Where have all the citations gone?

Bay Area Action and its later incarnation as Acterra. For a few years I wrote and/or edited weekly email newsletters and action alerts. I started doing this for the Headwaters Forest Project at BAA, then created a weekly EcoCalendar of events all around the Bay Area, and later founded Acterra’s first general email newsletter. During that span of about eight years, I also performed a lot of other communications functions, especially surrounding the Headwaters issue. For a few years my website and email list were the best sources for news on the controversies emanating from the North Coast, and I fielded inquiries from small and big sources alike, everyone from elementary school students to the big media outlets such as Time and CNN. I spoke at events (the Green Party’s state convention comes to mind) and universities (I presented to a Stanford law class once, which was a bit unnerving, but then I reminded myself they were just students), I did radio interviews, I fielded calls and emails and faxes from reporters all over the world, and my email list contained addresses from places as far-flung as Japan and Australia and people from the press, government, and even Hollywood. Copy this, please This all happened in a time when the migration of such information to the Internet was much, much less frequent, and a lot harder to do. Nevertheless, lots of people copied my emails and forwarded them along to others. Which is what we wanted. Unlike commercial material, for which one might have copy-protection concerns, we wanted this information spread far and wide. Granted, we didn’t want people to re-edit the information, so I simply attached a footer to my email template that stated that permission was thereby granted to forward the email in its entirety, for non-commercial purposes. And people did it. In droves. They forwarded it on to their friends and family, co-workers, whomever. Some maintained their own large lists of concerned citizens interested in environmental issues, and they sent my emails along to them. Others posted my newsletters and action alerts on their AOL and Geocities homepages, on university listservs, and lots of other places. Here are a few examples, still archived in various niches of the ‘net:

Later, as search engines became more adept at crawling and indexing the content of the web (this had all occurred before Google existed), I’d be doing Headwaters research on AltaVista or Yahoo! or Dmoz, and come I’d across some of my old emails and articles scattered across the web. Fading way In more recent years I’ve noticed that Google’s algorithm seems to be devaluing these old (nearly ancient in Internet time) posts, probably for fairly legitimate reasons (the HTML of those old web pages would not withstand semantic rigors of modern search technology), so they rarely show up in results, or if they do, they’re buried many, many, many results pages deep. It’s probably that a lot of those pages are simply gone now too, as people fold their old accounts or Geocities pages get closed down, or whatever. When I first started noticing this, I must admit that it was a little sad, as it seemed almost as if my contributions were disappearing from the universe. I know this is not strictly true, but in a world where we seem to rely increasingly on Google to provide us with what we want to know (I’m certainly guilty of this reliance), it’s disappointing that the content of those older articles is devalued in large part because the method used for archiving them did not use the modern HTML standards. It’s a little like devaluing the best encyclopedia in the (physical) library because its publishers have not yet made it available online. Perhaps the actual content contained in that encyclopedia is of better quality than anything published on the web, but most people would never know it because they’d never see it. I’m conflicted about this on many levels. Partly because I believe passionately that people should have access to the best quality information (so I want people to go the library, or wherever they need to go for that single best source), but I also want that high-quality information to be much more widely accessible than that. Let’s face it, the researcher in Prague seeking information on West Coast salmonids can’t easily get the 700-page document off the dusty shelf of the tiny library of the Northcoast Environmental Center in California, can he? But what if it’s the single best source, and it’s not available online at all? Technology will catch up I believe (nearly) all of these documents will be available online someday. It may be a decade or more away, but it will happen. And I will do my part. I have archived all my data from the Headwaters Forest years, and all my BAA articles and photos, and while they’re not really in any usable order right now, I am confident that technology will continue to advance in ways that make the data easier to sort and publish. It’s already been happening, with sites like Flickr making it easier to share photos, and tools like blogs and wikis making it easier to publish and collaborate. Not all my contributions have faded away Interestingly, search technology has more recently broadened to include the content of printed books too. Google Book Search began scanning the collections of several leading universities in 2004. While Google’s tool is still in beta and it comprises mostly academic works, I was mildly surprised to see my name turn up with a few results. I was cited in Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash, by Brian Tokar, and Writing for Real: A Handbook for Writers in Community Service , by Carolyn Ross, Joseph M. Williams, and Ardel Thomas. I’d forgotten that I was also thanked in Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society, by my friend Randy Schutt.] ]>

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One Comment

  1. Posted August 2, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    My limited understanding of search engines is that they recopy the web and search their archived copy. Seems like engines that have been around for a while could give the option of searching the web as it existed in 1999 say, rather than right now.

    That might be helpful when you’re looking for info from a long time ago and don’t want to see newer results

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