Today’s social media landscape is broad and deep. Across the globe, people are involved in discussing, uploading, downloading, networking, linking, blogging, streaming, gaming, podcasting, bookmarking, learning, and sharing. Rhizome, an international art organization, has released Webrecorder, an innovative tool that is intended to help save parts of the internet and give anyone future access to and use of it.
Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology and Qatar Computing Research Institute recently studied the impact of social media on the development of movements such as the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter. They found that “social media has been instrumental in driving and supporting sociopolitical movements throughout the world.” It has opened an entirely new area of scholarly study across the globe. For information professionals, the problems of identifying, accessing, and preserving this enormous and growing corpus of information are deeper than ever imagined. The temporary nature of internet information—and the involvement of the private sector in asserting ownership and access privileges—makes the careful consideration and preservation of key resources a difficult task. The New York Times Magazine sums this up perfectly: “If we archive it, the Internet will one day be an incredible source for future historians. It might even change what history is.”
Opening Web Archiving to the World
In botany, rhizomes are continuously growing underground plant stems that put out lateral shoots and roots—making weed removal difficult. Philosophers have also used the concept of rhizomes to mean “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” According to this model of society, “culture spreads like the surface of a body of water, spreading towards available spaces or trickling downwards towards new spaces through fissures and gaps, eroding what is in its way. The surface can be interrupted and moved, but these disturbances leave no trace, as the water is charged with pressure and potential to always seek its equilibrium, and thereby establish smooth space.”
Trying to fit the development of today’s social media into established patterns of social theory that have evolved over centuries is challenging, as is the issue of accessing, archiving, and maintaining content that is far more ephemeral than the types of media maintained and used for research in the past.
Artist Mark Tribe started Rhizome to create a community among online artists. It “has played an integral role in the history, definition, and growth of contemporary art engaged with technology and the internet. Today, Rhizome commissions, exhibits, preserves, and creates critical discussion around digital art,” according to its About page. In January 2016, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Rhizome a $600,000 grant—the largest it had ever received—to develop Webrecorder as a digital archiving platform for “interfaces, photos, video, and other ‘rich’ content, making it ideal for storing online and social media-based artworks.”
Webrecorder was developed by Ilya Kreymer, who previously worked on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine and oldweb.today (a system to combine web archives with emulated, or virtual, browsers, which allows users to view old websites using a selection of old and/or new browsers).
Rhizome’s work with Kreymer began in 2015, but the Mellon Foundation funding allowed the organization to hire him and move Webrecorder from conception to completion. The project complements Rhizome’s other major digital preservation research, emulation as a service (EaaS), which it jointly developed with the University of Freiburg. EaaS allows “users to understand and access legacy software and operating systems via a modern web browser.” oldweb.today “uses a similar approach to connect websites from multiple existing web archives, including the Library of Congress, Stanford Library Archives, Rhizome ArtBase and the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, to contemporaneous browsers like Mosaic and Netscape Navigator.”
“Right now, digital preservation is out of the reach of most people. They don’t have control,” Zachary Kaplan, Rhizome’s executive director, tells ARTnews. “People hear the phrase ‘digital preservation,’ and they think about artwork made in the ’90s, but actually we’re preserving work that’s being made today, that’s at risk of being lost as soon as it’s live.”
Webrecorder’s Ease of Use
“The things we create and discover and share online—from embedded videos to social media profiles—are often lost, or become unrecognizable with the passage of time,” says Michael Connor, Rhizome’s artistic director. “Webrecorder, with its ability to capture and play back dynamic web content, and its emphasis on putting tools into users’ hands, is a major step towards addressing this, and improving digital social memory for all.” Webrecorder was built with open source tools and was released under an Apache open source license. It supports multiple back ends and integrates with existing preservation systems.
Taking Webrecorder for a Spin
The Webrecorder available today is still an early version that was used to test concepts and to attract funding, so it is best seen as a beta version. Still, it is a fascinating precursor to how individuals (and organizations) may someday be able to find, mark, save, and retain key information or performances that are now on the web but may someday disappear. Clearly, this is a step in the right direction.