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Mark Tebbe on how to catch a glimpse into a website’s hidden past

Mark Tebbe

Mark Tebbe

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Last week, I toured the Art Institute of Chicago’s latest exhibition, “Impressionism, Fashion & Modernity.” The exhibit juxtaposes 200-year-old paintings of dresses with actual (and often identical) dresses crafted by designers from the Macy’s Chicago Fashion Incubator. I was impressed by the creativity that the Art Institute’s Gloria Groom (longtime curator of 19th -century European painting) demonstrated by mixing fashion history with art history — and by how the exhibit gives us a glimpse into the evolution of both mediums.

But as I strolled through the rooms of paintings, interacting with 19th-century Parisian life, I began to fret about something — I realized later generations wouldn’t be able to share in a similar experience when it comes to viewing the history and evolution of the Web. I teach entrepreneurship at the University of Chicago, and I’m often surprised that my 20-something students don’t know about many now-extinct websites that laid the foundation for today’s Web successes. While I can’t address this problem for people in 200 years, I can offer a few pointers to help today’s students and curious Web users.

One not-so-secret way to see past versions of websites is to leverage Google’s search engine cache feature. By typing “Cache:Example.com” into Google’s OneBox, the user can be transported back to an earlier copy of that Example.com website (fill in the domain of your choice instead of “Example”). You won’t be able to see all of the past versions, but it’s a helpful tool if the website was recently changed and you wanted to view the old design or copy old text. But these cached versions flee fast, as Google only keeps them active for three months, tops (depending on the popularity of that website). Additionally, businesses can prevent their pages from being stored in Google’s cache by setting their robots.txt file or page meta tags to block such storage.

An even cooler tool to see websites of yore is the WayBack Machine, stored on the website Archive.org. Enter any website — say, Suntimes.com — and you’ll be transported back in time (in this case, all the way back to Dec. 19, 1996) to see a variety of captured pages from the past. With the tap of an arrow, you’ll be able to review nearly 2,000 historical captures of the Sun-Times website. While Archive.org doesn’t encompass all sites, it does have a good collection, holding more than 240 billion copies of more than 200 million websites that date to 1996.

Luckily, all is not lost for future Americans. Twitter has planned ahead to ensure that all of our tweets are captured for generations to come. In conjunction with Twitter, the Library of Congress is saving every public tweet we’ve sent. With more than 200 billion tweets — and more than a half billion tweets daily — our children’s children will have the raw material for an interesting perspective of American life.

Regrettably, I’m not sure the result will be as moving as the paintings in the Art Institute’s latest exhibit.

Mark Tebbe donated his fee for writing this column to the Art Institute of Chicago.



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