A Quick Look at the Mellon-Funded Plan to "Capture" the Web

In a previous post about the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's fellowship for scholars in critical bibliography, we noted that the foundation seems to plant its feet in two worlds.

One world, as evidenced by that grant, is the classic, ivy-walled world of humanities. We're thinking tweed sweaters, dog-eared copies of Ulysses, bifocals and the like. The other world is one of disrupting the status quo, taking something by the figurative lapels and (gently) shaking it into modernity. Consider Mellon's efforts to upend long-held conceptions of what constitutes opera.

Oftentimes, these two worlds combine, like when Mellon awarded a $2 million grant to Carnegie Mellon University to help its humanities department use "technology-enhanced learning to transform and enhance graduate education" and advance digital scholarship. 

Other times, however, the foundation bypasses the physical world entirely. That's when it gets really interesting. We're talking about the foundation's recent $600,000 grant to New York City's Rhizome, an organization that "supports contemporary art that creates richer and more critical digital cultures" to underwrite the comprehensive technical development of Webrecorder, a tool that archives what we now call the "dynamic web."

It's cutting-edge, futuristic stuff and the philosophical core adheres to an underlying tenet central to many of Mellon's gives—the idea that certain fields like performing arts, the humanities—or in this case, the web itself—have yet to adequately scale to the digital age, and therefore need a gentle push. 

After all, today's web isn't the web of 1995. The Clinton-era web of yesteryear was built to deliver simple documents like HTML pages. No one could have predicted the rise of more complex and customized software or services—think your Facebook feed—much less establish an architecture to archive unfathomable mountains of content. The old web was static. The web of today is dynamic.

This brings us back to Webrecorder, a human-centered archival tool that, according to its creators at Rhizome, creates "high-fidelity, interactive, contextual archives of social media and other dynamic content, such as embedded video and complex javascript, addressing our present and future."

According to Rhizome's Artistic Director Michael Connor, "The things we create and discover and share online—from embedded videos to social media profiles—are often lost, or become unrecognizable with the passage of time. Webrecorder, with its ability to capture and play back dynamic web content, and its emphasis on putting tools into users' hands, is a major step towards addressing this, and improving digital social memory for all."

Now, we'll table the discussion about whether archiving your Facebook photos documenting Fat Tuesday 2009 is actually a good idea. Instead, we'll talk about what we do know, which is that Mellon continues to support organizations, including universities, opera companies, and digital pioneers like Rhizome, that drag antiquated "legacy" fields—including the World Wide Web—into the 21st century.