Where is the national Web, exactly? A case study

[A summary of my chapter in The Historical Web and Digital Humanities. The case of national web domains, edited by Niels Brügger and Ditte Laursen.
It is due to be published by Routledge in April. The full title is ‘Understanding the limitations of the ccTLD as a proxy for the national web: lessons from cross-border religion in the Northern Irish web sphere’]

The writing of modern history has often depended on a stable idea of the state; on the idea that persons have some form of citizenship, a legal identification with a political unit. Even if they may hold more than one, each citizenship may stand on its own without legal ambiguity. Another fundamental assumption is that geographical space (at least on land) can usually be clearly divided into units under unified and monopolistic systems of law and government. To elaborate an insight of Max Weber, in order for a state successfully to enforce a monopoly on the use of violence, it must first know where its boundaries are.

Scholars have also been interested in the interactions between states and their peoples across borders, but still (by and large) supposing a fixity in those states at any one point in time. Studies of migration presuppose a point of origin and a point of arrival. Printed publications may circulate freely, but their publication is still governed by a national legal framework; something similar may be said of television and other broadcast media.

The advent of the web presents historians with a new and somewhat perplexing question: where is it? What does it mean to think of the web in spatial and quasi-geographic terms? How may we write national histories of the web? Where did a particular website ‘live’? Of where was it a resident or citizen, so to speak?

In most cases, the task of defining a national web domain has begun with one or more country code top-level domains (ccTLD) even if it has not ended with them. Here I examine the nature of the .uk ccTLD as a proxy for the UK web by means of a case study of the web estate of the Christian churches in Northern Ireland.

The society of Northern Ireland is marked by an interlinking of religious and national identity, which may be unique in Europe if not in the world. The chapter uses publicly available data, and including that provided by the British Library, to reconstruct the link relationships between churches in Northern Ireland, examining the regional, national, and cross-border relationships that they imply.

Due to its very particular religious and political history, Northern Irish society has been characterised by an exceptional sensitivity to symbols, to history, and to place. How far has that sensitivity to space and symbol been transferred online? Amongst the churches, Catholic and Protestant, in a province where the symbols of national identity have such prominence, does the location of a website within or outside the .uk domain carry any symbolic weight? Might those churches most associated with unionism be more likely to register in the UK ccTLD than Roman Catholic churches?

Based on the patterns of domain registration for the churches of Northern Ireland in 2015 and 2016, it would seem that Roman Catholic congregations were likely to register domains outside the UK, a finding broadly in line with the initial hypothesis. However, the converse – in relation to the Protestant churches – is not borne out; no particular prioritisation of registration within the UK ccTLD is evident in the data. Both conclusions point to important areas of future research on the nature of national webs, and the limitations of the ccTLD as a proxy for them. If organisations that might be expected to want their web estate to reside within a particular national domain do not in fact register their domains there, it suggests that the ‘gravitational pull’ of the ccTLD is weaker than might be supposed.

The second half of the chapter takes the case of one of the Protestant denominations in Ireland in order to investigate the mapping (or lack of it) between the nation and the ccTLD. It recreates the networks of links between individual Baptist churches on both sides of the border, and asks: are these link networks influenced by the fact of the ccTLD, or are there more geographic and cultural factors in play that determine their shape? It is based on an analysis of the .uk link graph for the period 1996-2010.

I conclude that although less than half of the Baptist web in Northern Ireland is registered in the UK ccTLD, the links between churches show in fact a very tight geographic concentration on the domains of churches in the eastern counties of Antrim, Down and (to a lesser extent) Armagh. Detailed local studies are needed to establish why this might be the case, although some lines of enquiry might be advanced. Is this a representation of a wider divide between rural and urban churches, or a reflection of the greater resources or perceived influence of churches in certain areas, particularly Belfast? Or is the prominence of certain individual churches merely the product of their particular local circumstances and understanding of their role? For whatever reason, the link graph shows little sign of sentiment regarding the common identity of all the Baptist churches in Northern Ireland.

These churches are linked together in a single organisation, the Association of Baptist Churches in Ireland: what evidence is there of link networks in the archived web that might reflect a sense of an all-Ireland identity? Approximately a quarter of Irish Baptist congregations are located in the Republic. What of the links from churches in the north to those in the south? The link graph connects only four Northern Irish congregations to twelve in the Republic, a very small proportion. Little all-Irish sentiment is to be detected in the northern Irish Baptist web.

Why might that be? Is the weakness of link connections between north and south characteristic of all churches in Northern Ireland, or only the Protestant churches, or is it unique to the Baptists? Is the network particularly weak in the Baptist case because of the relative weakness of its national organisational structure? These questions could in part be answered by the application of the approach used here to the web estate of the other churches.

More generally, a history of the web is required that also asks what it is that causes the human actors in control of websites to link to others. A substantial project of oral history interviews and fine-grained examination of individual websites is needed to understand the communicative strategies organisations adopt and their evolution over time. That said, I show what may be observed at a distance with a new kind of data. Macro-level analysis of the web such as this offers an additional tool for historians and other scholars to deploy alongside their existing methods.

The chapter has also pointed out a particular challenge that historians and analysts of national webs face. In the Baptist case, a network of links that is very tightly geographically concentrated is at the same time spread across four different TLDs. Studies of particular web spheres such as this are so far very few. However, if the kind of pattern I have outlined is at all typical of other web spheres, it suggests that for web archivists and scholars alike the ccTLD is a weak proxy indeed for the national web.

In addition, it brings into sharp relief one of the structural disadvantages of the division of world web archiving activities into national programmes. Though many web archives collect national material beyond their ccTLD, no organisation has any statutory responsibility to archive the non-geographic domains such as .com and .org as a whole. Unless and until it becomes possible to access web archives on a transnational basis, scholars will continue to work with fragmentary and non-commensurable data from several archives to reconstruct the national web.

Conservative Christianity and religious politics in the UK link graph

[The abstract for a paper now accepted for the Resaw conference in Amsterdam in June of this year, The Web That Was]

Scholars of conservative Protestant Christianity have known for many years of various correlations between conservatism in doctrine and particular stances on a number of key political issues. Most visible in the USA, these correlations have involved issues of personal morality that are connected with the law, such as abortion or the rights of gay and lesbian people.

Less often scrutinised has been the engagement of conservative Protestants with issues of biblical interpretation that have political and cultural consequences: climate change, creationism and the interpretation of biblical prophecy in relation to current politics (including the state of Israel) and the end of the world (Sweetnam, 2019). Scholars of right-wing politics in general have also often noted a further correlation between some varieties of conservative Christianity and a generalised sympathy for the politics of the right. In the UK, scholars have examined in particular Christian attitudes to the European Union and to concerns about the place of Islam in public life (Smith and Woodhead, 2018; Atherstone, 2019)

However, although each of these correlations has been observed singly, rather less is known about the degree to which the same individuals or groups have engaged with several or all of these issues as a package. It is also the case that rather less attention has been paid to the distinctive configuration of these concerns in nations other than the USA.

This paper examines the online interrelations between evangelical churches in the UK and the constellation of other organisations online, religious and not, that concern themselves with issues of prophetic interpretation, the eschatological significance of Israel, climate change denial, euroscepticism, and the supposed threat of Islam to the nature of ‘Christian Britain’. It examines the extent to which individual churches engage with these various issues singly, as opposed to jointly. It also investigates the extent to which some issues are more prominent than others in British evangelicalism, by an analysis of the relative weight of links to some organisations in comparison to others.

It does so by means of two publicly available link graph datasets. The first is provided by the British Library and is derived from the holdings of the .uk ccTLD in the Internet Archive for the period 1996-2013; the second is the worldwide link graph derived from a Common Crawl corpus from 2012 by scholars at the University of Mannheim.

Since this latter dataset has (to the best of my knowledge) so far not been utilised at all by scholars of the humanities, I also reflect on the methodological challenges it presents, and the difficulties of commensuration between data derived under different conditions by different organisations.

The method used is a development of that used in previous studies, notably Webster (2017) and so far unpublished work on creationism in the UK.

References
A. Atherstone (2019), ‘Evangelicals and Islam’ in Atherstone and Jones (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism (Abingdon: Routledge).
G. Smith and L. Woodhead (2018), ‘Religion and Brexit: populism and the Church of England’, Religion, State and Society, 46:3, 206-223.
M. Sweetnam (2019), ‘Evangelicals and the end of the world’ in Atherstone and Jones (eds), The Routledge Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism (Abingdon: Routledge).
P. Webster (2017), ‘Religious discourse in the archived Web: Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ in Brugger and Schroeder (eds), The Web as History (London:UCL Press).

Existing Web archives: an orientation

Web archives are fast becoming the fundamental source with which the history of the Web is written. Scholars coming to them for the first time are in need of some orientation, however, since those archives are brought into being by many different organisations for varying purposes and by different means. Their scope and structure also vary widely, as do the means of first locating and then using them.

My chapter in the new Sage Handbook of Web History aims to provide just that orientation.

It begins with a brief historical sketch of the development of Web archiving over the last 20 years, which I discussed at greater length here. It then moves on to outline the different means by which these archives are created, and what implications those differences have for how they must be interpreted. It outlines the varied kinds of collections in existence, and the different questions of method that this variety raises for scholars. Finally, it details the means by which scholars may first locate archived Web content, and (once located) how it may be used.

Along the way, it raises several points of necessary critical engagement for Web historians regarding the archived Web as a new class of primary source. Some of these issues have their analogues in print, manuscript or other sources; a scholar needs to understand who produced an object, whether it be a book, a manuscript, a painting or a PDF. But some of the issues presented here are peculiar to the archived Web, and must be thought through afresh.

The technologies that are used to create archived Web resources fundamentally shape those resources, and so understanding those technologies is a prerequisite to understanding the archive. Crucial also is an understanding of how the archive is structured: along national lines, by the institution or sector that created the content, by format or by a more general subject.

Finally, users must also understand something of the means by which they discover, search within, view and analyse archived objects, since those means are both relatively new and in a state of flux and development. That thinking will be greatly enabled by close collaboration between scholars and archivists: a partnership of mutual benefit which shows welcome early signs of growth.att

[See also, in the same volume, ‘Religion in Web history‘, my essaying of an agenda for the religious history of the Web.]

Religion in Web history

My chapter in the new Sage Handbook of Web History is now published. I summarise it here.

The literature on the phenomenon of religion in computer-mediated contexts is now very large, having built up over two decades. That literature is also produced both in, and in the spaces between, more than one discipline: Internet Studies, which concerns itself with the nature of the medium); the sociology of religion; and from scholars of religious studies concerned in particular with the relationship between religion and the media in general. The disciplinary labels vary between countries, but however it is named, little of this writing concerns itself directly with the kind of questions that most preoccupy historians.

This essay surveys the current state of Web history as it relates to religion, and falls into two halves.

Its first half attends to some debates of particular historical and methodological note with which the emerging history of religions on the Web may fruitfully be brought into conversation. These include debates concerning both the Web itself as a technological system, and religious responses to technological change in general.

It then sets out some points of contact between Web history and three key themes in contemporary religious history: secularisation; religious radicalism; and the place of religion in civic life and the law. It also argues for a fresh integration of the Web, and the archived Web in particular, with the study of offline religion, in pursuit of an ideal state in which the archived Web is merely one of many kinds of primary sources with which historians work.

The second half then takes a fourfold schema of different aspects of religions as they may be studied. The first of these is doctrine and religious knowledge: the symbols and forms of words that describe the divine, the world, the human person and their interrelations. Second are religious organisations and their representatives (clerical or lay). Third is religious practice: communal and solitary activities of prayer, worship and other rituals. Finally, the section on religions and the Other deals with the modes in which religious people and organisations encounter those outside: as potential proselytes, as discussion partners about wider social issues, and as antagonists. In each case, I identify the current state of research and set out elements of an agenda for future Web history research.

[See also, in the same volume, my introduction to existing Web archives.]

The contemporary religious history of the Web: themes, prospects and pitfalls

A paper I gave on 9 October to the Digital History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

Abstract: The emerging discipline of Web history is at a point of inflection. Over nearly ten years, a small but worldwide community of scholars has been grappling with the methodological questions raised by the Web, and the archived Web in particular, as scholarly sources. (Some of this exploration has been aired in this seminar in previous years.) At the same time, the continuously moving frontier that marks the further extent of the interest of contemporary historians has now reached the 1990s, the period during which the Web begins to take its place as a truly revolutionary medium of communication. This paper sets out to connect the preoccupations of contemporary religious history with the developing area of Web history, and to suggest an agenda for the near future of the contemporary religious history of the Web.

My slides are available at