does. Here’s the Google cache of her Key Staff bio. Her tweets as (her last was June 9th) will persist as long as Twitter doesn’t bother to get rid of them, I suppose. Here’s a Google search for her name. Here’s her Berkman alum page. Here’s her Linkedin. Here are her Delicious bookmarks. More to the point of this post, here’s her Media Re:public blog, with many links out to other sources, including her own. Here’s the Media Re:public report she led. And here’s an Internews search for Persephone, which has five pages of results.

All of this urges us toward a topic and cause that was close to Persephone’s mind and heart: journalism. If we’re serious about practicing journalism on the Web, we need to preserve it at least as well as we publish it.

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  1. Annette Makino’s avatar

    Thanks so much for this thoughtful piece on our dear colleague and friend.

  2. Bryant Cutler’s avatar

    IIRC, Twitter had inked a deal recently with the Library of Congress to preserve the entire tweetstream indefinitely. I’m sure that doesn’t include links, twitpic images, etc. but most of the flow of the conversation would be there.

  3. Michael Clark’s avatar

    A huge issue with a commercial entity archiving all the web would be copyright. seems to have gotten a pass on that, but like you say, you need to have the starting point already to look through‘s archives.

    Shouldn’t an org like the Library of Congress be able to collect and archive all online info? If a writer were to physically print out all the posts they made for a year, would the LoC archive that in their physical collection? Or do they only archive printed materials that have an ISBN?

  4. PJ’s avatar

    If she has a wikipedia page, that might be an appropriate place to put links to her work … basically using wikipedia to fix the bug that is archive.orgs searchability.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Persephone doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, though putting one up might be an interesting move. It also might be an uphill effort if some Wikipedian thinks Persephone isn’t “notable” enough and nominates her entry for elimination. That happened to me two years ago. I survived, but it left me wondering how notable an entry had to be.

    In any case, all suggestions are welcome.

  6. Carolyn Anhalt’s avatar

    Thank you for putting this together – as soon as I heard the news I archived all of @fonchik’s tweets. I also host Persephone’s personal blog and her mother’s book blog on my server, and all her personal domain names point there. I’m not sure what’s in place to keep them registered, but the content will remain available for at least as long as I’m around…

  7. Maarten’s avatar

    My thoughts go out to all who knew Persephone.

    Amazing post also about your “archive” thoughts

    I hinge on two thoughts though …

    1 – Yes the web archive should be more long lasting (no rent) and easier accessible. It would be great of the and the googles of the world could achieve this and maintain my digital legacy, alive or not. For as long as possible. You should always be able to access everything.

    2 – On the other hand, what do people want to know about what I did in two generations from now? Hopefully a lot but probably not many (I am no Einstein or Churchill). And how useful could it be, really. There are so many people in the world between then and now that will have lived and died. And there will then be such an incredible amount of data per person. Most use seems to be for anthropological and historic research. I think its more about the now, that’s when all the data, the information, the journalism we produce is the most useful.

  8. Adele McAlear’s avatar

    I am very sorry for the loss of your friend. The topic of archiving digital work and preserving it for the future is one that I’ve been exploring and speaking about over the last year with my research on death and digital legacy. Although library and archival organizations have been working on digital preservation initiatives for years, their efforts are based primarily on historical works of note already contained in collections or new significantly relevant additions.

    However, there is little available for the individual who might not be destined for the history books. And, although the Internet Archive is doing wonderful work, it is not comprehensive. I believe that there is a need for a non-profit organization to help individuals archive and curate their own digital collections – whether online or off – as a way of preserving them for colleagues, friends and family.

    I welcome thoughts on this topic for my research.

  9. rosalie’s avatar

    thank you for this post. i would not have known of Persephone’s passing if not for your words today. Persephone was a wonderful, loving, and intelligent woman, and I appreciate having had the opportunity to work with and know her. As for her living on digitally, and/or not being ‘notable’ enough for wikipedia–I say “pshaw”– She touched us–and she touched Berkman–and through her many other collaborations–she moved our world a little closer to that bright future we all hope for.. In the end, our individual names/accolades/ID’s mean very little. It’s who/what we loved -and who/what we were loved by–that matters most.

  10. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Persephone’s memorial service was last Saturday, well after the above was written. It was long, with many people getting up and speaking. Ethan Zuckerman spoke for Berkman colleagues, of which about six (I’m guessing) attended. If Ethan hadn’t spoken (and very well, as he always does) I would have said something on behalf of those who shared what turns out to have been a remarkably short time in her life — just one year.

    Persephone died young, but she did so much. And there was so much of what she did that was news to me, or barely known. That she was deeply into theater and experienced at it. That she spoke so many languages, and so well. That she was even more of a radical broadcaster in Russia than I had gathered previously. That she was such a hot item, in so many ways, when she was a student at Harvard. (It says something good about Berkman that I didn’t even know she had gone to Harvard. In four years at Berkman, nobody has ever asked me where I went to school. The center has been blissfully free from the caste systems one tends to associate with Ivy institutions.)

    She was, finally, a wonderful and much loved — and loving — person. I miss her more now than I did before.

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