This post represents Part I in a series of posts from my time at the 2017 Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) Conference (Part II detailing other highlights to come!). Below is a general outline of the main ideas of my paper – though the difference between the text and slides reflects the fact that my thinking has evolved somewhat since first presenting this at 4S. The usual nerves ensued as I tried to test out some new-ish/half-baked ideas that draw on both existing studies of STS maintenance theory and repair, but also calls from within the archival sector to recognise the work that goes into maintaining archives.
(Be)Labouring the Ephemeral Web
Recently, I’ve written a little bit about digital labour in relation to web archiving but here I want to underscore the point of labour for a couple of reasons. In the first instance, the aim is to debunk popular techno-determinist narratives which seem to champion the notion that if only we had the right technologies we could automate the preservation of the world’s digital knowledge. My argument here is that we first need to acknowledge the entangled labour and work of both human and nonhuman agents (algorithms, bots, code) in web archiving. In the context of a few case studies, I’m aiming to make some of this work more visible in order to be able to explore the role of the archived Web in the contemporary politics of information sharing and communication on the live Web.
Relatedly, I think it’s important to cast off the overly simplified narrative that the Web is ephemeral, therefore it must be archived – a narrative that I too fall victim to. When you’re writing a conference abstract, admittedly this storyline becomes quite useful if only to quickly denote the existence of web archiving to an audience previously unawares – but it’s too simplistic.
To be clear – the Web is ephemeral, there’s no denying that – but why and in what ways? The why is definitely tricky, and arguably the hardest to research empirically. But by looking at the complexity of practices that make and underpin web archiving I think we can get closer to understanding what makes the Web so ephemeral – beyond the fact that there is no inbuilt mechanism for revision and version control in the web architecture. Here we can also draw on material culture studies that distinguishes the inherent differences between technical obsolescence and cultural obsolescence – see for example, Tischleder and Wasserman’s (2015) Introduction in their edited volume on Cultures of Obsolescence. What types of ‘web decay’ or obsolescence motivates web archivists to archive, and how does this impact the nature of practice – for instance, the types of web resources/platforms chosen for archiving?
To get back to the topic at hand though – when examining web archiving as a form of maintenance, my thinking is broadly layered into two themes that I want to explore further:
Web archiving as a form of maintenance work for the archived Web.
In other words, the work it takes to repair and maintain web archives as dynamic resources for the historical Web. Here, I’m drawing on the research I conducted at the Internet Archive to document and understand how web archives are maintained. A lot of these types of tasks will be familiar to those who maintain institutional web archives, particularly the practices that encompass ‘quality assurance’ work – for example, patch crawling to repair broken/missing elements, bug fixing tools and development, and various support tasks geared towards troubleshooting whether or not elements are captured and replayed in archival form. I’m hoping to eventually get the chance to explore how (or indeed whether or not) maintenance work gets done and supported outside of institutional settings.
Web archiving as a form of repair for the Web.
Here, in an abstract sense I want to propose web archiving as a form of repair for the Web itself, where web archiving practices take on different meanings based on who is performing the tasks. In this sense I see web archiving as dynamic and performative, driven by different motivations, in response to and in anticipation of particular events and socio-technical ‘breakdowns’ on the Web. This could be anything from the shuttering of particular platforms wholesale, the deletion of tweets and other social media or the vast array of web-monitoring activities that are currently occurring.
Inspired by Jackson’s (2014) work, I’ve been trying to consider the ways in which the lens of repair reveals the ‘ethics of care’ afforded to both the Web and web archiving practices. Here I want to examine value and values in several senses. For example, the act of web archiving can be seen as placing value in both the activities/practices themselves and the resources that are being archived. Ongoing institutional and individual support for web archival activities can be seen as a vehicle for acknowledging the ‘value’ seen in web archiving by those engaged with it, over time. Other specific types of values are then embedded in the process of web archiving, and can be observed through examining maintenance/repair practices – e.g. priorities placed on ‘abundance’ in web archives, or the ‘fidelity’ and quality of archived websites. This can be expanded to consider other types of value, including for instance, economic value and the different ‘economies’ that have arisen around web archives and repair. For example, evidence points towards the use of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine as a (free) hosted web service for websites, as well as the proliferation of companies and contractors that offer services around restoring ‘lost’ sites and platforms using archived sites.
These are all pretty rough ideas currently, but as I’m headed to AoIR next week I’m excited to test them out on another audience. The abstract will be up soon, with more on maintenance and repair to follow!
Jackson, Steven J. 2014. ‘Rethinking Repair’. In Media Technologies: Essays on Communication, Materiality, and Society, edited by Tarleton Gillespie, Pablo J. Boczkowski, and Kirsten A. Foot, 221–39. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England: MIT Press.
Tischleder, Babette B., and Sarah Wasserman. 2015. ‘Thinking Out of Sync: A Theory of Obsolescence’. In Cultures of Obsolescence: History, Materiality and the Digital Age, edited by Babette B. Tischleder and Sarah Wasserman. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.