Error 404: Visualizing The Internet's Digital Decay

In 2005, one of the most intriguing advertising stunts of the internet age was hatched.

As Visual Capitalist's Nick Routley explains, Alex Tew launched the The Million Dollar Homepage, where anyone could “own a piece of internet history” by purchasing pixels-plots (minimum of 10×10) on a massive digital canvas. At the price of just one dollar per pixel, everyone from individual internet users to well-known companies like Yahoo! raced to claim a space on the giant digital canvas.

Today, The Million Dollar Homepage lives on as a perfect record of that wacky time in internet history – or so it seems. However, the reality is that many of the hyperlinks on the canvas are now redirects that send incoming users to other sites, while over 20% of them are simply dead.

Here are the links that still work on the Million Dollar Homepage today:

The revealing graphic above, via John Bowers, raises the question – how do hyperlinks disappear, and what implications does this “digital decay” have?


The internet is stitched together by an incalculable number of hyperlinks, but much like cells in an organism, the sources and destinations have a finite lifespan. Essentially, links can and do die.

Most “link rot” is the result of website restructuring, or entities going out of business and pulling their website offline.

A high-impact example of this is when Yahoo! pulled the plug on GeoCities, one of the first popular web hosting services. In one fell swoop, roughly 7 million websites (containing a plethora of animated gifs, auto-playing midi files, and traffic counters) went dark forever.

Links can also die because of more deliberate reasons, as well. In 2015, the editor-in-chief of Buzzfeed, Ben Smith, came under fire for deleting thousands of posts from the site (including content that was critical of Buzzfeed advertisers). Journalism has traditionally acted as a public record, so this type of “decay” has serious implications on the credibility of media brands.


This idea of a public record is at the heart of why digital decay is an issue worth addressing. Once millions of links simply burn out, what will people in the future know about society in the early-ish days of the internet? What record will remain of people’s thoughts and feelings in that era?

I worry that the twenty-first century will become an informational black hole.

– Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer

Perhaps more urgent are public records that live in the digital realm. Supreme Court decisions and academia lean heavily on citations to build their arguments. What happens when those citations simply vanish? A Harvard study found that 49% of the hyperlinks in Supreme Court decisions are now broken.

Even that ubiquitous resource, Wikipedia, has serious issues caused by digital decay. Over 130,000 entries link to dead pages – a troubling development, as linked citations are what lend entries their credibility.


A handful of people are taking steps to archive the internet.

The most well-known solution is Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which has archived hundreds of billions webpages over the past 20 years. Even the The Library of Congress – which is well known for archiving digital information such as tweets – contracts Internet Archive to do its web crawling.

The academia-focused Perma is another example of a company looking to create permanent records of the web sources (particularly citations).

Many of the weird and wonderful forums and hand-coded homepages of early internet lore may be gone, but we’re finally taking steps to combat digital decay. As awareness grows, avoiding an “informational black hole” may be possible.


toady Fester Sun, 08/13/2017 - 00:46 Permalink

Yeah....  zh had another internet article about a week ago and I was right back in the mid-90's playing doom2 on my 486 with a 9600 modem... had my own little web page with links to the library of Congress and... shit, I can't remember all those old government databases we could link to.... cern?Oh well.... the internet is just an advertising platform now. Madison avenue won

In reply to by Fester

PT toady Sun, 08/13/2017 - 07:17 Permalink

What is net growth?  i.e. number of pages produced per day subtract number of pages lost per day.  Can't just keep producing more and more crap forever.  Text vs pictures vs video?  Even more memory being swallowed up by cat videos and circular commentary on cat videos.  More reason for stuff to disappear.Page growth ( measured in bytes ) vs Moore's Law (if Moore's Law is still in action)?  This is your natural boundary.

In reply to by toady

stinkypinky Twee Surgeon Sat, 08/12/2017 - 23:15 Permalink

This is a smokescreen. The real reason to want to archive the whole internet is to have a control mechanism that lasts as far into the future as possible, retaining peoples' social media posts forever so you can accurately find your enemies when you have a powerful enough computer in 20 years. The truly important stuff gets saved even without the need for people to put lots of effort into it.This is about the right to be anonymous, the right to be forgotten, the right to not be singled out for abuse by a totalitarian regime.

In reply to by Twee Surgeon

kellys_eye Sat, 08/12/2017 - 22:36 Permalink

How many NEW links are created daily? - and who's to know if those new links incorporate direction to the so-called 'dead' linked pages which themselves may just simply have been relocated?

moorewasthebestbond (not verified) Sat, 08/12/2017 - 22:37 Permalink

How about Fight Club's decay with all the inane doom porn that started popping up about 2 years ago?

OverTheHedge moorewasthebestbond (not verified) Sun, 08/13/2017 - 08:09 Permalink

I seem to remember doom porn from more than two years ago. It's just that it was all financial doom, back in the day. After the complete failure of any repercussions to develope , we all must have got bored, and so physical doom took its place. Zerohedge IS the home of doom, in all its many facets.Wouldn't have it any way.

In reply to by moorewasthebestbond (not verified)

In Ze No moorewasthebestbond (not verified) Sun, 08/13/2017 - 16:27 Permalink

You must've missed all the Kuntsler, the vagina wall professor, Nouriel Roubini, Nassim Taleb, Dmitri Orlov, and who's that other guy w the blog where you'd think he was gonna blow an artery with his daily rages.....yeah, all their articles at the pre mortgage meltdown ZH.Yeah, I've been reading since the beginning.  Just back then I sat back, shut my mouth, and voraciously took notes.....and drank heavily.The doom was thick with bank holiday talk, economic collapse prepping, talk of paycheck to paycheck types starving and stealing from their neighbors.....

In reply to by moorewasthebestbond (not verified)

Crypto Kevin (not verified) Sat, 08/12/2017 - 22:41 Permalink

I don't see what the problem is. The vast majority of link go to websites selling boner pills, porn, and get rich quick scams. Good riddance.

TuPhat Sat, 08/12/2017 - 22:43 Permalink

A white out such as in a snow storm can be just as information blinding as a black hole.  Information from the past is largely already in a black hole and we are constantly assaulted by too much information with no way to check its veracity.  I think the white out is more imminent.

uhland62 Rebelrebel7 (not verified) Sun, 08/13/2017 - 00:27 Permalink

Yes, the supporting documentation on CDs for the book 'Gold Warriors' ( has vanished. Tom Curley's 2009 speech in Kansas, criticing the P---gon for threatening the Associated Press - 404 everywhere. Can't have truth out there; they didn't quite think about that when the internet developed. 

In reply to by Rebelrebel7 (not verified)

JuliaS TGDavis Sun, 08/13/2017 - 01:14 Permalink

That's why Bernanke has a book, Hank Paulson has a book, Hillary has many books and pretty much any crook in existence still publishes papebacks and makes documentaries (ex: Al Gore). They know that scandals are like fashion. They come and go. Meanwhile their doctored paper-trail will remain forever and ever, to be quoted and requoted by new generation of crooks just like them.Anything worthwhile is not in a book. Anything worthwhile is common knowledge.Mark Twain's quote comes to mind about being either uninformed or misinformed.

In reply to by TGDavis

NoWayJose Sat, 08/12/2017 - 23:06 Permalink

Anyone 'browsing' or using search engines or social media on the Internet is crazy. Only partially worthwhile sites are places you go to regularly just to access that site (like ZH). You might also hit news or weather or local papers. But most of the rest is trash or click bait sites.

any_mouse Sat, 08/12/2017 - 23:28 Permalink

Holy cow, there are dead web links on the Internet! Society is decaying! Oh noes!

References to earlier hard copy books in hard copy books may not be available anymore.

wide angle tree Sun, 08/13/2017 - 04:16 Permalink

The quality of the internet has went way down. It is virtually impossible to find the quality content. The search engines have been monetized to the point of being worthless.

pods LA_Goldbug Sun, 08/13/2017 - 10:14 Permalink

That is really bugs the shit outta me. I was looking for information last night about whether a store bought bucktail can dry out. I used google and posted it in question form. Holy shit did I hit on the wrong keyword. It was all commerce related links. I had to rework my query like 3 times to avoid hitting the google trigger to be bombed with ads to buy something. I liked the Internet better when it was information based. Now I am pestered by pop-ups even here while trying to write this. Im being mobbed by digital bums trying for a buck!(I know adblock, but BB10 does not have one for their browser so I am visible to all the digital bums lurking around here)pods

In reply to by LA_Goldbug

hola dos cola Sun, 08/13/2017 - 05:56 Permalink

Look to the past and one can imagine the future.Like much of the past has gone lost, much of the future remains beyond the imagination. The problem here isn't different than with 'oral tradition' for instance. Different peoples in different times came up with different solutions. Pyramids, Eastern Island, the Bible, Art & Literature... all messages in bottles to the future (That's us and those coming after us)In my opinion, the problem described in the article (I see two problems actually, but that's beyond the scope here) would be best solved not by storing and keeping it alive but do like we as people have always done and probably always will do: Send it travelling in its current form.To be brief (Believe me, I could write a book about it aka probably clog up the server here ;-):Stream the Internet simutaneously to multiple locations in Space that contain objects that bounce the stream back to the sender, us or those coming after us.The different distances to and the number of the objects selected will determine the intervals at which the Internet today will come back to us in the future.Space is Time, one said. Then use Space to cheat Time, as we always attempted. P.S. The King's adversary was expelled, sent travelling. Because if he would stay his time would surely end.  

Unholy Dalliance Sun, 08/13/2017 - 06:58 Permalink

I worry that the twenty-first century will become an informational black hole.
– Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer

Books! Books is the answer! Books written on paper with printing ink which lasts for centuries! Spread the word! Books are the internets salvation! Write books! Print books! Sell books! Buy books! Books are the anwser!

adr Sun, 08/13/2017 - 08:49 Permalink

The Internet is failing as more and more users and content are consolidated to a few sites. Like cable TV, much of the internet is being placed under the same umbrella and your ability to access it could very soon be controlled by one or two companies. Look at the travel industry space. What used to be hundreds of individual companies is now hundreds of sites owned by Priceline or Expedia. What used to be the wild west has turned inro Facebook, Amazon, and Netflix. Just a handful of websites use up the majority of the bandwidth. Eventually the internet as we know it will go the way of the shopping mall. The millennials barely even know there is something on the web outside Facebook. Remember the talk of how Facebook and Amazon were to become portals and contain and control the web?