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.

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.]

New article: Users, technologies, organisations – towards a cultural history of Web archiving

This article is now published, in Web 25. Histories from 25 Years of the World Wide Web, edited by Niels Brügger. It is published by Peter Lang, in hardback, paperback and ebook formats. A postprint version is available to download here.

From the Introduction:

If 2015 marked the elapse of 25 years since the birth of the web, 2016 marked the 20th anniversary of web archiving: of systematic attempts to preserve web content and make it accessible to scholars and the public. As such, the time is ripe to make an initial assessment of the history of the movement, and the patterns into which it has already fallen. This chapter represents the first attempt to document the subject at length. It concentrates on what might be termed the cultural history of the movement. It does not address the question of how web archiving has been carried out, but why, by whom, and on whose behalf.

Historians have for long known that, in order to interpret archival materials properly, it is first necessary to understand how that archive came into being. Why is a particular object to be found, and not another? What does the archive seek to document, and whose interests does it serve? The last very few years has seen a very welcome growth in interest in the archived web among scholars. However, that interest is not yet accompanied by the necessary familiarity with how the archived web came into being, and to be thus familiar is arguably even more important in this context than for traditional paper-based archives. Older distinctions with which historians are familiar — between published document, ‘grey literature’ and institutional records — have become blurred, as have those between personal and institutional publication. As a result, it has become less clear where the responsibility for preserving which types of content lies among the established institutions in the library and archives field. In addition, the archived web resource is unlike the live version from which it was derived in subtle and complex ways that do not apply to print publications or to manuscripts. If this chapter serves to orient users as to some of the questions they should be asking of their sources, and of the institutions that provide them, it will have achieved its aim.

It falls into the following sections: The Internet Archive / National libraries / The corporate record / Research-driven archiving / Activist archiving / Users and the future

Reflections on Web Archiving Week 2017

Once in a while, the unplanned turns out to be as good if not better than the planned. It had not been the intention that the annual Web Archiving Conference of the IIPC should be combined with the second conference of ReSAW (the Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials). However, they came together in London last week, with intriguing results.

One of the great pleasures of the event is the diversity of both speakers and delegates: the institutions represented by the IIPC were there in strength, but also present were the largest assemblage of researchers I have yet seen. These include not only people from computer science and related fields – a group that has been engaged in this space for a while – but also an enlarged contingent of scholars of media and communications and several of the humanities disciplines. At the Archives Unleashed datathon on Monday and Tuesday there was a particularly creative meeting of scholars, technologists and archivists – the crucial nexus of relationships for making successful tools and services. The whole week was marked (for me) by a refreshing openness to the perspectives of others, a frankness about difference, and a collegiality without hierarchy which (if it can be sustained) bodes very well for the future.

If I compare this discussions last week with those in this community perhaps three or four years ago, a number of differences stand out. As I’ve tried to show in my short history of Web archiving, direct engagement between archiving institutions and researchers came relatively late in that twenty year history, and even four years ago there was still a sense that researcher engagement was still only very exploratory. We now seem to have reached the stage where substantial attention is being paid to understanding the needs of users as a preliminary step to developing new tools and services (of which there were also many exciting examples). Here I’m bound to mention the research study that I (as Webster Research and Consulting) carried out for the Parliamentary Archives, which Chris Fryer and I presented, but I also have in mind papers on citation practice (Nyvang et al), the research data management issues involved (Zierau and Jurik), and what users need to know about the materials they use (ie. what to do about descriptive metadata), a theme taken up variously by Bingham, Dooley et al, Maemura et al. The variety of different use cases both discussed in the abstract and demonstrated in concrete reminded me of how varied the user base for web archives is (or could be) and how much we need as fine-grained an understanding of those different users as possible. As Ben Steinberg of Harvard noted ‘How we [ie. the providers of services] think archives should or could be used may not be as pertinent as we imagine…’

Another theme for researchers that surfaced several times at the first ReSAW conference in Aarhus two years ago was the need to understand the offline as context for the online. In Aarhus the particular point was about the need for oral history and for analysis of print and manuscript sources to understand how web materials make it online to begin with, and the theme was taken up last week by Federico Nanni and (in passing) by Gareth Millward and Richard Deswarte. There were also reminders here that a full history of the Web will need to take account of the history of computing more generally (Baker and Geiringer), the interaction between the Web proper and other content delivered online, notably social media (Castex, Schafer et al, Day Thomson), as well as the wider social and intellectual context in which the Web is embedded (Schroeder, and my own paper on the religious language of the Web) .

What of the future? Delegates who followed the same tracks as me may have come away with a sense of the diversity of analytic approaches to the study of the Web, and impressed with the depth at which scholars are now seeking to understand the methodological challenges they face. The aim, however, must be to build on this reflection to a point at which the Web archive becomes simply one type of scholarly source amongst many in the production of substantive scholarly insight on history, sociology or literature as Gareth Millward noted. I look forward to the day when I can go to mainstream historical conferences and hear contemporary history written using the archived Web.

There is also, I think, a challenge to the community at large in navigating a path through the diversity of new technical development and analytical need on display here, to decide which elements best serve users in particular situations, and so should brought forward and made part of ‘business as usual’ operations. Some will be incorporated by web archives themselves, others maintained by communities of interested scholars, others probably commercialised. The IIPC has a part to play here, while remembering that a significant part of this new thinking is taking place outside the membership. At least one person on Twitter thought a combined conference like this was worth repeating, and it would certainly be a way of developing the listening process between archives, users and developers that is required.

Finally: I celebrated the diversity of the conference when viewed in terms of professional background, but in another sense there is still much to do in terms of geography. I counted some 17 or 18 nationalities represented here, a joyous thing in a fragmenting world, but nonetheless overwhelmingly from Europe and north America. The archiving and study of the Web, a global medium, still remains dominated by certain countries.

My thanks are due to all those involved in organising such an excellent event: Jane Winters as host at the School of Advanced Study (University of London), and Olga Holownia of the IIPC and my former colleagues at the British Library which also contributed most significantly. It was my pleasure to be a part of both the IIPC and the ReSAW programme committee, and to hear such a fine set of papers.