Eleven years ago, I made a prediction:
The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.
One year later, Matt called me on it and the prediction officially became a bet:
We’re playing for $1000. If I win, that money goes to the Bletchley Park Trust. If Matt wins, it goes to The Internet Archive.
I’m very happy to lose this bet.
When I made the original prediction eleven years ago that a URL on the longbets.org site would no longer be available, I did so in a spirit of mischief—it was a deliberately meta move. But it was also informed by a genuine feeling of pessimism around the longevity of links on the web. While that pessimism was misplaced in this case, it was informed by data.
The lifetime of a URL on the web remains shockingly short. What I think has changed in the intervening years is that people may have become more accustomed to the situation. People used to say “once something is online it’s there forever!”, which infuriated me because the real problem is the exact opposite: if you put something online, you have to put in real effort to keep it online. After all, we don’t really buy domain names; we just rent them. And if you publish on somebody else’s domain, you’re at their mercy: Geocities, MySpace, Facebook, Medium, Twitter.
These days my view towards the longevity of online content has landed somewhere in the middle of the two dangers. There’s a kind of Murphy’s Law around data online: anything that you hope will stick around will probably disappear and anything that you hope will disappear will probably stick around.
One huge change in the last eleven years that I didn’t anticipate is the migration of websites to HTTPS. The original URL of the prediction used HTTP. I’m glad to see that original URL now redirects to a more secure protocol. Just like most of the World Wide Web. I think we can thank Let’s Encrypt for that. But I think we can also thank Edward Snowden. We are no longer as innocent as we were eleven years ago.
I think if I could tell my past self that most of the web would using HTTPS by 2022, my past self would be very surprised …’though not as surprised at discovering that time travel had also apparently been invented.
The Internet Archive has also been a game-changer for digital preservation. While it’s less than ideal that something isn’t reachable at its original URL, knowing that there’s probably a copy of the content at archive.org lessens the sting considerably. I couldn’t be happier that this fine institution is the recipient of the stakes of this bet.