The web and temporality

As I’m beginning to recover from the unpleasant virus that has waylaid me these past few days, and am starting to feel partly responsible for my diminished blog traffic (as displayed in the “Blog Stats” graph), I think it would be good time to re-visit the thorny article by Hellsten, Leydesdorff, and Wouters, “Multiple presents: how search engines rewrite the past” (2006). Unfortunately, I cannot say I understood every aspect of their methodology and findings, and for this I admit that my own technical shortcomings are entirely to blame (though the authors’ bone-dry, Dutch-inflected English didn’t exactly help). But I do find that the authors provoke a fascinating discussion of how the internet changes (or disturbs) our sense of time, positing in particular that search engines are broadening “the concept of the present from a fleeting point in time to a [fragmented] spectrum of actualities.” So, “the present” (at least as it’s experienced on the web) is no longer the “photographic” instant in time but a dimension created by the interactions of various cyclical frequencies: page updates, search-engine crawler visits, the evolution of the web (and thus, presumably, the replacement of certain search platforms by others… anyone remember when the name “Google” still sounded slightly funny, and when Excite was considered a normal place to search?).

The internet’s sense of time has always been a very mysterious thing to me, and until now, I have not considered it in any systematic way; websites seem to get old at varying rates, evolve or not evolve, be forgotten, disappear, and (occasionally) re-surface. We are often told, by way of warning, that information uploaded to the web is permanent: that it can never be removed. But at which time does “permanent” information makes the transition from “present” to “past”? Surely it wouldn’t be correct to say that information is “forever young” on the web, available for retrieval in its original state and context; web data has a way of morphing, of being de-contextualized and re-contextualized. One dusty web relic that could inspire angst-filled debates about the web’s temporality is the classic, not to say primitive “Hello my Future Girlfriend” (requires sound for full effect): is some fragment of its author preserved eternally as a lovesick 11-year-old from New Mexico, even if his original URL has long since disappeared and the site now only exists as a dozen mirrors, even if he is actually 25 and no longer living in the Southwest, even if his future girlfriend is now his ex? Too bad Roland Barthes isn’t around to have a go at this one. 

Because I don’t have any answers. 

Anyhow, 90s-meme digressions aside, the article deals primarily with the frequency with which search-engine algorithms re-visit old content, and this is clearly a complicated matter. But to better understand another, primary web process – the generation of news content – Google Trends seems to be a promising tool. At Google Trends, you can easily visualize both the search volume and the news-reference volume of various keywords, thus getting a sense of exactly when an issue or idea entered the public consciousness, how it was manipulated by the media, and when it disappeared from view (only back to 2004, but eventually that will seem like a long time ago). It appears as though Google does this by storing static pages rather than recording the changing headlines on dynamic websites, though I’m not sure. I actually tested the article’s chosen search term, “Frankenfoods” to determine whether, indeed, the term is a forgotten buzzword that has disappeared from regular usage: Google Trends confirms that it is.

I think this idea of temporality has an important relevance to our group project, since we’re considering ways of making a web-based documentary in real time, one whose significance will doubtlessly evolve as it changes from newly-generated content to archival material.

Work cited: 

Hellsten, I., Leydesdorff, L.,  Wouters, P. “Multiple presents: how search engines rewrite the past.” New Media & Society 8.6 (2006): 901-924.

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One response to “The web and temporality

  1. Your comment about it being too bad that Barthes isn’t around to comment on “My Future Girlfriend” is both delightful and insightful.

    In fact, that site is loaded with punctum for me!

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