The Wayback Machine is a digital archive of the internet that is free and available to the public. It allows you to see what websites have looked like over time, even if those versions or pages no longer exist. According to an article on Wired by Kendra Mayfield in 2001 (published shortly after the Wayback Machine became available), the Wayback Machine has been archiving the internet since 1996.
To use the Machine, simply go to http://web.archive.org/ and enter the URL you want to explore. Then, you can select a date on the timeline and browse archived versions of the site throughout its history.
How it works:
The Wayback Machine is funded by the Library of Congress, the National Science Foundation, the Smithsonian Institution and Compaq.
The Machine is kept up to date through crawls of the internet, where multiple sources do a sweep of the internet. At first, crawls were only about every two months. Now, as technology has advanced and storage has grown, sweeps are done multiple times a day.
For the most part, all sites are archived unless they are password protected or have installed a robots.txt file code to prevent themselves from being included.
Why it matters:
According to Brewster Kahle, the founder of The Internet Archive, the average length of a Web page is about 100 days. This makes the work of the Wayback Machine even more important because it archives and stores information that otherwise would completely vanish.
Because of this transiency, the Wired article says that “The archive will unlock possibilities not just for scholars, but also for Web designers, attorneys and journalists.”
It’s a common belief that once something is on the internet, its on there forever, but without the Wayback Machine this wouldn’t actually be true. Web pages can be deleted or updated to the point where they become unrecognizable from their past. Without the Wayback Machine to archive all of these earlier versions, they would be lost forever. People trying to research the internet would have a difficult time viewing anything other than the present-day modern versions of pages without using the Wayback Machine. It creates a sort of paper trail in the digital world and creates a sense of accountability since it can be accessed by anyone – even attorneys and journalists.
Databases vs. Narratives
In class, we read an article called “The Database” by Lev Manovich. In this, he contrasts databases with other forms of new media that fall under the umbrella of the narrative. According to Manovich
“database is defined as a structured collection of data. The data stored in a database is organized for fast search and retrieval…Web pages are collections of separate elements…the result is a collection, not a story… The database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause and effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies.”
The Wayback Machine challenges Manovich’s ideas because it operates as both a database and a narrative, making the two more like friends than enemies.
The Wayback Machine is certainly a database. In fact, it “is the world’s largest known database, eclipsing the amount of data held in every library in the world including the Library of Congress” according to Mayfield. It fits this title because it is a collection of data, of separate elements (separate Web pages), on which the user can perform various operations.
However, the Wayback Machine also presents itself as a narrative. It is ordered chronologically, and if you look through a website’s history you can see it evolving, much like a character in a novel. When multiple web pages are looked at, it can create a broader narrative of the evolution of the web as a whole.
As illustrated above, when Facebook.com was initially released in 2004, it was released as “thefacebook.com” It wasn’t until mid-2005 that it took over the URL it now holds, although the site was down for a while while the transition was made. Before this, a directory software company, AboutFace, held the page. Narratives like this can be shown on the Wayback Machine, despite its status as a database.