Looking for jeff.com.au

Looking for jeff.com.au
Not everything that appears on the web leaves a trace
24 August 2012

One of the most frustrating questions a web archive curator may confront is that which asks “what websites have you not archived?” It is frustrating for a number of reasons, not the least because it is a question that is, for the most part, impossible to answer because, without some other trace of evidence, we don’t know what may have existed but no longer does. Apologies for the grammatical contortions, but I hope you see what I mean. The ephemeral and dynamic nature of the web together with its scale mean that not everything that appears on the web leaves a trace, or if it does it is very difficult (or at least requires some work) to identify it and ascertain its value or relevance from the scraps of evidence. The question is frustrating on another account because it reminds the web curator of what might have been: those efforts trying to collect specific content that were frustrated or constrained by reasons such as the technical limitations of harvesting, timeliness of capture or the inability to secure the necessary permissions. Even if the web archiving endeavour fails to collect the targeted content, the operational and curatorial processes (as recorded in workflow systems for example) may at least provide the evidence of the lacuna and the reason why. Small comfort maybe, but at least it records if not rewards the effort of the web archive curators and adds to the archaeology of the web as artefact. So, when I am asked that dreaded question one example that always springs first to my mind is the webstite jeff.com.au. This was the website that former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett set up for the 1999 Victorian state election campaign. The then State Director of the Liberal Party Peter Poggioli on ABC radio described the website at the time it was launched in August 1999 as “the symbol of politics in the information age. The basis of the most advanced political campaign ever seen in Australia and possibly the world”. The site certainly drew attention since you could email Jeff, subscribe to Jeff’s newsletter and view Jeff’s diary – and most popularly, play Jeff’s Grand Prix game (according to the 1999 ABC radio report). In Australian political campaign history it was certainly an important and historic website being the first of the political party campaign websites to focus on the personality of the leader. This strategy was very effectively taken up later by Peter Beattie in Queensland in 2001 – who remembers the ‘Heading in the Right Direction’ campaign jingle? – and again in 2004 with Labor’s Team Beattie campaign. Then of course there was the famously successful campaign of Kevin Rudd federally with his Kevin07 website. Indeed the 1999 Victorian state election was probably the first election campaign in Australia in which the web played a significant role, though earlier elections including the 1996 federal election campaign certain had a web presence.

RealJeff.com website from 1999 Victorian State Election campaign

The www.RealJeff.com website from the 1999 Victorian state election, archived on 24 September 1999

One reaction to the jeff.com.au website was the creation of sites responding to the web campaign both satirically and seriously. Given that the jeff.com.au site was never archived this is all the more useful since we were able to collect some of the reaction sites for PANDORA. Such sites give an idea of the look of the original jeff.com.au since they ape the design. The realjeff.com site has a fractured image on the splash page parodying the original site. Another site, the ‘official unofficial’ www.jeff.coma site also parodies the original site including the ‘state of the art’ high bandwidth and low bandwidth options on the original (although in this case leading to exactly the same page!). The jeff.com.au site was built by Sausage Software’s specialist interactive division as described in a Sausage media release from August 1999 archived at the Internet Archive.

The official unofficial jeff.coma web site from 1999

The 'Official Unofficial' www.jeff.coma website from the 1999 Victorian state election, archived 16 December 1999

Perhaps the most interesting of all the reactions to the jeff.com.au site was that by former Kennett staffer Stephen Mayne (who went on to establish Crikey in early 2000) with his “Independent Candidate Against Corruption” website (later to be called jeffed.com!). From a version of his website archived on 27 September 1999 Mayne asserts that jeff.com.au was “shut down for political reasons” – meaning it would seem that Kennett lost the election. But the 'campaign war on the web' was most tellingly represented in Mayne’s use of the web to circulate his 18,500 word ‘treatise’ aimed at exposing the “nexus in Victoria between business, politics and the media”.

Jeffed.com website from 1999 Victorian state election

The Jeffed.com website of Stephen Mayne for the 1999 Victorian state election

Election campaign websites, particularly party websites promoting the person of the leader, invariably and without ceremony revert (or redirect) to the standard party political website soon after the election date. The 1999 Victorian state election was held on 18 September and Labor’s Steve Bracks was sworn in as Premier on 20 October. On the evidence of Mayne’s ‘Treatise’ archived on 27th September 1999 jeff.com.au had already disappeared by that date, being active therefore for no more than one month. The Internet Archive’s earliest extant crawl of the site, dated 13 October 1999, alas provides only a redirect to the liberal.org.au website and does not reveal a copy of jeff.com.au. The domain remained a proxy for the website of the Victorian Division of the Liberal Party for a couple more years. In 2005 it became the domain of a different ‘Jeff’. So, sometimes web archiving can be frustrating when we cannot collect sites that even at the time seem self-evidently socially, culturally or politically important. The absence of legal deposit in regard to electronic materials imposes a requirement to obtain permission to collect web content for the express purpose of long term preservation and access. The problem of negotiating permission is all the more acute when the window of opportunity to collect a site is narrow as in the case of ephemeral election material, and so the site was not able to be collected for the PANDORA Archive; nor, did the Internet Archive, although actively harvesting web content in 1999, manage to pass by and collect it during the critical window of opportunity. Nevertheless, by collecting what we could, including websites that were a reaction to jeff.com.au (as well as retaining something of the back story in our workflow systems) we have managed to collect information that will give researchers something to work with. Finally, can we see what jeff.com.au really looked like? Well there may be a picture in a newspaper (I haven’t checked); but the State Library of Victoria does hold a poster advertising the website, though unfortunately this is not digitised at this time. Oh, and if anyone has a copy of the site lying around on an old computer or disk -- please drop the National Library a line!