A mistake by Phillip Mendonça-Vieira created one of the more remarkable artifacts of the digital news era. A task he left running took 12,000 snapshots of the New York Times homepage from September of last year until earlier this month. He strung them together into one incredible video that compresses all the news over the year into one seven-minute opus.
It has been one hell of a nine-month period for news. In October, the Chilean miners were freed. The Iraq Logs broke later that month. Then there was the Republican rout during the midterm elections, WikiLeaks' State Department cable leaks, and the first of a series of massive snowstorms blanketing the northeast.
But it's in January that things really took off. The month started with the tragic shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The Arab Spring began with the overthrow of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Then Fukushima, Libya, horrible tornadoes, and Osama Bin Laden's execution: every one of these events was chronicled on the Times' home page.
In the old days, flipping through the front page of each day's edition of the newspaper could have given you a similar overview. Now, though, the homepage of the paper has become the dominant way that people across the world experience the New York Times. And yet no one is archiving those homepages in the way that A1s used to be.
Mendonça-Vieira rightly calls this a tragedy:
This, in my humble opinion, is a tragedy because in many ways our frontpages are summaries of our perspectives and our preconceptions. They store what we thought was important, in a way that is easy and quick to parse and extremely valuable for any future generations wishing to study our time period.
What feels silly to me is that the technical task doesn't seem that difficult. When you can accidentally develop a way to snapshot a homepage like Mendonça-Vieira did, it can't be that hard to do it intentionally. The real problem is that we don't consider our digital creations to have the same historical weight as the print versions. I don't think there's any real logic to this belief. It's more cultural lag, and the lack of institutions to give weight to the idea that archiving homepages is important.
So, how about it, developers? Can you make us media people a homepage versioner that we can easily deploy? Then we'll have no excuse not to preserve our cultural legacy.