This is just a quick post to bookmark an interesting discussion about why it’s difficult to archive Facebook, at least with current web archiving tech. Ilya Kreymer notes that Facebook’s user interface is heavily driven by HTTP POSTs to just one URL:

As you can see this is the endpoint for Facebook’s GraphQL API. Unlike the typical REST API, where there are different URL names for resources, GraphQL requires a client to HTTP POST a query expressed as a JSON object in order to get back a JSON response that matches the shape of the query.

This pattern is generally known as query-by-example, where the exchange is kind of like a fill-in-the-blank MadLibs game where the client provides the fill-in-the blank statement and the service fills-in-the-blanks and returns it. Maybe Cards-Against-Humanity is a better, more contemporary example. Facebook promulgated the GraphQL standard and it’s used quite a bit now, notably on GitHub.

Anyway, most web archiving tools include a bot that wanders around some region of the web following URL links, saving what is retrieved and looking for more URLs, rinse-lather-repeat. The crawlers use HTTP GET requests to fetch representations of resources using the URL. This crawling the web with GET requests won’t really work with Facebook because the bot needs to do a POST, and needs to know what data to post. Archiving bots or tools like Webrecorder and Brozzler that load and interact with the DOM using some set of user driven or automated behaviors have much more luck recording.

But even Webrecorder has trouble playing back the archived data because it needs to determine which response is appropriate in the archive for a given user interaction in the browser. The usual lookup of a record in the WARC file fails because the [index] it uses is URL based, and (remember) all the URLs are the same. The playback software needs to factor in that POST data that was used in the request. But that POST data is generated at runtime during playback, and could be slightly different from the POST data that was used during recording.

Hence the need for fuzzy matching the POST data in order to locate the correct resource to serve up from the archived data. The problem is that rules for fuzziness need to change as Facebook changes their applications. So if the rule is to look for a particular id by name, and the name for that id changes, then the fuzzy matching will break. Or if the data includes some kind of timestamp generated at runtime during playback then that would cause a match to fail unless it was ignored.

Andy Jackson ventured that Facebook may be intentionally designing their JavaScript this way to ensure that their content doesn’t get archived. It’s hard to say for sure, but they certainly have always tried to keep users in their platform, so it wouldn’t be surprising. It’s sort of fun to imagine what catchy marketing-speak name they might use for the technique in meetings, like brand-loyalty-policy, customer-content-guards, content-protection-framework, boundary-rules or…build-that-wall. Ok, it’s not really that much fun.

I’m not actually sure if Facebook’s GraphQL interface is something that Webrecorder has tackled yet, since I don’t see /api/graphql in the current list of rules. But there does seem to be an /api/graphqlbatch in there. But even if there are good rules if the archive is large there could be a lot of records to sift through if the fuzzy parameters aren’t somehow baked into the index. Obviously I’m just thinking out loud here, but I thought I’d jot this all down as a reminder to dig a little deeper in the future.

One last note is that Ilya led a presentation at a recent IIPC meeting to socialize some of the problems around reliably being able to crawl the social web. He suggested that the problem isn’t just technical and has a social component. People interested in archiving the social web need to work together to maintain them as the inevitable changes occur on the platforms which complicate recording and playback. He described how the Webrecorder project is setting up a continuous integration tools to regularly run a test suite checking that captures are working. When they fail we need a group of dedicated people on hand who can notice the failure and work on a fix and get it deployed.

I think Ilya is right. But part of the opportunity here is to make this community a bit broader a bit broader than the national libraries and cultural heritage organizations in the IIPC. Although starting there makes a lot of sense. One possible partner would be media organizations who routinely cite social media in their own content. Having accurate, authoritative web archives for the content they are citing seems like a very important thing to have. Innovations like Webrecorder’s could offer newsrooms a rich way of presenting social media content from platforms like Twitter and Facebook without being entirely reliant on the content staying available.