Patterns of Use: Conceptualising the role of web archives in online discourse

Jessica Ogden, Ed Summers, Shawn Walker

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Abstractpeer-review

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Despite widespread collection activities, tool development and research using web archives, there have been limited attempts to conceptualise the emergent role that web archives are playing in the circulation of information and culture online. With some recent exceptions, attempts to characterise the use of web archives have been limited to reviews of the opportunities and challenges of researcher engagement (Maemura, 2018; Weber, 2018) and studies of academic ‘user needs and behaviours’ in web archives (Dooley et al., 2017; Venlet et al., 2018). Additional work has utilised access and search behaviour logs to model how users navigate and link to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine (IAWM) and the Portugese Web Archive (AlNoamany et al., 2013; Costa and Silva, 2012). Recent research has highlighted the role that web archives are playing in the propagation of mis-information during the COVID-19 pandemic (Acker and Chaiet, 2020), the dissemination of content on ‘alt-right’ platforms (Zannettou et al. 2018) and the circulation of ‘deep-fakes’ and terrorist propaganda hosted on the IAWM (Littman, 2017; Nelson, 2018). Despite these specific insights, however, the general form and extent of web archival use remains under-examined. This paper makes the case for further research on web archival use and asks: how are web archives being used, by whom, and what are the implications for the future of online public discourse in the digital age?

The paper begins the process of mapping the space between the stated objectives of web archives - as ‘repositories’ of the Web’s past - and their actual everyday use online, by first conceptualising the patterns and categories of web archival use through a conceptual framework. We focus on three categories: 1) attribution - or the ways that web archives provide mechanisms for users to evidence and attribute online resources to particular actors and points in time; 2) circumvention - how web archives act as alternative platforms that enable users to avoid social media content moderation by providing access to deleted or blocked content; and 3) monitoring - how WAs provide tools for observing online actors and change over time, and the potential role that preservation plays in mechanising different forms of surveillance. A range of examples are provided for each category, in an effort to study how web archives become embedded in particular social worlds, value systems and politics that structure the sociality of online behaviour, information exchange and online community formation.

Fundamentally, this paper re-situates and moves beyond an analysis of web archives as ‘repositories’ where the past Web is accessed and extracted, to one that critically examines how they become embedded within a variety of sociotechnical practices online. The conceptual framework helps to dissolve limited notions of intended use and ‘mis-use’ and considers the wider ethical implications of open access for future collection development strategies, as well as technology and policy interventions. Future work will test and extend this framework to produce a systematic study of who is using web archives, how and for what purpose to further understand how these underlying archival mechanisms may instigate transformational change in future.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 18 Jun 2021
Event4th RESAW (Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials) conference: Mainstream vs marginal content in Web history and Web archives - University of Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Duration: 17 Jun 202118 Jun 2021


Conference4th RESAW (Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials) conference
Abbreviated titleRESAW21
Internet address


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