Wayback Machine Time Travels Old Web Sites

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Host Liane Hansen speaks with Weekend Edition's Digital Correspondent David Kushner about the Wayback Machine, an Internet archive of the Web, and how it works.


To make sense of the worsening economy, it may help to look to the past. If you want to see how the dot com crash of 2000 was covered on the Internet, then boot up the Wayback Machine. David Kushner, our digital culture commentator, is here to explain. Hey, David.

Mr. DAVID KUSHNER (Journalist, Rolling Stone and Wired; Author): Hi, how are you?

HANSEN: Now, I remember the Wayback Machine from the old Sherman and Mr. Peabody cartoons. You're not talking about the same thing, are you?

Mr. KUSHNER: Not the same thing, though it is inspired by that in name. But the Wayback Machine is basically like a time machine for the Internet. And it lets you see old Web pages that may no longer be around. So you go to the site. You can find it at archive.org. And what you do is basically type in a Web site address. And then you click a button that says "Take me back." And it does take you back. And you see snapshots of the site as it looked on specific dates going back as far as 1996.

So, you might use it to look at historical events like surfing newspapers and blogs, say, on 9/11 or even the day of the dot com crash. And you could also look at personal homepages. I am a fan of the band Radiohead. So I went back and found their site from 1997. I found my own site from 2003. You can even use it to look at sites of people who are deceased and maybe their sites are no longer online now. So this is really one of the only ways we have of going back.

HANSEN: How many old Web pages are in the archives?

Mr. KUSHNER: Right now, the count is at about 85 billion Web pages, which is a lot. And it's actually - to get really geeky and technical about it - it's two petabytes of data growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month. So it exceeds the texts in the world's largest libraries, including the Library of Congress.

HANSEN: How does a site wind up in these archives?

Mr. KUSHNER: Well, there are a couple of ways. One way is that there's a basically a robot on the Internet called the Alexa, and it crawls around and it stores public Web sites and archives them. People can also submit their own sites to get archived. It takes about eight weeks once you submit your site for it to get crawled, and then it takes about another six months for it to go online. Of course, there some people who just don't want their sites at all archived for whatever reason. And you can actually set up your site so that it won't get stored on the Wayback Machine.

HANSEN: What do you see as the significance of this?

Mr. KUSHNER: You know, it taps into this larger idea about the ephemeral nature of our lives online and the steps that we now have to take to really preserve our history because, you know, we spend so much time on the Internet. We're gaming online. We're communicating online. And we're not really leaving as many paper trails anymore. We're essentially leaving pixel trails. And this is part of the effort to save them.

HANSEN: David Kushner writes for Rolling Stone and Wired. His latest book, "Levittown," will be published in February. Thank you, David.

Mr. KUSHNER: Thank you.

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