Web archiving - an antidote to 'present shock'?

The importance of archiving content from a medium (the Web) so focused upon the present. Part 1 of 2

One significant outcome of web archiving work is to establish a chronological dimension to the relentless now of the online world. Can our web archiving work be seen as an antidote to what Douglas Rushkoff characterises (vale Alvin Toffler) as ‘present shock’?  In this post (the first and more reflective part of an intended two) I wish ponder upon this issue through the focus of our collecting of political candidate sites.

To appreciate the significance of this web archiving outcome we should understand that the live web, like a living organism, always exists in the present. It may of course include content – and there is a great deal of such content – that was created and published online long ago; well long ago in digital terms at least, but it exists now and is published anew, like regenerating cells, every time it is accessed through your browser or device. Even while it is being accessed it may continue updating, regenerating and reconstituting. Moreover, since it exists in the present tense it remains in constant expectation of change or even ostensible oblivion with a facility and finality that hardly finds comparison in the world of physical artefacts. So the process of web archiving, sometimes with all the subtlety of a grappling hook, disrupts the life of the web by yanking a slice of that living organism and placing it in a sort of digital formaldehyde. The objective of the web archive is counter-intuitive to the ontology of the web: that is to say, the archive is (by definition) a static preservation artefact of that which was once (and may continue to be) a dynamic and live entity. As web archivists, we do our best to articulate these now aging bones – the aging process of the web site really starts in the archival context – by retaining what internal functionality that is technically feasible (such as links and audio-visual content). But our purpose and responsibility mean that it is anathema to tamper in a manner that compromises the provenance of the now created artefact.

The fundamental tension between the objective of the web archive and the function of the live web is clearly demonstrated by the archiving of political websites – something we do a lot of – though it is certainly not exclusive to them. Political websites have a purpose and are clearly designed to express and promote the perspective of the candidate, party, member, senator, supporter or interest group. The nature of such sites commonly changes during election campaigns. A party site often becomes a site centred upon a personality or a slogan, for example the Australian Labor Party's Kevin07 website and the earlier jeff.com.au website). After the campaign finishes the campaign sites disappear without fanfare and the normal business of the party site returns to disseminate and manage the political message. While the online digital world is well suited to the subtle or sudden transformation of that message, the action of web archiving, piecemeal and imperfect though it remains, provides the breadcrumb trail from the past to the present – the antidote to ‘present shock’ perhaps. For those seeking to control the message this will be an inconvenience, though surely the Internet has existed long enough now that no-one could seriously entertain the notion of entirely controlling the information that has appeared on the web. Controlling what is published in the now is one thing, and is possible; but once published at all the reality is that if it is of any relevance or significance it will leave some trace – whether that is in an archive (public or private) or in a reference or a comment or an analysis.

screenshot of jeff.com.au featuring a series of portrait photographs

The "high graphics version" of the jeff.com.au main page, as published in September 1999

acreenshot of the Kevin07 website featuring embedded video and several repititions of the logo

The front page of the Kevin07 election website, as published in August 2007

So, one function of web archiving in this context is to preserve an accurate record as ballast to this mutable and contentious world; and to do so with integrity and without partisanship.  This is not always a straightforward task since the complex and considerable task of web archiving is constantly subject to limiting factors including resources, technical constraints and legal prerequisites.  Moreover, the timeliness of capture – when and how often – is critical and one of the hardest things to achieve: we are dealing with a live entity and ‘ripeness is all’. But the purpose of the archive, that is to say its public interest, is to preserve something of the primary record, the words (and presentation) as originally published, so as to support transparent citation, debate and commentary.

In late 2013 Computer Weekly reported on the actions of the UK Conservative party to remove old speeches from its website including using the robots.txt protocol to block access to the Internet Archive’s copies. This created a considerable number of headlines and commentary and the actions to block access were reversed, even to the extent that the BBC news report was updated with advice from the Party itself that speeches could be found in the UK Web Archive.

There can be no dispute with the intention to refresh content and keep it current, since that is the great virtue and one of the vital signs of online publication, and this may be particularly apt in respect to political party websites given their intent and purpose. As I posited at the outset of this post, the ‘live’ quality of the Internet makes publication on the web an overwhelming matter of the here and now; however, this function of web publishing is surely enhanced (and even justified) by the context and transparency of the historical record provided by openly accessible web archives. As a society we need to understand and need to be able to reflect upon and analyse how we got to the here and now. The web is a relentless and ruthless medium, so it requires deliberate intervention to capture the artefacts that will become the preserved record. That is, in a nutshell, web archiving. Such intervention for preservation may not always be welcome, but on the balance is surely critical for our social memory and a future not diminished by delusion and the spin of ‘present shock’.

When collecting content for the Archive quite obviously we cannot always predict what interest it may acquire in the future. For example, when we collected the Tony Abbott MHR Federal Member for Warringah website as one of the 133 websites collected for the 2001 Federal Election campaign we judged there to be a future public interest in such material. We did not necessarily make the prediction that twelve years later Mr Abbott would be Prime Minister of Australia. So, content may remain relatively dormant in the Archive for a decade or more before real interest develops. Moreover, in the time between collecting that 2001 website and now much else has happened on the Internet including the rise of social media through which people may publicly explore and comment upon such historic content. These matters will be the subject of my follow-up post.

[Part 2 is now published: "To know, to utter, to argue ... and to archive and access"].

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