Snow on the Water

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, 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 displaced the others, still exists. Technorati does too, technically; but it’s a different company and its old index is gone.)

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-eeee

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.


Ever had canned peaches? Like eating fossils of the real thing.

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, but 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 buffered an archive of 1300 podcasts — time-shifted radio — on my laptop. I’ll never listen to nearly all of them. But that’s okay, because the best podcasts are radio I can listen to on my own time, rather than some station’s.

Some day I’ll get around to doing my own Podcast on a regular basis instead of the few times I’ve done one, so far. (Find them at If I did it on a real radio station first, it would be easier. But I dunno.

Really, what the hell is 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, 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. This costs money. The cost of performance rights is so high for those streaming services that none of them makes money at it. And because clearing rights for podcasts needs to be done on a tune-by-tune basis, playing familiar music on podcasts is de facto outlawed, making podcasting is almost entirely a talk medium.

Something like that is true for radio as well. On the whole, the cost of talk radio programming is lower than the cost of music programming. As it happens, the talk radio with the most box office is the kind that speaks to well-formed prejudices and sensibilities. There’s more of that on the political and social right than on the left. That’s why most of what you’ll hear from SCAN on your AM radio is right-wing talk. What’s left is a mix of sports, religion (also with plenty of right-wing talk), ethnic stations and “paid programming” (essentially half-hour long infomercials). Since most stations are now owned by large chains (iHeart, Entercom, Cumulus, etc.) that play the same things everywhere, the very notion of a “station” is becoming obsolete. And, since music has moved to the back seat, at least on the AM band (where music sounds like shit anyway), Rush Limbaugh is more of a network than whatever media conglomerates own the stations he’s on.

There are many points to be made here, but the most important one is that the prevalence of right wing talk is far less due to prejudice by station owners than to the economics of radio in the presence of a sufficiently large group of people with the same set of conservative sensibilities. On the left there is public radio, which is synonymous with NPR, even though NPR is just the most familiar source of programming there. People on the right who listen to public radio almost certainly do so only because NPR is the only source of news on radio outside the few big cities that still have all-news stations. (Those cost a lot to maintain as well.)

Now back to the Web, which is also becoming more of a live performance venue and less of a digital library where published works are shared and stored in easily found ways.

For an example of that, 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.





11 responses to “Snow on the Water”

  1. Great post. The term “snow on the water,” describes how I have always felt about the ethereal nature of radio. Here in Southern California I have watched radio personalities with decades on the air not only disappear, but be forgotten about almost overnight when the random format change happens.


    1. Thanks, Brian.

      At least with radio we always knew that its evanescence was a charm. It is a live medium, with a pulse and a heart. The difference is that, when a personality gets fired, or a format changes, not even a corpse remains. The same is true of dead websites. Absence is absolute. Kind of like death for living things as well. Dead is not a state of existence, but of having once existed.

      The absolute nature of death in radio also accounts for the haste at which new owners or management clear out dead material, no matter how valuable. For example, I worked at WDNC in Durham, back in 1974, not long after they switched (briefly, it turned out) to a Top 40 format. I remember marveling that at least the old record library was still intact, with LPs and 78s dating back to the 1930s. Then one day it was gone: taken to the dumpster to open office space. It was a tragedy, but not unique or surprising. I also worked at the transmitter on weekends, and enjoyed looking through paperwork in file cabinets that went back to 1934, when the station began as a 50-watt thing on top of a building downtown, with measured coverage that didn’t even get out to the city limits. I’m sure all that stuff is gone now too. (Though the towers and transmitter building are still there.)

      You got me looking back through archival material, and I found a post from 2001 that I though worth re-posting to continue this thread. It’s here.

  2. Yes Doc!

    It’s a crazy time of ironic dichotomies! Or dichotomic ironies! Fotopedia joins the long train of platforms that asked us to upload our lives, only to say, Oh, hey, our plans have changed, we’re deleting your life.

    I definitely prefer MY website / blog to anything like Facebook. However, after having a string of troubles earlier this year (apparently do to a “premium” WordPress theme with a vulnerability, I’ve learned just how easy and quick it is to have a web host that you pay plenty of good money to, take down your content. And they’re not in ANY hurry to get your content back up.

    While Flickr or Tumblr or any platform could go down, I’ve come to believe that the sad and surprising reality is that your Tumblr is likely to be up long after your self-hosted WordPress site has been taken down for one reason or another.

    Your son was right about the static web. If you open a text editor and type out an html page, it could live a very long time. But we want dynamic sites and they’re all, I think, vulnerable. The use of PDF for things that could be live content on the open web drives me crazy. I’ve always felt that PDF is where data goes to die. Still, I have to reluctantly admit that a hideous PDF of my or anyone else’s content is more likely to load in 10 or 100 years than my current website is.

    1. Thanks, Vanessa. Another troubling feature of the Web, whether static or live, is that all of our domains are rented, not owned. I have little faith that my heirs, or anybody, will pay to keep the domain going after I croak, or will bother to keep the server up. I have more faith that Harvard will keep this blog going; but while there are assurances in that direction, there are no guarantees.

  3. […] | science | space | interesting | life | gaming | memetics  +   Snow on the Water: Differences in the Live Web of 2003 and the Twitter/Facebook one today Posted jQuery(document).ready(function(){get_wp_days_ago_v3(135493,'7776000','');}) 05:01 cet to […]

  4. […] my old blog (still running, amazingly, on an old server somewhere within Verisign) will some day be Snow on the Water, and conversation about radio has commenced below that post, I decided to re-post March 21, 2001. […]

  5. Joseph Ratliff Avatar
    Joseph Ratliff

    I have always thought about this in a little bit of a “radical” way (not really).

    We need to flip this on its head…

    1. Get our own servers (or cloud? I still don’t understand how that works).

    2. Be our own Fotopedia, Facebook, our own Twitter, each become our own “walled garden” etc…

    3. And flip the traditional way, create “links” to whatever else we want to see, whomever we want to see. Not hyperlinks, although those would be important again too … but a different kind of search engine (maybe our own search engine too) that “links” to what we each want to see.

    4. So, “browsing the web” returns.

    5. We connect using other media, methods, and formats … email becomes important again.

    But the bottom line is, we each become our own “media” but in a private sense, we don’t have to put our stuff on someone “else’s house” … we have complete control of it.

    If people want to see your “stream” (Twitter), photos, blog posts, etc… they need to use your RSS feeds for each of those items.

    Each of us becomes our own media center, all of it, under our roofs. Perhaps with some sort of technology that helps put us in a new type of directory that allows US complete control (donation supported).

    Our networks would be stronger, because there would be less noise, noise that we control ourselves.

    Something … we have to take back control from these walled gardens.

  6. Agreed, Joseph.

    This is what I was saying with First Person Technologies, and what IndieWebCamp, Aral Balkan and others are up to.

  7. Thanks Doc.

    I think you’re spot on. (but that has usually proven the case over the years)

    Do you have a “blogroll” (remember those?) of people who are following this line of thinking like you an Aral are?

  8. Great post, and your comment that — “Another troubling feature of the Web, whether static or live, is that all of our domains are rented, not owned.” — had me thinking of the push in some educational circles to help folks establish a “domain of one’s own.” I like that concept of everyone having their own web server space but unless you are into the cost/upkeep domain space, it seems like another thing to juggle. (never mind if my kids would keep my space up and running when I kick the bucket) Still, going into the digital with the eye that nothing may be permanent, and that even sites you think are stable today may not be stable tomorrow, is disorientating at times.

  9. Joseph, I had a blogroll, but decided it was too hard to keep up. It’s sad and instructive to look at the blogroll of my old blog. Most of the links go do dead ends or dormant pages.

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