RESAW – The History of the Internet (Conference Report)

Gareth Millward

Back in June, I attended the RESAW conference in Aarhus, Denmark. It was an international gathering of scholars, archivists and practitioners working with material archived from the internet. Since then, I’ve written about various aspects of dealing with web-based sources, including the lack of an established research practice and the exciting-but-methodologically-impractical nature of having so much information.

I was there as part of a panel with Rowan Aust and Richard Deswarte to present our work on the British Library and Institute of Historical Research’s BUDDAH project. We had been given some funds to conduct a small pilot project on an aspect of the British Library’s internet archive. Rowan investigated how the BBC’s website had changed since the Jimmy Saville scandal, by comparing mentions of Saville from the 1990s and 2000s to those same pages today. Richard, by contrast, was interested in the evolution of the term “Eurosceptic” over the past 20 years or so. My work focused on how disability organisations used the web to communicate with the outside world.

What was refreshing about the conference itself was how open the presenters were. Everyone knew how messy internet archives can be. They also knew how novel many of the “digital humanities” techniques they were using were. That didn’t stop them from trying to find concrete results anyway. In doing so, the successes – and, as everyone was very honest to point out, the failures – will stand as useful exemplars of how (not) to approach similar projects in the future.

Ian Milligan’s work with the GeoCities archive was fascinating. Not only did it provide a window onto how people used the web to express themselves in the 1990s and 2000s, it opened up some intriguing questions about organisation, voluntarism and the growing trend of “curation” as a form of content management. As the early web struggled with old metaphors about “neighbourhoods” and “information superhighways”, it was also displaying some of the traits that pervade many of our online communities today.

Other presentations included network analysis on French news stories, examining how and when news from other countries was reported by the major newspapers. There was work on the history of “trolling”; the use of Bulletin Board Systems before the web as we know it was assembled; and how national identity in the ex-Yugoslavia was expressed through the changes in the country’s domain suffix during its dissolution.

Overall, it was a great opportunity to see the wide array of work being done in the field. It has certainly given me ideas for how I can incorporate some of these ideas into the project I’m currently working on. Peter Webster, for example, has analysed the links made between creationist churches in Britain, and how their ideas may well simply reinforce each other rather than making genuine attempts to engage and battle those who believe in evolution.

Tentatively, it seems the next conference will be held sometime in the next two years in London. Hopefully, I will have something new to present.