Digital archaeology in the web of links: reconstructing a late-90s web sphere
By Dr. Peter Webster, Independent Scholar, Historian and Consultant
The historian of the late 1990s has a problem. The vast bulk of content from the period is no longer on the live web; there are few, if any, indications of what has been lost – no inventory of the 1990s web against which to check. Of the content that was captured by the Internet Archive (more or less the only archive of the Anglophone web of the period), only a superficial layer is exposed to full-text search, and the bulk may only be retrieved by a search for the URL. We do not know what was never archived, and in the archive it is difficult to find what we might want, since there is no means of knowing the URL of a lost resource. Sometimes we need, then, to understand the archived web using only the technical data about itself that it can be made to disclose.
Niels Brügger has defined a web sphere as ‘web material … related to a topic, a theme, an event or a geographic area’. My paper at the EWA conference presents a method of reconstructing a web sphere, much of which is lost from the live web and exists only in the Internet Archive: the web estate of the many conservative Christian campaign groups in the UK in the 1990s and early 2000s.
This method of web sphere reconstruction is based not on page content but on the relationships between sites, i.e., the web of hyperlinks. The method is iterative, and tracks back and forth between big data and small. Individual archived pages and directories, printed sources, the scholarly record itself, and even traces of previous unsuccessful attempts at web archiving come into play, as does a large dataset held by the British Library. From the more than 2 billion lines in the UK Host Link Graph dataset it is possible to extract the outlines of this particular web sphere.
You can watch Peter Webster’s presentation on his website peterwebster.me.
Previous studies using a similar method are:
Webster, Peter. 2019. Lessons from cross-border religion in the Northern Irish web sphere: understanding the limitations of the ccTLD as a proxy for the national web. In The Historical Web and Digital Humanities: the Case of National Web domains, eds Niels Brügger & Ditte Laursen, 110-23. London: Routledge. http://dx.doi.org/10.17613/yms5-9v95
Webster, Peter. 2017. Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008. In: The Web as History, eds Niels Brügger & Ralph Schroeder, 190-203. London: UCL Press. (Available Open Access at: https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/84010)