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Abandoned Web sites clutter life in cyberspace

The cutting edge is getting rustier every day.

The World Wide Web lures hordes of businesses and individuals staking a claim on the electronic frontier _ who often move on to greener pastures or parts unknown. That leaves cyberspace increasingly littered with digital debris _ Web sites neglected or altogether abandoned by their creators.

"People have enough enthusiasm to design the sites once _ but it's not clear that they have the resources to update them regularly," says Louis Monier, architect of the Digital Equipment Corp.'s AltaVista search engine. "You have better things to do."

That seems to be the case at The Web site offers what is billed as "a brief synopsis of current films," but its latest blurbs are on Spy Hard and Twister; it hasn't been updated since June 1996. "It was going to be a vehicle for ad sales, but we never got any," says James Sibley, former technical director of Uspan Inc., which created the site. "It will just sort of sit there until someone gets around to updating it or deleting it."

Chevrolet Online _ _ a site for New England dealerships, has been idling since 1995; its designer is folding her business, and responsibility for folding the site has slipped through the cracks. The Web site of Hair Club for Men _ _ went up in July 1995 and hasn't been groomed since; traffic to the site has receded to just a thousand "hits" a day from 30,000.

Users wandering into the Showgirls movie site of MGM/UA Inc. are invited to "have a chat with Nomi," the movie's heroine. "Leave your inhibitions at the door," the site advises. And leave any hope of chatting up Nomi at the door, too _ the movie closed in a flash in 1995. The Web site _ _ hasn't changed since.

Author William Gibson, who coined the word "cyberspace," first envisioned the futuristic notion of abandoned Web sites in his 1996 novel Idoru, which takes place about 40 years from now. His vision has arrived early: Nearly 5-million pages of a total 30-million on the Web indexed by AltaVista haven't been updated at all since early 1996, according to AltaVista. (Most Web sites have multiple pages.) Some 424,000 pages haven't been refreshed since early 1995 _ and 75,000 Web pages haven't been touched since before 1994.

Why don't Web-site creators simply take down what they are leaving behind? For one thing, keeping a site up in cyberspace doesn't break the bank: Once the site has been created, storing it on the hard disc of an Internet server can cost as little as 20 bucks a month. But letting a site, no matter how out of date, spin on in orbit also offers its creator a sliver of immortality _ 15 milliseconds of fame. All a site creator has to do is continue to pay a monthly fee, and someone, somewhere, will stumble across the creation, no matter how musty it is.

"It's a nice little relic," says Stewart Chisam, a technology manager at an Atlanta software company; his 1995 wedding Web site _ _ which lets guests respond to invitations and calculated the number of "yeses" still hums away. "It's not really bothering anyone."

One of the most glaring bits of digital flotsam is a Rolling Stones Web site. The craggy-faced rockers made Internet history when they broadcast a concert live over the global computer network. The site still lets users check the concert's rebroadcast schedule or head into the "Lounge" where they can "Hangout wit da Stones . . . (and) Jam wit da boyz."

Hello? That was three years ago.

"Everything on the Stones site is as old as sin," admits Stephan Fitch, president of Thinking Pictures Inc., one of the organizers of the digital gig. Though he still gets electronic-mail from people who errantly believe the Stones are about to rock 'n' roll _ and are planning parties around the spent event _ Fitch hasn't updated the site because the Stones haven't coughed up any cash, and he can't make a buck on it.

"This is just a big, hungry animal, and you're going to have to keep feeding it and you're not going to make any money," he says. Despite financial constraints, he still has plans to update the site.

Although businesses who neglect their Web site risk alienating customers, even big marketers let their sites pill and fray like an old sweater. In late February, catalog giant L.L. Bean's Web site _ _ was still wishing visitors "Happy Holidays." "That looked great from the end of October through January," says William Bluestein, analyst at Forrester Research Inc. Armani Exchange _ _ also plied the holiday line until a couple of weeks ago. The Web site of the trendy fashion designer was so dated that the "Upcoming Events" section listed parties that came and went last September. Updating the site is "definitely an area of improvement for us," says a spokeswoman, but "it's a lot of work."

Other sites never seem to finish getting built in the first place. Awaiting new technology, adequate funding or a sufficient audience, many sites are "Under Construction" _ a phrase that has become the Web's biggest excuse. Like scaffolding that mars a building facade for years, sites seem forever plastered with under-construction signs, much to the frustration of users. "They waste time and energy," gripes Richard Robertson, a 17-year-old in Berrein Springs, Mich. He was so frustrated with running into half-built Web sites with resource-hogging graphics that he started his own site _ People Against Under Construction Images. Hundreds of visitors to his site _ rickyr/noconst.html _ have sent him e-mail to commiserate.