Preserving the Dynamic, Pamela Smith

Preserving the Dynamic:
An assessment to remember reBlog

A new web form

The web log or "blog" is a specific form of web page that proliferates throughout the web, allowing users to publish electronic content second by second, day by day. The blog exists in a public space but there is a special first person immediacy and freedom in a blog post that feels more like a personal record made public. Blogs that enable comment threads can become a forum for open discussion and a community of multiple, uncensored voices. News organizations and individuals who want to constantly compile and refresh content are the most popular users of the form. The form has become so popular that the Associated Press reported that the most requested online definition in 2004 was "blog," a word that was not officially printed in the dictionary at the time.1 The National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education (NITLE) has indexed 2,869,632 likely web logs with a queue of 3,373,662 remaining.2 User-friendly software structures the newest posts at the top of the page, with the most recent entries refreshing at the top, accumulating a list of date and time-stamped entries. Some packages include tools that make it easy to format the text, create hyperlinks, add article summaries, images or audio, and enable comments. Most packages also have a way of archiving older entries. The web log is the new diary and the new information resource. It's the end of mass communication- micro communication disseminated on the web has a major impact.

The form accumulates a unique currency of historical documentation that must be preserved. Yet long-term preservation of web-based material is a formidable challenge with numerous problems, risks and special needs.3 Various organizations have developed strategies for preserving digital information, yet there is no comprehensive standard. Using Eyebeam's blog-based website as a case study, this assessment evaluates as a work born and living on the web that is active, interactive and growing. By documenting the history, behavior and content-both the underlying structure and the site as a whole-this assessment begins to address the site's special needs and determines the "best" guidelines to preserve such a work.

Eyebeam reBlog

Currently, two versions of the software-version 1.3 and version 2.0 (beta 2)-are publicly available as open source software that anyone can download and install and use for reading and republishing blog content. This assessment evaluates the reBlog site as it existed in December 2004, when this paper was first written, as it existed using the software version 1.1.4 ReBlog version 0.1 posted at the end of November 2003 after five days of development in Eyebeam's Research and Development Lab led by Jonah Peretti and Michael Frumin. The site was designed by Ann Poochareon and James Daher. The reBlog system is a hacked version of Movable Type 3.11, popular web log publishing software, with the combination of a plug-in and a modified content reader. Essentially, the reBlog program republishes packets of syndicate information from multiple websites. This makes it easier for users to browse blog content with the option to read more detail from the original source and/or republish posts. On Eyebeam's reBlog site, each month a new reBlogger curates content streaming from RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds so that the thematic focus of reBlog changes according to the taste of the reBlogger, with an emphasis on new technology, art and politics. The guest reBlogger can be an individual or group. ReBlogger(s) can edit the content and add comments with each post. The exchange of a program automatically filtering feeds with a human or humans selecting, reformatting and attributing the content adds a level of variability and interactivity to the work that cannot be contained easily. The work cannot be preserved easily. The site thrives on the exchange of a community.

Ann Poochareion, designer of the site and former guest curator, described the unique process and impact of reBlogging on her personal blog,, "There's also more incentive for you, as a human reblogger, to know that other people are also checking out your site and taking in your feed that you've filtered as more information for their brain. In the end, what you have is an information portal site, like so many that already exist on the Internet now, but imagine if you too take in the Associated Press feeds or Reuters feeds and start becoming one of the portal sites. Think about this for a bit in your shower or during your morning coffee. Think about how this *could* (and is) changing the way the public receives information about any news, any political situations, any personal journal, any op-eds and debates, any science study and discoveries, any photos from around the world, any video broadcasts..."5 The site serves as a portal for 184 feeds of varying amounts of information, in various forms, from various sources that can be subtracted and added, and a curator can post as much as he or she likes.6 Some reBloggers liken the filtering process to DJ-ing, "an art, somewhere between curating and editing."7 ReBloggers have reBlogged posts from other reblogs ("re-reBlogging"8) and vice versa, some bloggers have reblogged posts from reBlog.

Whenhandling an object that draws from a large network of data and depends on exchanges and links, the archivist must analyze the essential behavior of the work in relation to its creator(s), as well as look at the underlying software and hardware that facilitates this behavior. What is the "original" work? Where does provenance begin? What is the relationship between original content (blogged) versus mediated content (reblogged)? How many links are there? What are the limits of this work? What can be preserved within these boundaries?

Description of the component parts

The major features of a reBlog post are: the title (usually a link to the original source post or another referent relevant to the post), content summary (sometimes with additional links by subject), an image, an attribute to the original post (with link), an attribute to the original blog site (with link) and a note designating who reBlogged and when by date and time (with link to reBlog summary). The main page at includes a photo and caption of the "Current reBlogger" and lists the most recent reBlog posts first, accumulating toward the bottom of the page a list of recent entries by title. The main page's masthead on the left-hand side of the screen also consists of a running list of reBlog's feeds, an Archive function that organizes posts by month and year, and a search field driven by Google so that users can search the site's content.

The latest headlines, with hyperlinks and summaries, are fed into reBlog version 1.1 in the RSS- or Atom XML-format, to be read with a feed reader. RSS documents employ a set of tags to describe the major features of the text (such as title, author, link). The reBlog system consists of two main components: reFeed, a web-based RSS aggregator, derived from open source Feed on Feeds9, and a blog publishing platform based on Movable Type version 3.11. The system itself is publicly available as an open source software package. As a web-based aggregator, software installation is not required, and the interface is available on any computer with web access.10 ReFeed is a friendly interface that enables the user to view and add RSS feeds, keep track of streaming content, mark feeds as read or unread, with the added functionality to publish or not publish, and format the feed according to his or her specifications before it's published (including text, image and/or sound). Users can change the title, primary link or content embedded within the RSS feed, and add comments and subject tags. The post can also be previewed. These features for republishing and redesigning posts-the curatorial function-is what makes reFeed different from other feed readers. The repost along with the added attribution of the blog source (title, URL, feed of the original source and reBlogger) is output in standard RSS 1.0 format. ReFeed is distributed under general public license (GPL), making it free to all users.11

RSS feeds are written in a language based on XML (eXtensible Markup Language). The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) recommends XML as a standard for creating special-purpose markup languages; its primary purpose is to facilitate the sharing of structured text and information across the Internet. It is a popular language, and as it's platform-independent, it is relatively immune to changes in technology.12 RSS is a popular protocol, widely used by numerous news websites and blogs. It is such a common syndication format that it is supported by Movable Type's default templates.

The blog publishing software Movable Type by Six Apart, Ltd is written in Perl (Practical Extraction and Report Language), an open-source programming language that supports several advanced features and add-ons. Perl is often considered the archetypal scripting language and has been called the "glue that holds the web together," as it is one of the most popular CGI languages. Perl is also free software, available under a combination of the Artistic License and the General Public License. It is available for most operating systems but is particularly prevalent on Unix and Unix-like systems (such as Linux, FreeBSD, and Mac OS X), and is growing in popularity on Microsoft Windows systems.13 Six Apart encourages changes, but doesn't support plug-ins. Developer Frumin augmented the functionality of Moveable Type using an add-on to create reBlog's platform. Movable Type allows users to format and save blog entries, post them chronologically with the most recent first, and generates a specific page for each post with a unique URL that is searchable and saved separately as part of the Archive. Movable Type is not an open source since technically Six Apart owns it, but it's free to download, modify or create derivative copies for personal, non-commercial use. Licenses (and corresponding pricing schemes) are given according to educational, commercial or not-for-profit use. Movable Type is widespread, with broad platform support for various operating systems and web servers.14

The archive

Movable Type software offers default support for archiving by individual post, post category, or by date groups such as monthly or weekly. Movable Type software generates a specific page by individual post, with the date and title in the URL. The Eyebeam reBlog organizes posts by month and year. This is an invaluable feature for the archivist wanting to track and control individual pieces. With each page being searchable, one can look up by title or date for instance, and organize the pieces by subject or by provenance. Also, by handling the work on an item-level basis, beginning with the entries posted each day and gradually connecting the pieces and expanding the network, the archivist could begin to understand the production process. The Archive's contents are listed by month and title in the reBlog masthead along the left-hand side of the screen.

The Archive function saves most of the pieces of each individual static post, including title, content image and attribute, along with hyperlinks, assigning a URL that points to the post's physical place on the server. However, the Archive function technically does not preserve the main page, as it existed at the time, because the reBlog masthead changes each time the site is rebuilt. Thus the picture and attribute of the guest reBlogger may not match the person posted in the archive. Frumin recognizes this as a flaw in Movable Type that should be fixed. He says there is talk that the program will accommodate an author-based Archive that will index and locate developers within the original posts' URL but this has yet to be implemented on reBlog.

The Archive function does not adequately preserve reBlog in that it fails to include all blog content linked from the reBlog site. The reBlog points to other server directories for its content, resulting in broken links if server-side content, software or hardware disappears on the other server's end. Images are also linked on the server-side as well; this is a major weakness in the reBlog software not only because it becomes difficult to save posts as they existed, but there is vulnerability in the work even as the post exists now-bloggers can easily change the image once it is fed and posted on the site.15 This leads the Archivist to wonder what the boundaries of the reBlog site are and if they can be fixed. It is important to determine not only what is original and what is reBlogged, but also determine what is interactive and changeable.

Although in theory most blog software packages include an Archive function it serves as more of a means to organize or file content away and does not authoritatively save and preserve all active data comprising the reBlog site as a whole, including the text, links and images, and their references.

Risk assessment

ReBlog relies on multiple programming languages and the platform Movable Type. The languages reBlog incorporates-PHP, Perl and XML, and the RSS protocol-are considered versatile, open source components and widespread amongst users. Perhaps obsolescence is not such an immediate concern. Though also popular and compatible with most operating systems, the platform Movable Type, on the other hand, is open source with restrictions and Six Apart Ltd. technically owns and controls the software under license. Though it is written with an adaptable language, Perl, reBlog is at risk of Six Apart's power to stop Eyebeam from distributing its hacked version. One wonders if Six Apart has the power to control content already posted by its hacked software. Though a possible lawsuit may not affect archived content, it may become difficult to reformat content in the future without Movable Type updates. Also, if Movable Type were to go under, Eyebeam would lose its platform support.

Multiple versions of the reBlog software exist: 0.1, .9, 1.0 and 1.0.16 All versions are saved on Eyebeam's servers; all versions were made available online for downloading. As the software continues to change, pages created by the original program are vulnerable to incapability with pages created by future software. It is key to translate components of the software clearly between versions so that data is not changed or lost in the conversion. Also it is important to back-up the original files inside and outside the program-in all its incarnations-on multiple servers. (Frumin already uses versioning software to track and save the files for his programs on the Eyebeam server). ReFeed as a reader also risks becoming incompatible as new versions are developed. The archivist must anticipate how reformatting may affect the understandability and the usability of the work.2 In March 2004, Eyebeam changed reBlog's design with a new masthead containing the Eyebeam logo, current events and Journal posts stamped on the main page, and it replaced the old masthead on individual archived pages. This challenges the authenticity of original reBlogged posts and changes the history of the reBlog site.

Content is also vulnerable to developers outside of Eyebeam. The text is stored and controlled by Eyebeam via reFeed, but the links and linked content are stored by both Eyebeam and the original blog sites, and the images are stored solely by the original blog sites, completely out of Eyebeam's control. ReBlog relies on other sites to archive their content, which is risky considering current blog software is not up to archival standards in authenticating and saving content based on the original post (though it does reference the specific place from which it originated). Tracking images is especially problematic since RSS feeds do not carry the image itself but only its referent. Also, since the Archive does not automatically record the exchange between multiple servers at the time of original posts, links to original content are in danger of breaking. The site's fragility becomes evident when one plugs its URL into the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. The Internet Archive is a public organization that has been capturing and making accessible web sites dating back to 1996 using a form of migration strategy by storing individual pages on several servers (growing at a rate of 20 terabytes per month).17 The Archive's crawler captured the files from the reBlog site February 5, 2004, along with its Archived index pages from January, December and November. Although the text is complete, some of the links are broken and some of the images are missing (including the photograph of the "Current reBlogger," Jonah Peretti).18 This illustrates that the Internet Archive's preservation strategy and methodology is not enough to preserve reBlog. The work is not just a static composite of text and images but depends on server functionality.

The archivist must determine if the boundaries of the work are physical and/or conceptual- perhaps the limits of reBlog are not just the Eyebeam site but all the different ways one could use the reBlog system itself. The archivist must decide if she must preserve the content of the work, the data, or simply the "look and feel" or basic behaviors and actions of the work. The archivist must distinguish the parts that are essential and those that are contextual.

Possible preservation strategies

Jeff Rothenberg begins his 1999 report, Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technical Foundation for Digital Preservation, with the grim declaration, "There is yet no viable long-term strategy to ensure that digital information will be readable in the future."19 The challenges remain formidable. Works or documents born digital are vulnerable to loss via the decay and obsolescence of the file format as well as the physical storage media that holds the data, and become unreadable and inaccessible if the software or hardware needed to interpret the data become incompatible, lost or obsolete. Works that are dynamic, distributed and interactive must also retain their functionality.

As the reBlog site is expansive and interactive, linking files on Eyebeam's server with files on numerous recipient's servers, it is crucial for the archivist to determine the boundaries of the site and preserve the essential elements within these limits-including the individual files that compose the work as well as the software and operating system necessary to run the work. Since reBlog cites content of a fleeting nature, from news sources that are not necessarily preserved elsewhere (with the possible exception of feeds from such large media institutions like the BBC or the New York Times), the historic documentation of art and technology ephemera that reBloggers curate should be preserved by Eyebeam, including all content that links from reBlog. This includes the entry reBlogged on Eyebeam's site, the blogged entry, and the source that initially posted and started the chain of linked information (sometimes the blog and the original source is the same). It is essential to continually check and update links. Preserving such relationships requires a proactive approach and extensive documentation. One documentation strategy is Richard Rinehart's notation for media art that acts as a score or "set of instructions that trigger actions or events." This notation records not only the "location of files and objects, but also the explicit declaration of behaviors, interactions, choices, contingencies and variables."20

Rothenberg suggests accompanying as much "explanatory documentation" as possible, "including explanations of how to use the encapsulation itself, user documentation, version and configuration information for all software that is to be run under emulation...and the emulator specification itself." Key documentation for reBlog includes the reBlog and reFeed websites (including download instructions) and the software read me text files included in the download.

The migration approach-reformatting and refreshing-includes saving the index files linked and associated with reBlog (including individual text and image files) and transferring the files over time to a new software environment. There are several levels of migration. One could also transfer the file formats that are threatened by obsolescence to a current, open source format. The emulation approach involves migrating the software to a new environment that mimics the original computing environment. Rothenberg argues that the functionality, look and feel of the original document is more important to retain than the original medium, which is subject to rapid decay. Assuming migration to be a laborious and fruitless method, he suggests bundling files with their original software and run on a system emulator. Rothenberg emphasizes that emulation tests have only run software on known platforms so that longevity is still a question.

Locating or fixing the work within particular limits, and combining documentation with a migration or emulation strategy, the archivist could preserve both the content and concept of the work, maintaining the original integrity and functionality of the work, with an eye to the future. Already reBlog version 1.1, and previous versions. have been changed so it is important to begin to preserve existing versions. Since the reBlog software is available to download, multiple versions of the software are out there and should be collected. This is another preservation strategy to consider-redundancy. If Eyebeam's servers crashed, developers could track down a downloaded copy from someone, somewhere. It is essential to bring together documentation generated from the production process as well as actively document the experience of those involved in the project, including developers, guest reBlog curators, individuals who use reFeed to write and republish blogs, and those readers who read reBlog. It would also be useful to visit blog sites of guest reBloggers and record their thoughts on their reBlog experience.21 All participants in a survey of the reBlog experience could contribute to a set of formulas or instructions for the work, such as Rinehart suggests.

Although these strategies are gleaned from hypotheses, the crucial step is to create extensive documentation for both the physical, structural components of the work along with the possible connections, interactions and choices driving these components. Additional case studies and applying theory to practice are sorely needed in the field of digital preservation. Perhaps reBlog could serve further as a subject in tests of documentation, migration, emulation and redundancy, as system, site and interaction.

1 Tynan, Trudy. 2 December 2004. BizReport. 9 April 2005. See for a comprehensive definition and history of the web log.

2 The NITLE weblog census. 16 August 2006. The NITLE estimates 1,890,970 of this total are active.

3 Besser, Howard. "Digital Longevity" in Handbook for Digital Projects: A Management Tool for Preservation and Access. Ed. Maxine Sitts. National Document Conservation Center. 2000. 3 December 2004.

4 See for a chronology of upgrades. 1.2 was released less than two weeks after this assessment was completed. 1.3 was released May 2005. Version 2 (beta 2) is newly released.

5 Poochareion, Ann. "so, what the hell is a reblog?"1 December 2004. December 1, 2004.

6 This number has jumped since this article's first writing (December 2004) when there were 136 feeds.

7 Moody, Tom. "Last Day reBlogging - reBlogging Philosophy" 22 September 2004. 10 December 2004.

8 Shey, Tim. "on reBlogging" 4 October 2004. 10 December 2004.

9 Minutillo, Steve. "Welcome to Feed on Feeds." 10 December 2004.

10 Wikipedia. 13 December 2004. 13 December 2004.

11 General Public License 10 December 2004.

12 Wikipedia. 11 December 2004. 14 December 2004.

13 Wikipedia. 13 December 2004. 13 December 2004.

14 Features. 2001-2004. 9 April 2005.

15 See an example of a post that was later changed by hacker Andrew Baron 28 November 2004. 2 December 2004. Baron posted on his own blog the "very easy" steps he took to perform his conceptual switch in "Today I Hacked reBlog: The End of Era for Data Control." 29 November 2004 < 2 December 2004. Noting the difficulty of authenticating web content, Baron writes, "You can see how dynamic reBlog's archival content must be, as people drop, clean, and change their server data, often deleting their own past, directly effecting [sic] Eyebeam's past."

16 And now, versions 1.2, 1.3, and 2.0 (beta 1 and 2).

17 Internet Archive Frequently Asked Questions. 9 April 2005.

18 archived. 5 February 2004. 13 December 2004.

19 Rothenberg, Jeff. Avoiding Technological Quicksand: Finding a Viable Technical Foundation for Digital Preservation. Washington: Council on Library and Information Resources, 1999. 9 April 2005.

20 Rinehart, Richard. "A System of Formal Notation for Scoring Works of Digital and Variable Media Art." (PDF file) 13 December 2004.

21 Beth Rosenberg, former Director of Publications for Eyebeam, started a compilation of guest reBlogger comments.

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