We just presented our forthcoming book chapter on ‘Platform and app histories: Assessing source availability in web archives and app repositories’ at the Engaging with Web Archives (#EWAvirtual) conference.
In this chapter we discuss the research opportunities for historical studies of apps and platforms. Platforms and apps notoriously resist archiving due to their ephemerality and continuous updates. As a consequence, their histories are being overwritten with each update, rather than written and preserved. We present a method to assess the availability of archived web sources for social media platforms and apps across the leading web archives and app repositories. Our preliminary results indicate that despite the challenges of social media and app archiving, many material traces of platforms and apps are in fact well preserved. We understand these contextual materials as important primary sources through which digital objects such as platforms and apps co-author their own ‘biographies’ with web archives and software repositories.
From the conclusion:
The ephemerality of digital platforms and mobile apps may be understood as the result of a continuous stream of incremental software updates that overwrite the material presence of a platform or app every time. We may conceive of this process of overwriting as a challenge of material erasure, or as a ‘native’ mode of software history-writing. That is, even though these ephemeral digital objects change continuously, web archives and software repositories, fortunately, capture many of those changes, thereby arresting the ongoing material transformation of platforms and apps at certain time intervals (for example with hourly, daily, or monthly captures or ‘snapshots’). Consequently, we argue that the biographies of platforms and apps are co-written by these digital objects themselves and by web archives, and in the case of apps, also by software repositories. We can employ their different types of primary and contextual sources to ‘reconstruct’ these processes of overwriting at different levels of granularity – from the minute, incremental changes to the longer-term evolution of a platform or app. We can use web archives and repositories to reconstruct what was written on top of other writing, and narrate the drama of changes, updates, and versions.
Helmond, A., & van der Vlist, F. N. (forthcoming 2021). Platform and app histories: Assessing source availability in web archives and app repositories. In D. Gomes, E. Demidova, J. Winters, & T. Risse (Eds.), The Past Web: Exploring Web Archives. Springer. Pre-print available at: https://pure.uva.nl/ws/files/50281810/PREPRINT_2021_Helmond_vanderVlist_PlatformAnd_AppHistories.pdf.