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 Persephone Miel 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. Google Blogsearch is still there, but re-cast as a news engine. Only IceRocket 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 Archive.org. 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” searls.com, 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 Internews.org. 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 @fonchik (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.