Rogers (2017) provides a useful introduction of how to use screencasts of archived web content as a method when doing web history. He credits Jon Udell for coming up with the software as movie technique in his screencast of the editing history of the Wikipedia article Heavy Metal Umlaut. The contribution Rogers makes is applying this method to historical work with web archives, which he provides an example of in his Google and the politics of tabs screencast.

The article contains a description of the method itself, which is to use the [Wayback Machine] as a data source, Grab Them All for collecting screenshots, and [iMovie] for knitting the images together into a video which can then be narrated. Identifying what URLs to screencap is an important step to the process, and Rogers explains some of the features of the Wayback Machine to make this easier to understand.

Apart from the method itself Rogers thinks more generally about the historiography of web archives. Specifically he distinguishes between different types of histories that can be conducted with the archived web content:

In the following, narrations or particular goals for telling the history of a website are put forward. They offer means to study the history of the Web (as seen through a single website like Google Web Search), the history of the Web as media (such as how a newspaper has grappled with the new medium) as well as the history of a particular institution (such as the US White House or marriage, as seen through a leading wedding website). Arguably, the first is a form of Web and medium history, the second media history, and the third digital history, however much each also blends the approaches and blurs the distinctions.

Reading the rest of the article helps to understand these distinctions, but it took me several reads until I felt like I understood the differences here. It helped me to consider why the archived web content is being studied.

Is the archived content being studied to better understand:

  1. the website?
  2. the web as a medium?
  3. a real-world phenomena that leaves traces on, or is entangled with, the web?

As Rogers says, these things blur together quite a bit. It’s hard to imagine studying the web as a medium (2) without looking at specific examples of web content (1), or considering the social, cultural, political and economic factors that gave rise to it. But I still think these categories are a useful rubric or guidepost for characterizing how scholars work with archived web content, particularly when emphasis is placed more in one area than another. As Rogers says it’s also important to consider that the Wayback Machine itself is a historical artifact.

The article also pointed me to some work that has been done about the use of web archives as evidence in legal settings and authenticity (Andersen, 2013 ; Gazaryan, 2013 ; Russell & Kane, 2008) which I’d heard about before (Zittrain, Albert, & Lessig, 2014) but not actually seen referenced from a humanities perspective.

Also, Rogers points to Chun (2011) as a way of talking about different forms of digital ephemerality that historians encounter in web archives. Chun (2016) was already on my reading list for the coming months, but I may have to add this one too, particularly because of the software studies angle it seems to take.

References

Andersen, H. (2013). A website owner’s practice guide to the wayback machine. J. On Telecomm. & High Tech. L., 11, 251. Retrieved from http://www.jthtl.org/content/articles/V11I1/JTHTLv11i1_Andersen.PDF

Chun, W. H. K. (2011). Programmed visions: Software and memory. MIT Press.

Chun, W. H. K. (2016). Updating to remain the same: Habitual new media. MIT Press.

Gazaryan, K. (2013). Authenticity of archived websites: The need to lower the evidentiary hurdle is imminent. Rutgers Computer & Tech. L.J., 39, 216.

Rogers, R. (2017). Doing web history with the internet archive: Screencast documentaries. Internet Histories, 1–13.

Russell, E., & Kane, J. (2008). The missing link: Assessing the reliability of internet citations in history journals. Technology and Culture, 49(2), 420–429.

Zittrain, J., Albert, K., & Lessig, L. (2014). Perma: Scoping and addressing the problem of link and reference rot in legal citations. Legal Information Management, 14(02), 88–99.