Analysis

5 things I've learned from combing an archive of old and deleted political websites

A University of Waterloo professor has launched a database that lets anyone search through old and deleted political websites. Here's what he's learned so far.

Websites have limited lifespans of around 100 days on average, says prof

University of Waterloo professor Ian Milligan is one of the researchers behind WebArchives.ca, a searchable portal of old and deleted political websites. On the right is a visual representation of all of the links from 50 political parties and political interest groups in the database. The links were generated from archived web content from October 2005 to March 2015. (Ian Milligan/University of Waterloo)
When I teach budding historians at the University of Waterloo, I challenge my students to tell me not just what historians or journalists think about particular subjects, such as the 1968 federal election, but rather to find out information themselves. I want them to go dig up political flyers, news broadcasts, campaign buttons, first-hand accounts, diaries and the other sorts of things produced at the time of the events we are studying.

There's a problem, however, for the history professor of the future. If the students of the near future wanted to understand the 2006 federal election, for instance, or even the one underway today, they will need to find primary sources that are generated and consumed on the web. This turns out to be very difficult, and where WebArchives.ca, the database I developed, comes in. It is a searchable index of web pages of Canadian political parties and interest groups dating back to 2005.

Here are five things I learned when using our portal:

1. Political parties delete content.

Recently, the New Democratic Party of Canada removed its party policy manual from its website because it was not part of their platform. Now you and I can't access that document online anymore. However, thanks to collecting institutions such as the Internet Archive and the University of Toronto, an older version of that website has been saved. It is this sort of data that allows WebArchives.ca to work. That's because the NDP isn't alone in this: websites have limited lifespans. It's hard to boil down an exact number, but it could be somewhere around 100 days. 

2. User-generated comments used to be common.

The Green Party of Canada, for example, ran what was essentially a blogging platform on its website until at least 2012 (some code stuck around until 2013). It had feedback, provocative commentary, and conversation. This type of site is much less common today, likely because it is difficult for political parties to control their messaging on them.  For the historian, though, it is a treasure trove of information where we can see a broader cross-section of political debate within a political party. 

3. The absence of some terms and phrases is sometimes more revealing than those that appear more frequently.

There are some words and phrases that are deeply anchored into Canada's political culture. Political affiliation can be determined by words we choose to use, and not use. The Conservative Party, for example, have never let the term tar sands appear on their website. The NDP once used it quite a bit, but surveying their online resources on ndp.ca itself during this election reveals not a single hit. 

4. We can see prominent individuals as they move throughout their careers.

You can see the evolution of Justin Trudeau's career as played out on Liberal.ca. In 2005, he did not appear on the website at all. In 2006, he is there as the chair of Katimavik. Then we can follow him through his candidacy, election, and subsequent rise to prominence within the party. It is a very interesting biographical tale. Or, in the sadder case of the late Jack Layton, we can see on the NDP's official website how his leadership transitions to invocations of his memory. When Jean-François Larose crossed the floor to the Strength in Democracy Party, for example, it was depicted as a betrayal of the "memory of Jack Layton." 

5. User queries to WebArchives.ca can generate important insights.

Since we launched WebArchives.ca, we've had literally thousands of queries. Some were frivolous, but others incisive. As I skim through these queries, I have found interesting documents that help us both understand our past and present. One early searcher, for example, found a 2005 press release from the Conservative Party entitled "Liberals ignore violence against Aboriginal women" – a fascinating reversal of rhetoric, as ten years later Justin Trudeau would accuse the Conservatives of "ignoring uncomfortable truths" in his July remarks to the Assembly of First Nations. 

Ian Milligan is an assistant professor of digital and Canadian history at the University of Waterloo. He teamed up with researchers from the University of Maryland, York University in Toronto and Western University in London, Ont., to pull together a searchable archive of over 14 million online documents from 50 different political parties and interest groups. 

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