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.

 

New article: On digital contemporary history

A little article of mine has just appeared in the Danish historical journal Temp, based on a lecture given in Copenhagen to the Danish Assocation for Research in Contemporary History in January 2016.

It suggests that there has been a relative lack of digitally enabled historical research on the recent past, when compared to earlier periods of history. It explores why this might be the case, focussing in particular on both the obstacles and some missing drivers to mass digitisation of primary sources for the 20th century. It suggests that the situation is likely to change, and relatively soon, as a result of the increasing availability of sources that were born digital, and of Web archives in particular. The article ends with some reflections on several shifts in method and approach, which that changed situation is likely to entail.

By the kind permission of the editor, I make it available here.

Title:  Digital contemporary history: sources, tools, methods, issues
Details: Temp: Tidsskrift for historie, 14 (2017), 30-38.
Download the PDF

Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web

[UPDATE, July 2018:  I gave this paper at the ReSAW conference in 2017. The substance of it has now been incorporated in my article for Internet Histories, on ‘Technology, ethics and religious language: early Christian reactions to “cyberspace”.]

The full programme for the conference (in London, June 14th-16th) and booking details are now available.

Utopia, dystopia and Christian ethics in the history of the Web

It has been noted more than once that both the Internet and the Web have been the subject of overarching projections of cultural and social aspirations and fears, utopian and dystopian. The Internet has been feted as a great disruptor: a solvent of established privilege and the outlet for previously marginal opinions; a liberator of suppressed creative energy, in politics, commerce and the arts. It has equally well been denounced as the harbour of criminality, the accelerator of falsehood, the destroyer of traditional industries, communities, languages and cultures. But both positive and negative discourses of the Web have often been expressed in both implicit and explicit theological or (at the very least) ethical and philosophical terms.

Using a combination of the archived Web itself as it evolved over time, and offline commentary that accompanied, applauded, criticised and indeed preceded it, this paper examines the several analytical categories by means of which Christian commentators in Europe and North America have sought to understand the online experience: the nature and capabilities of the human person; apppropriate forms of human interaction and the nature of community; and the economic and social effects on industries, countries and individuals. It will show that these concerns went beyond simple Luddism or concern about particular kinds of content such as pornography. It will show the continuity of these debates with earlier theological and ethical writing about early computing, and how they changed over the history of the Web. Finally, it will explore the degree to which secular utopian and dystopian writing about the Web owed its conceptual vocabulary to these older religious traditions.

Religion, law and national identity in the archived Web: new article

I’m delighted to say that an article of mine has appeared this week in a new collection of essays, edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder: The Web as History (London: UCL Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781911307563).

My article is ‘Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ (pp. 190-203). It examines the controversy over a public lecture given by the archbishop on the interaction of civil and religious law, but from a new angle: the imprint the controversy left in the archive of the UK web. It makes particular use of British Library data documenting the link structure of the .uk country code top level domain for the period 1996-2010.

The whole thing is available as an Open Access PDF, but here’s my conclusion.

It is a brave historian who attempts to interpret the very recent past, as opposed to merely documenting it. As with most aspects of very recent history, the full significance of Rowan Williams’ lecture about sharia law will only become clear as the passage of time grants the historian a sufficiently long perspective from which to view it. An exhaustive qualitative examination of both the published record, and memoirs and private papers that are as yet inaccessible (not least the papers of the archbishop himself, not due to be released until 2038) will be needed to place the episode in its fullest context. Without these, we cannot yet know how changes in patterns of communication that are observable in the archived web were motivated, or how opinions expressed online related to broader patterns of social and intellectual change. However, even if it is difficult to explain changing patterns of religious discourse on the web, we may nonetheless document those changes.

First, the sharia law episode prompted a step-change in the levels of attention paid to the domain of the archbishop of Canterbury, as evidenced by the incidence of inbound links, and also a broadening of the types of hosts that contained those links. Second, a comparison of the inbound links to the Canterbury domain to that of the archbishop of York suggests that the historic privilege given to the views of Canterbury over those of York was extended onto the web. Regardless of their actual status in relation to each other within the Church of England, the media and the public at large seemed only to pay attention to Canterbury. Finally, a qualitative examination of the site of the British National Party shows that at least one organization, with a very particular concern with the place of Islam in British life, certainly took new account of the person of the archbishop as a result of the 2008 controversy.

This chapter has also sought to use the episode as a means of demonstrating both the potential for historians to utilize the archived web to address older questions in a new way, and some of the particular issues of method that web archives present. At one level, the methodological complications presented here – understanding the meaning of a link from one resource to another, say – are peculiar to the archived web and must be understood anew. As with all other born- digital sources, there is work to be done amongst historians in understanding these issues of method, and in acquiring the skills needed to handle data at scale. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s stock- in- trade to assess the provenance of a body of sources, its completeness and the contexts in which those sources were transmitted and received. The task at hand is in fact the application of older critical methods to a new kind of source: a challenge which historians have confronted and overcome before.

This chapter has also tried to show some of the potential available to historians, should they accept the challenge. In the study of public controversy, the archived web allows the detection of changing communication patterns at scale that would be impossible using a traditional qualitative method. It also enables the detection of attention being paid online in places where a scholar would not think to look. More generally, the chapter has attempted to outline an approach that combines quantitative readings of the links in web archives with qualitative examination of particular subsets of resources. When dealing with a new superabundance of historical sources, a combination of distant and close reading will be required to understand the archived web.

Evangelicals and sex on the Internet: a book review

Kelsy Burke
Christians Under Covers. Evangelicals and sexual pleasure on the Internet
Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016
978-0-520-28633-7

[This review first appeared at Reading Religion. What follows is a shortened version]

Evangelicals, we are led to believe, have a problem with sex. On both sides of the Atlantic, if the mainstream media knows anything about Christians and their views on sex, it is that Christians cannot agree, and particularly on the status of gay relationships and the nature of marriage. These debates are complex, but the stereotype of the Puritan, whose conservatism covers not only the contexts in which sexual intercourse is permissible but also which forms it may take, has tended to color all evangelical thinking on sex a single shade of grey.ch-under-covers

Kelsy Burke’s new study of evangelical sexuality websites tells a new, finely nuanced and wholly convincing story. Her raw material is close readings of a group of websites — message boards, blogs, and, yes, sex toy stores — supplemented by extensive survey and interview evidence. In them Burke uncovers a “new evangelical sexual logic”, in line with an older principle: that sex is to be between married, monogamous heterosexuals. Within those bounds, however, the Christians Burke observes find spaces online in which they are available to work out, individually and in dialogue with others, the most pleasurable and fulfilling ways to enjoy their relationship with their spouse. Here is there no Manichaean duality of body and spirit, no ascetic mortification of the flesh. Users present their own prayer, personal testimonies, and interpretations of scripture in an iterative form of “lived religion,” that fills in the empty spaces within the bounds of official interpretation on matters that are rarely broached face-to-face in local churches.

For scholars of the Web and of the Internet (Burke rarely distinguishes between the two), there are many suggestive and intriguing lines of enquiry here. Acting anonymously might, on the face of it, be expected to present difficulties to the Christian. Burke’s subjects short-circuit any unease by means of a stress on the omniscience of God. One might be acting anonymously, but God is one’s witness as to the integrity with which one conducts oneself. Evangelicals have often attempted to create safe spaces and alternatives to the cultural products of a corrupt world—Christian film, Christian holidays, Christian heavy metal. Here, we see Christians creating safer stores for sex aids, in which they may be purchased without the unacceptable messaging that would surround such a sale in a secular store. Also interesting are the ways in which authority is constructed. Evangelicalism has historically been amongst the least clerical among Christian traditions in its control of which voices are heard and which may be trusted. Here, even that relatively loose emphasis on external validation by an institution is unpicked; those who create and maintain these sites do so on the basis of their marriedness, their personal piety, and their sense that they are under the gaze of an omniscient God.

If there is one area in which I would have wished to see more, it is on the nature of the Web itself. One of the governing myths of the Web is that it is a boundless space of infinite possibility, free from control, in which users and site owners may create their own reality. But each website is in fact an amalgam of conscious and unconscious design choices made by site owners, embedded in the software applications they develop themselves or license from others. These choices are made both in anticipation of and in response to the needs of users, insofar as they are known. How a website looks, and the things it allows users to do and not to do, are part of this story, into which the author might have gone further. It would have made an already fascinating and suggestive study even richer.