Snow on the Water

Doc Searls Weblog 2014-08-04

floesI’ve been intrigued by Fotopedia  since it showed up in ’09, especially since I do a shitload of travel photography. But I never posted anything there, because I was afraid it would die. And now, says here, it will. In seven days. The reason:

As of August 10, 2014, Fotopedia.com will close and our iOS applications will cease to function. Our community of passionate photographers, curators and storytellers has made this a wonderful journey, and we’d like to thank you for your hard work and your contributions. We truly believe in the concept of storytelling but don’t think there is a suitable business in it yet.

I’m also afraid Flickr will die, and wrote about that in What if Flickr fails? back in 2011. I believe Flickr is more durable now that it was then, and I like what they’ve been doing under new leadership there. But, with more than 50,000 photos up there now, on five different accounts (four are others to which I contribute), I’ve got a lot of exposure to the inevitable, which is that Flickr will die. As will everything, of course, but stuff on the Web has an especially low threshold of death.

In the early days it didn’t look that way. Making the Web was an exercise in long-term property development then, or so it seemed. There were sites we put up, built or constructed at locations in domains, so others could visit them, and search and browse through them, as if they were libraries. Which they were in a way, since we used publishing lingo to talk about what we put there: writing, authoring, editing, postingsyndicating and so on.

But that was what we might call the Static Web, a term I picked up from my son Allen in 2003, when he shared an amazing prophesy that has since proven correct: a new Live Web was starting to branch off the static one.

I’ve written about that a number of times since then. (Here, here and here, for example.) Back then, live was what we had with blogs, and RSS. You wrote something, posted it, and a Live Web search engine, such as Technorati or PubSub would have it indexed within a few minutes. (Amazing: Google Blog Search, which kinda killed the others, still exists.)

Today the Live Web is Twitter and Facebook.

Here are two important differences between the Live Web of 2003 and the Twitter/Facebook one today:

  1. Even if blogs were with services such as Radio Userland, Live Journal, Blogger or TypePad, they expressed, as Dave Winer puts it, the unedited voice of a person. With Twitter and Facebook, your voice echoes inside a big commercial castle.
  2. Blogs were journals. By that I mean they were self-archiving. Their URLs were always yourblog/year/month/day/permalink, or the equivalent. On Twitter and Facebook, they tend to sink away. Same with Tumblr, Pinterest and other services that employ the modern endless-scroll website style. The old stuff seems to sink down out of sight, with little sense that any one thing has its own location on the Web, or that the location belongs fully to the author.

That sinking-away thing is, almost literally, burial. Once it’s gone off the screen, it gets hard to find. Or it’s gone completely.

In its early days, tweeting was called “micro-blogging.” But it was really more like texting, or passing notes in class. While blogging was self-archived, with “permalinks,” every tweet — in spite of having a unique URL ‚ became hard to find, or gone, once it scrolled off the bottom of the screen. Many times I’ve tried searching for old tweets, on Twitter or Google, and found nothing. The best I could do was download an archive. (Or, excuse me, request an archive. I just did that. I’ve heard nothing so far.)

Sorry, but this is not the Web. This is something else: live performance. Kinda like radio.

Many years ago I started writing a book about radio, which had been an obsession of mine ever since I was a little kid. The title was to be Snow on the Water, a line from “Big Ted,” by The Incredible String Band:

Big Ted’s dead, he was a great old pig He’d eat most anything, never wore a wig Now he’s gone like snow on the water, good-bye-eeeedocdave

Radio’s goods decay at the speed of short-term memory. The best of it persists in long-term memory, but the rest is gone like snow on the water.

That, to me, is part of radio’s charm. At its best, it’s pure performance, something you have to be there for, in a mode they call “live.” Sure, you can record it, but then it’s not the same. It’s like canned fruit.

Performance is like that: a thing that happens in real time, in real place, between the performer(s) and the audience. Theater. Show biz. No second chances.

I was in radio for awhile, long ago. My nickname, Doc, is a fossil remnant of Doctor Dave, a humorous persona on WDBS in Durham, North Carolina. I also wrote for the station’s “alternative” paper, called The Guide. That graphic on the right is how I looked to readers. It was drawn by the late, great Ray Simone. I look like that in reality today, only with less hair.

Far as I know, the only remnants of Doctor Dave, on tape or in print, are buried in my garage in Santa Barbara. Some day, if I live long enough, and run out of more interesting things to, I’ll dig them up and put them online. Or maybe I’ll leave that up to other people who give more of a shit than I do. As of today, that’s nobody. After I’m dead as Ted, maybe some will show up. Who knows.

According to iTunes, I’ve also accumulated 1300 podcasts — time-shifted radio — that I also haven’t listened to. I do like podcasts, and some day will get around to doing my own on a regular basis instead of the one time I’ve done it, so far. (Find it at http://podcast.searls.com.) If I did it on radio first, it would be easier.

But what’s radio any more? Here’s what I said about it last November:

…now radio is streamed audio. That was already the case when webcasting showed up in the ’90s, and even more so with the rise of Last.fm, SiriusXM, Pandora, rdio, Spotify and every other audio service delivered over the Net.

All of these services can do what they do because they’ve cleared “performance rights” to play the music they play, and to pay the royalty rates required by copyright law. Never mind the rates for now. Instead, focus on the word performance. The Copyright Act of 1909 was the first to characterize a musical composition or recording as a performance. So, if you acquire a piece of music, you only acquire the right to perform it for yourself.

So what I’m saying is that the Web is becoming more of a live performance venue, and less of a digital library where published works are shared and stored in easily found ways.

Look at the advertising on websites today. None of it is constant in the least. Hit the refresh button and new ads will appear. Go away and come back and there will be new content, with new ads. This is nothing like the newspapers and magazines — the journals — of old. This is live performance, often just for you (at least on the advertising side).

In How Facebook Sold You Krill Oil, in today’s New York Times, we learn that you, the Facebook user, are in an “audience” for the advertising there. Enough of the performance works to make the spending worthwhile for the advertiser.

There’s an accounting of it somewhere, for business purposes. But nothing lasting, much less permanent, for the rest of us. It’s all just snow on the water.

Watching that advertising — and even most “content” — scroll to oblivion is hardly tragic.

But losing Fotopedia is tragic to this extreme: art matters. What you see and read today on Fotopedia are works of art. Some are better than others, but all qualify for the noun.

Fortunately, the Internet Archive has indexed Fotopedia. But navigating it isn’t the same. Some internal links go somewhere, but most don’t.

There are many regrets (and one persistent offer to help) in the comments under Fotopedia’s final blog post. Here’s hoping something can be done to save Fotopedia’s art the old Static Web way. And that, eight days from now, all that fine art won’t be gone like Big Ted.