Some time ago (2014) I wrote a short post on some work I was doing on the link patterns in the archived UK web surrounding the web estates of British creationist organisations. That post has since attracted a certain amount of attention, including a citation or two. I have not yet pursued formal publication of that work, but I did give a short paper at a conference in 2015 which provides fuller documentation of the case. With all the necessary caveats about its status as a preprint, without having been through formal peer review, I make it available here: Reading British creationism in the web archive (ReSAW conference, June 2015, Aarhus, Denmark)
[UPDATED: 21 June 2018. This book is now in production and should appear before the end of 2018.]
I’m delighted to announce that I have a chapter accepted (subject to peer review) in a forthcoming book of essays on national web domains, The Historical Web and Digital Humanities: the Case of National Web domains. It is edited by Niels Brügger & Ditte Laursen and will be published by Routledge.
Here’s the abstract.
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 web archiving community has known for a long while that the country-code top level domain (.uk, .ie) only ever represents a subset (although a very substantial one) of a national web sphere. Every national sphere (when defined as content published within a national jurisdiction) includes very substantial amounts of content that resides within the various geographically non-specific domains, such as .com or .org. However, the current state of knowledge is such that little is known with any certainty about the content that ‘lives’ outside the ccTLD, and what factors determine the choices made by webmasters as to the domain registrations they choose.
The situation is particularly complicated in the island of Ireland, since two political units (the UK and the Republic of Ireland) and two ccTLDs (.uk and .ie) share (as it were) a land border. This chapter takes the case of the Christian churches in Ireland (north and south) as a case study in the mapping (or lack of it) between the nation and the ccTLD. The churches in Ireland are organised on an all-Ireland basis: a reflection of their origins that pre-date the partition of Ireland into north and south.
The chapter makes two distinct but related points. It investigates the degree to which the differing historic attitudes of Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Northern Ireland to national identity are reflected in patterns of domain registration. Based on data for 2015 and 2016, it shows that Roman Catholic congregations were more likely to register domains outside the .uk ccTLD. However, there was no corresponding prioritisation of registration within .uk for the several Protestant denominations. If organisations which might be expected to register their web estate within a particular national domain do not in fact do so, it suggests that the ‘gravitational pull’ of the ccTLD is weak. Focussing on the Baptist churches in particular, the chapter also shows that the network of links between the individual Baptist church congregations on both sides of the border between 1996 and 2010 was both tightly focussed around the churches in Northern Ireland, and also highly localised within one part of the province, whilst at the same time being spread across four TLDs. While offline patterns of numeric strength and geographic concentration are reflected online, in this case at least, they map only very loosely to the ccTLD. As such, it would seem that the ccTLD on its own is a weak proxy for the national web.
I’m delighted to be able to say that I shall be a Visiting Research Fellow at the Moore Institute of the National University of Ireland at Galway in 2015. Here are some details of what I plan to get up to.
The task of understanding what constitutes the nation in the web archive is only in its infancy. Web archivists in national libraries have long known that top-level domains such as .uk or .ie do not encompass all the content that should be considered British or Irish for the purposes of analysis. But even the task of understanding the shape of those top-level domains has only just begun. My project begins that process for the Irish web.
One of the live questions about the nature of the national web is the degree to which it interacts with other national domains. This is of particular interest in the Irish context, since many institutions on the island of Ireland interact in cyberspace in ways that do not respect the physical and political border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
This pilot study will begin to examine this interaction by the triangulation of analyses of data available from the Internet Archive and from the British Library. In particular, the data from the British Library lists all of the outbound links in the .uk webspace for the period 1996-2010 (see this earlier post). Such a dataset does not exist for the Irish webspace, but by analysing the composition of links from .uk sites to those in the .ie domain, it will be possible to read the growth and composition of the Irish webspace in its reflection in the UK. It will also shed valuable and hitherto unseen light on one aspect of the relation between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
The initial outputs will be a series of small case studies, documented on this blog. Over time, these will be synthesised into an appropriate article or articles. I also plan to make subsets of the data available for reuse by other scholars.
The Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities project has shown an appetite amongst humanities and social sciences scholars to understand the content of web archives, and also to understand the methodological implications of working with what amounts to a new class of primary source. I intend to use the period of the Visiting Fellowship to engage with scholars across the humanities and social sciences at NUI Galway and in other Irish universities, with a view to sowing the seeds of a community of scholars interested in exploring the archive of the Irish webspace.
[UPDATE, April 2018. Since this post was published it has attracted a couple of citations in the formal academic literature. Although this research is as yet unpublished, there is available now a conference paper from 2015 which documents the case more fully: Reading British creationism in the web archive (ReSAW conference, Aarhus, 2015)]
In recent years, anti-evolutionist thinking has attracted some attention in the news, mostly because of the role of some Christian free schools in teaching anti-evolutionist ideas alongside or in place of evolution. Anti-evolutionist ideas are however by no means new, and have been a durable minority view in some of the churches, picking up speed from the 1960s onwards. (Although the term ‘creationism’ is colloquially used to cover all the particular variants of this thinking, I use the more general term ‘anti-evolutionist’ here.)
It is not always easy to gauge the strength of the movement, but the archived UK web allows a new angle of view on the question. In theory, the web allows minority views to flourish in proportion with their intrinsic attractiveness and plausibility, no longer constrained by the high barriers to entry to traditional publishing. And in the absence of publicly available web usage statistics for the main sites, it is possible to analyse the structure of links to these sites as a proxy measure of attention (both positive and negative.)
Using the Host Link Graph dataset, available from the British Library, I extracted all the unique hosts that had been found linking to any one of four prominent anti-evolutionist sites at any point between 1996 and 2010. Then, using both the live web and of the Internet Archive’s interface at http://archive.org, I examined each host in order to categorise it, which I was able to do for 91% of the results. One immediate point to note is precisely how many “false” results there are. A large proportion of the hosts (34%) are categorised as Other, most of which were links associated with search engine and other directory-type sites, rather than from any host representing an autonomous actor in the field. Excluding these as well, the analysis of the remainder is shown below:
Of the remainder, 39% are the sites of individual congregations. A full analysis of these sites (39 in total) is yet to be done, but the majority are independent evangelical churches, with a handful of Baptist churches. They include very few indeed from Anglican, Roman Catholic or Methodist congregations. Given that at the time of writing the Evangelical Alliance has a membership of 3,500 individual congregations, the magnitude of these numbers suggests that anti-evolutionism is a minority view even amongst evangelical churches.
As might be expected, a significant proportion (17%) are other anti-evolutionist sites; a later post will explore the nature of this particular network. Interestingly, few inbound links are from secularist organisations, other than the British Centre for Science Education which exists to document (and counter) creationist ideas. Once data is available for the period after 2010, it may be that this interest grows as the schools controversy mounts. There are also very few links in from the mainstream media, which might also be expected to grow after 2010.
A complaint often heard from anti-evolutionists is that the scientific “establishment” does not engage with the critique of evolution which is being offered. That claim would seem to be confirmed here, as both the proportion and absolute number of inbound links from academic domains are also very small.
In sum, this data would suggest that between 1996 and 2010, British creationism was talking largely to itself, and was mostly ignored by academia, the media and most of the churches.
You can download the data, which is in the public domain, from here . Be sure to have plenty of hard disk space as, when unzipped, the data is more than 120GB. The data looks like this:
2010 | churchtimes.co.uk | archbishopofcanterbury.org | 20
which tells you that in 2010, the Internet Archive captured 20 individual resources (usually, although not always, “pages”) in the Church Times site that linked to the archbishop of Canterbury’s site.
(i) that a host “abc.co.uk” held the same content as “www.abc.co.uk”.
(ii) that the Internet Archive were no more likely to miss hosts that linked to these sites than ones that did not – ie., if there are gaps in what the Internet Archive found, there is no reason to suppose that they systematically skew this particular analysis.
(iii) that my sample of four target sites was reasonably representative of the movement as a whole. It is therefore possible that the profile of inbound links is very different for another hosts of the same type.
(iv) the analysis does not include cases where a site moved from one host to another during the time period. The host URLs used are those in current use, and so if another host linked to a previous host and that link was not subsequently updated, then that linkage will not be recorded in this data.
(iv) that the inconsistency in deduplication at the British Library noted here does not affect this analysis.