Maybe I’m just a big nerd but it’s quite an amazing experience to go to Webrecorder, create a collection, download the WARC file for the collection, disconnect from the Internet, and then view and interact with the content as if I was actually online. Go on, try it out. For me it’s up there with using the Web for the first time in a terminal window with Lynx–which (for me) is saying a lot.
For example here’s a screenshot of me viewing a collection I built a few months ago when the @FBIRecordsVault Twitter account tweeted about Hillary Clinton’s emails just over a week before the US Presidential Election:
The tweets are still there on the web, but let’s imagine that they’re not, and that the Internet Archive didn’t get them (gasp), and Webrecorder’s is offline because funding has run out (never!) … but I still have the WARC data, and I can still use it. The ability to easily open a file of web archive content on my workstation and interact with it as if it was a live website is a huge win for usability … and I think it could be a game changer for web archives, scholarship and the viability of the WARC format itself.
Part of the reason why Webrecorder and WebrecorderPlayer are such a feat to me is that they capture the performative nature of the web. The web isn’t so much about data as it is about decisions, actions, interactions, software, hardware and infrastructure. Given all this complexity it’s kind of miraculous any of it works at all. This presents a really severe challenge to digital preservation because you can’t just preserve the data, there is a whole environment that needs preserving. And it’s not just a question of emulating the software because the experience is performative–it’s a particular set of contingencies that has more in common with preserving a dance piece or performance art than what we normally think of as digital preservation. It is a performance that involves many actors, but the primary role is yours. Webrecorder’s approach to web archiving centers the person making decisions about what to archive and what to do with that archive.
Of course WebrecorderPlayer is itself a piece of software. It’s an Electron application, which is essentially the Chromium open source web browser that is at the heart of the most popular web browser in use today, Google Chrome. WebrecorderPlayer also includes a platform specific binary version of the Webrecorder Python application, which itself is a combination of a bunch of different tools. But pushing the application out to the edges of people’s personal computers suddenly means there isn’t just one copy of Webrecorder running–there are many copies of Webrecorder running. This is an important step for the viability of web archiving ecosystem.
It could in fact be a step towards being able to open a WARC file directly in your browser:
(???) Any interest in adding WARC/high-fidelity archiving support directly to Chrome? Would make our work a bit easier :)— Webrecorder.io (@webrecorder_io) March 14, 2017
But we’re not quite there yet. Till we are, here’s to Rhizome’s Webrecorder team for bringing us one step closer!
Update: I feel like I subconsciously plagiarized Christie Peterson’s Web Archives, Performance & Capture which I’ve definitely read and enjoyed before. Heck I saw her present it! So if you want to read more about this idea of performance with more connections to the archival literature do check it out. Also, Mark Matienzo pointed out that this idea of performance in digital records has roots back to An Approach to the Preservation of Digital Records by Helen Heslop, Simon Davis and Andrew Wilson. There was a point in my career where discovering my ideas were neither new nor original would be disappointing. But luckily those days are past. But I do still believe it’s extremely important to give credit where credit is due!