Earlier today, I was looking for statistics on the number of gun suicides in the United States. This is an issue that I’ve written about a lot. So I looked there for a link. And I found one! It was to the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICAHV) website. But don’t click on that link, because it will just take you to a “Page Not Found” error page. It would be one thing if the ICAHV didn’t exist anymore, but that’s not the case. What it looks like happened is that they just decided to rearrange their site. The page used to be at /facts-about-suicide-and-gun-violence but now it is at /gun-facts/suicide-and-gun-violence.
I find myself in this situation quite often. And with over 2,300 article on this blog, I cannot spend my time going through all the links to see if they are still good. In the case of ICAHV, the situation is completely unacceptable. A site can reorganize itself and still protect old links. And this should be a priority for an advocacy group. But the problem is much worse than this. Entire sites go away. This may seem like a problem that cannot be solved but that isn’t true. I have plans that when this site has outlived its usefulness to me (like when I die), it will still exist except with ads that will pay for the hosting fees. That might not be possible with content that requires royalties be paid, but I’m sure even that issue could be worked out. (Normally when a publisher goes out of business, the copyright returns to the writer; most writers would prefer that their work still exist.)
By far the biggest problem I run into is with embedded videos. Sometimes videos are taken down because there was a copyright claim. I understand that and little can be done except to fix our broken intellectual property system. But mostly, videos go away simply because YouTube accounts are closed. Most of these are not of the type that YouTube closed for “multiple copyright violations.” It seems that people just remove their YouTube accounts for what reason I can’t say. Regardless, it’s a pain.
Another problem that is only getting bigger is the change from free content to paid content. I have years of links to the New York Times and the Washington Post, both of which are now behind a pay wall. There is an obvious solution for this if it weren’t that these companies were evil. They could keep previously free content free. For example, the Post only went pay last month. Why not keep all of the content before June free? After all, people are only paying for the new content. They are, after all, news papers. It would actually make sense to keep all content that is more than a month old free. That would have many advantages, including keeping the brand alive. But they won’t do that because, as I said, they are evil.
Felix Salmon took on this issue last week, The Spread of Link Rot. His concern is more from the standpoint of a reader than a writer. And it is more of a lament: nothing can be done! There is a lot that can be done. For one thing, if I were Salmon, I would try to get some protections in my contract. If enough writers of his stature took on the issue, something might happen. And there are potential technological solutions to the problem. They could also do what people like Jonathan Bernstein do and have their own blogs, which they can control.
The reason the situation seems hopeless to people like Salmon is that they’ve been trained to think like their corporate overlords. If any given page isn’t getting tens of thousands of views per day, it is useless. This is very much like Hollywood blockbusters. They play for a few weeks and then they are on your TV. But those of us working the margins of the internet are like people who make tiny films: we expect to grow an audience over a long period of time. Thus, if a year old Felix Salmon column has a broken link, it doesn’t much matter. He may not like it, but he knows that the vast majority of people read what he writes as he writes it. But it really does matter to me that my links are good a year or two on, because I still get a fair percentage of my traffic from those old articles.
So I try as best I can to fix broken links, replace paid content with free content, and find replacement videos. But my time is limited.