our words make worlds

A Community Reborn: Archiving the London French Web

Guest blog by Saskia Huc-Hepher

Saskia Huc-Hepher

In this guest blog, Saskia Huc-Hepher, University of Westminster, discusses her research on the symbiotic relationship between the Web archiving and modern languages' communities. 

A couple of months ago, I attended a major international Web archiving conference. As the week of talks, tables and tweets progressed, it became increasingly apparent to me that modern languages are both central to Internet archiving and curiously absent from the debate. Although passing references to language made their way into a handful of papers, none of the presenters were equipped with the linguistic wherewithal to go into any depth. This left me asking myself how material collected from the World Wide Web, which by definition transcends national borders, cultures and languages, can justifiably be studied without recognising the centrality of linguistic and cultural scholarship. Similarly, I wondered how much longer modern languages researchers could ignore the rich culturo-linguistic data that Web archives offer.

When invited to contribute to this blog, I was asked to consider two questions: (1) how digital culture transforms modern languages research and (2) how modern languages research enhances our understanding of digital culture. But it in the case of Web archiving, these distinct questions seem inextricably intertwined. I conceive of the relationship between the Web archiving and modern languages' communities as inherently symbiotic, as such, it's impossible to disentangle the benefits of one from those of the other. Moreover, I would extend the transformative scope of Web archives from 'modern languages research' alone to the discipline more widely, with teachers and learners of languages also set to benefit from the little-known gems hidden inside Internet archives.

For my own research on the French community in London, Web archives have provided rich rewards in terms of processual gains and the final product itself, namely, the London French Special Collection (LFSC). The process of curating the collection brought unexpected ethnographic benefits. Seeking out a diverse body of Internet objects representative of the London-French experience, from personal blogs and institutional websites to commercial and local media pages, became an immersive experience in its own right, offering a multifaceted understanding of the community's everyday lives and activities. The digital data gathered also proved to be a powerful triangulation tool, increasing the project's “scientific” rigour, with online findings corroborating interview and focus-group evidence. Likewise, the combination of physical and digital data had the serendipitous “side-effect” of prompting a new – transferable – methodological framework: cue “ethnosemiotics”. By combining a Bourdieusian take on ethnography with Gunther Kress's (2010) multimodal social semiotics, I was able to tackle the multiplicity of data and modes in a coherent, original way.

From this unashamedly over-simplified account of how Web archives have transformed my own research, it's now time for a few words on how my research has contributed to digital culture scholarship, as well as its impact on the Internet archiving community and beyond. Firstly, the LFSC provides MFL researchers – present and future – with a culturally and linguistically rich array of unadulterated data. Whether you are a linguist interested in the online translanguaging practices of a contemporary migrant community, a historian of the future seeking first-hand testimonies from EU citizens in London at the dawn of the 21st century, an art historian focusing on Web and/or reborn physical artefacts, an educationalist monitoring changes in bilingual schools over time, a (digital) media scholar interested in diasporic publications, or an analyst in search of a dataset whose numbers can be crunched to reveal links to and from websites in the collection, the LFSC constitutes a valuable, Open Access resource.

Secondly, my experience of curating the LFSC has provided Web archiving specialists with lay insights into their own practices. It has even led to the beginnings of an “ethnosemiotic” theory of culturally themed selective Web archiving and, in turn, to a publication whose reach, if metrics are to be believed, has spanned practitioners working in memory institutions as far afield as Switzerland, Peru, Bangladesh and Canada.

Thirdly, my multimodal take on Web objects, albeit from the perspective of a “traditional” linguist/translator, shows the extent to which the digital representations of a group of London-French bloggers are not only a reflection of their material world, but perform dynamically within it. The physical London spaces the bloggers inhabit act as the visual furnishings of their online “homes”, just as excerpts of (French) conversations uttered during their meet-ups are crystallised indefinitely in the same intangible digital space, which simultaneously serves as a platform for sharing links to physical meeting points and between bloggers coming together online and in London. All these observations, in which language plays a key role, offer insights into community identity and diasporic belonging  (Huc-Hepher, 2016). Linguists can therefore bring a new, deeper level of understanding to digital culture, their fine-grained, ultra-analytic, linguistically agile and culturally sensitised meaning-making acting as a necessary counter-narrative to today's (big) “data fundamentalism” (Crawford, 2013).

I could go on to mention how the ripples of the LFSC travelled as far as the French Embassy, since the collection accesses parts of the community other channels cannot reach. Or I could mention how the LFSC can be – and has been – used as a real-world teaching resource, providing learners with authentic multimodal language material and a privileged window onto London from a first-hand migrant perspective. But for me, the most rewarding dimension of the LFSC is its impact on the French community itself. Although not a cohesive community on the ground, the sense of ownership brought about the LFSC's user-generated content/crowd-sourcing and the collective identity fostered by its self-contained interconnectedness, enables an otherwise disparate and 'invisible' (Kelly, 2013) community to have a lasting presence, visible to all via the World Wide Web.

So, beyond the legacy of the LFSC as a product, and beyond the research value of the process of curating it, Web archives, available in all the languages the Internet accommodates (see the Internet Archive), are as beneficial to modern languages as modern languages researchers are to the Web archiving community. Here I am, back where I started, singing the praises of this, as yet, under-exploited symbiotic relationship.