Knowing Infrastructure: Critically Engaging The Wayback Machine As Source For STS Research

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From documenting human rights abuses to studying online advertising, web archives are increasingly positioned as critical resources for a broad range of scholarly Internet research agendas. And yet, web archives as research infrastructures remain relatively understudied. In this paper we reflect on the motivations and methodological challenges of investigating the World’s largest web archive, the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine (IAWM). Using a mixed methods approach, we report on a pilot project centred around documenting the inner-workings of ‘Save Page Now’ (SPN) - an Internet Archive tool that allows users to initiate the creation and storage of ‘snapshots’ of web resources. By improving our understanding of SPN and its role in shaping the IAWM, this work both reveals how the public tool is being used to ‘save the Web’ and highlights the challenges of operationalising a study of the dynamic sociotechnical processes supporting this information infrastructure. Inspired by existing STS approaches, the paper charts our development of methodological interventions to support an interdisciplinary investigation of SPN, including: ethnographic methods, ‘experimental blackbox tactics’, ‘speculative data modelling’ and documentary research. We discuss the opportunities and limitations of our methodology when interfacing with issues associated with temporality, scale, visibility and access, as well as critically engage with our own positionality in the research process (in terms of expertise and access). We conclude with reflections on the implications of STS approaches for ‘knowing infrastructure’, where the use of information infrastructures is unavoidably intertwined with our ability to study the situated and material arrangements of their creation.

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Contributors

Contributed date

May 28, 2020 - 4:44am

Critical Commentary

This is an abstract for the EASST/4S 2020 open panel "Digital Experiments in the Making: Methods, Tools, and Platforms in the Infrastructuring of STS".