In many computing languages there is the concept of the immutable object. An object that once created cannot be changed. You can copy it and make a new version that is different, but the original is forever the same.
Compare this to the contents of any web page. You follow a link to a blog post and if you are lucky the post is there, just as it was the day the author created it. But just as likely, the link is broken and goes nowhere. Or the author has changed the contents (or at least the presentation) or simply moved it to a different place.
Blogs are abandoned, services go out of business or are aquired, authors lose interest, lose faith, and sometimes simply die. And although the URL, that universally unique permutation of characters, remains, the content it pointed to is lost.
This is only going to get worse.
Services like The Wayback Machine and to some extent Google, do their best to cache content for later retrieval long after its steward has become negligent. But mostly the host, whoever that is, simply turns off the server or doesn’t renew their account and it’s gone.
Who hasn’t experienced this themselves? Think of your first ever blog post or photo upload to the internet. Is it still online? Is it even still on your hard drive?
And so we are left with a Web that was brilliantly conceived to be simple and yet suffers from a kind of computer science-ism: everthing is just a pointer. A URL is nothing more than a pointer to some content that may or may not still exist.
I think this is one of the reasons the web is careening towards a mostly closed and hosted world where we leave our content to others not because we totally trust them to be good stewards forever but because they are very likely better stewards than we are! Facebook may not be around in 50 years but it is highly likely that anything I post there will outlast anything I post on a blog that I host myself.
I can abandon my Foursquare account for two years and come back to happily find all my check-ins still there, quietly waiting for my return. Even disabling my Facebook account only hides the contents until I return to my senses and reactive them. Say what you will about Facebook, but they are a great protector of my data’s longevity.
Is there a solution for the open web?
What if URLs were immutable? What if once content was posted to a URL (maybe a new kind of URL, the immutable IURL) it could never be changed? The contents of the site and the URL itself would be hashed together and out would come a key that could never be altered. Not even the theme and styling of the page could be rebranded. It would be frozen like Han Solo at the end of Empire Strikes Back.
I think most would say that would be ridiculous. A step backwards. But think for a moment about your first ever blog post. Sure would be interesting to go read that today exactly as it was then.