There are lots of things that are “on” the web (doh) but let me ask if you think of the things you do as being “of” the web. Bear with this perhaps semantic nitpicking or old fogey wishing for the good ole days of the simple times when it was the wild wild web west. I remember dreaming in HTML.

The web is a fabric. You can just sit on the fabric or you can weave the fabric.

If you think of the web as a living organism perhaps as trees you should want to do your part to nurture its growth, to preserve the root system, to keep the canopy vital. You don’t just go joy riding through in your ATV and toss cigarette butts and burger wrappers, you are part of the system.

A few weeks back a colleague tweeted something about having the task of erasing several hundred Blackboard courses from a previous semester. I snark replied something back, but luckily my network connection was weak, and it died in my draft box.

But it got me thinking that this kind of web content clear cutting is done regularly in the parts of the web Blackboard occupies (and others too). Wholesale destruction of web content is, to me, a characteristics of being just “on the web”, but not acting in the mindset of being part “of” the web.

It is a whole order of magnitude above the level of link rot, it is a side of a forested mountain lain bare. Now maybe this example is pointless, since Bb content is never seen by anyone anyhow (so all the forest chopping is done behind a wall). The notion of just taking stuff off the web horrifies me.

Now sometimes you may think “no one is every going to want this information” but you have no way of knowing that for sure. Once a web tree is planted it ought to stay there no matter how frail or withered the thing becomes

I cannot begin to say I know what was in Tim Berners-Lee when he envisioned the first plants of the web, but I doubt he wanted an ecosystem where sections are killed off.

If you are “of” the web, you are doing things that make content available, leaving it there, making it findable. Twitter takes place “on” the web (and elsewhere) but the older rings of growth die off as the search is only able to return just the newest few weeks of stuff. Twitter thus creates debris rings of dead web content.

PDFs go on the web but HTML is of the web. The former certainly makes for a fine way to distribute stuff intended for print or viewing as fully formatted and accessed without need for the creation software. But as a container for web content what happens? Besides Google’s indexing, the content is not searchable on your own web site. It also becomes monolithic, a single blob- you cannot hyperlink to sections parts within in, just the blob itself. You cannot view source and learn how it was assembled. It’s not easy to re-use content and media. Even a simple copy/paste can become a nightmare of when crossing the thresh hold of formatting.

I spent a lot of effort in my previous job to make all the content we did publish as PDF also as web versions, even ones where content could be commented on. That has apparently not continued. Just because it is easies does not mean it is the right way. It was/is important to me to have content put on the web be of what the web is made of.

Are you just “on” the web or are you “of” the web? Do you just eat from the garden or do you take care of it?

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by chuckp

Featured Image: black and white fabric texture flickr photo by Abby Lanes shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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An early 90s builder of web stuff and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person. And he is 100% into the Fediverse (or tells himself so) Tooting as


  1. I guess we will have to see how the Library of Congress makes the tweet archives available to see if they are as ephemeral as you suggest. I see twitter more as a signpost pointing to other parts of the web.

    But more important in your discussion is the idea of the preservation of the web. It is opportune timing for me to think about your post as I am writing some notes for a video we are producing on handling, preserving and sharing data on campus. Too often the answer people is, “we’ll put it on the web,” without understanding what that means. We are in what may be a digital dark age, we are losing content in ways that recovery will likely be irretrievable. The benign neglect that works adequately with paper, works less well with tape, disks, and flash drives, much less the file formats in which the information is stored.

    What happens when the active gardener is gone? It is fine when the gardener is actively tending, but gardeners, move on, get old, even die. How we tend the gardens of lost gardeners will be the legacy by which we will be remembered.

  2. good point. I’d add that being “of the web” has less to do with what software you use, and more to do with what you do with it. we have profs that regularly blow away course sites in wordpress, gallery2, drupal, etc… and we have blackboard courses that are available several years after the last class. but you’re right – none of those courses are truly “of the web”- they’re just courses with some stuff _on_ the web. Stuff like Jon’s wikipedia stuff, or John Willinsky’s wiki stuff, DS106, etc… are different because they are not “of the institution” but “of the web”. strange stuff to think about, but important…

  3. Nice post.

    A lot of copyright agreements with publishers only allow certain works to be used in closed course environments, under the condition that these courses are deleted as soon as they are completed.

    Just another reason for people to look at open content alternatives, of course.

  4. Copyright is so 20th century. Like the music industry, publishers need to get on that the future value is not in controlling the distribution of the content but in concerts and t-shirts 😉

  5. I’m not sure that I’m with you on this one, and I think it’s because I’m not a weaver, I’m a gardener. I spent quite a lot of time today thinking about hard pruning, and how it works to make growth possible. I also just cut down a small tree, because it was starving so many other plants of light that they were distorted simply by its being there. Almost immediately, everything else is growing differently.

    Imagine the world, and the web, we’d have without Facebook.

    So I think realistically we take care of gardens with pruning saws as well as with compost. But is the web a garden, or wild nature? If it’s wild nature, then we can let parts of it become unnavigable, and lost to us. We’re not the most important part of wild nature, and maybe we’re also not the most important part of the web.

    1. I’ve never woven anything either. I love metaphors, I make ’em by the boat load, but I also sometimes wonder if they can also limit out thinking. It’s not a tapestry or a garden or a market or a jungle, it’s the web. There are many things we can compare it too, but also I like to reserve some sense that it’s a thing of its own.

      I know exactly what you mean by the big cut. Not all growth is good. And who get to decide what gets pruned, trimmed, or chopped? I regularly pull growth, and take down trees, because in my arid climate there’s not enough water for everything.

      My original intent in the writing was more about frustration I have seen since my first web dippings is people not considering what the web naturally does, instead, we create content w/o links, and impose print like formatting on what should be free to spread, or just do not consider it at all as a channel,

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