Library of Congress saves the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and other online ‘web cultures’

The Library of Congress’ Web Cultures Web Archive, now available online.

If you had to describe the unique “culture” of the web by highlighting a bunch of websites, would you choose Slashdot? Giphy? Or both?

That’s the kind of choice the Library of Congress had to make for its unique Web Cultures Web Archive, a collection of more than 30 sites documenting cultural traditions that have emerged on the web itself. Part of the Library’s American Folklife Center, the Web Cultures Web Archive is now available online both as a resource for researchers and a reference for those curious about how the web has changed our cultural lives.

The initial set of sites — archived in many versions over time, going back to the turn of the century — runs the gamut. The collection includes sites that feature memes (Know Your Meme, YTMND, Meme Generator), language (NetLingo, Urban Dictionary), emojis and GIFs (Giphy, Emojipedia), and even internet hoaxes (Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus).

Trevor Owens, Library of Congress’s head of digital content management for library services.

Trevor Owens, head of digital content management for library services at the Library of Congress, said the Archive nicely illustrates “pivot points” for cultural phenomena on the web. “That’s one of the strands that comes through this collection in a really interesting way,” Owens said. “There are sort of cultural movements or flows of culture that really have been anchored in, and intimately tied up in, the way that the web enables them.”

Owens and Nicki Saylor, head of the American Folklife Center Archive — both responsible for driving this initiative at the Library of Congress — joined GeekWire for an episode of our special podcast series on popular culture, the arts, and science fiction.

And yes, Slashdot made the cut, too.

Listen to the episode below or subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast to listen in your favorite podcast app.

Nicki Saylor, head of American Folklife Center Archive.

Saylor said the idea to pull together web folklore started, in part, when she was at a professional conference. “I was sitting at the American Folklore Society annual meeting and I was listening to a panel of graduate students talking about Slenderman and that phenomena on the web,” she said. “I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a whole class of documentation that we’re not currently getting, or we’re not getting it at a scale that’s going to be of any use to researchers.’”

Saylor and Owens worked together on the project, getting input from a variety of sources on what to include. “We sent email to a group of folklorists and people working in digital culture and asked for nominations,” Saylor said. The process was purposely open and, in effect, crowdsourced. “I think people pigeonhole ‘folklife’ into thinking it’s something very specific,” Owens said, “When it’s really got this rather broad sense of the everyday on how we communicate with each other.”

Some of the archived sites may defy expectations.

Equestria Daily, a “bronies” site, as described in the Archive.

Equestria Daily, for example. It’s a major fan site for “bronies,” or fans of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic animated television series. As the Archive listing notes, “The show found an unlikely audience in adult, mostly male, internet users who are far outside the target demographic of little girls.”

Another unique site in the collection is Save the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. Dating back to 1998, the site supposedly documented an endangered species that was able to live both on land and water, including in the Olympic National Forest and nearby rivers. Its major predator? Sasquatch.

The Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, saved at last in the Web Cultures Web Archive.

Now the cephalopod has a home in the Archive under the subject headings of hoaxes, internet literacy, and folklore and mythology. As its catalog page dryly notes, “The Pacific Northwest tree octopus website is among a number of sites commonly used in Internet literacy classes in schools, although it was not created for that purpose.”

Many of the sites have gone through dramatic changes over time, all visible through the Archive. Urban Dictionary was essentially plain text in 2005. Slashdot, meantime, seems to have barely changed visually in the more than one thousand versions archived since 2001.

Early text-based Urban Dictionary from the archive, 2005.

A few are also a bit controversial.

“When you’re documenting expressive culture, you’re going to find things that are a little questionable to some,” Saylor recalled. “For example, I had Urban Dictionary up for a group of visitors and looked up at the word of the day and went, ‘Oh my gosh.’”

She did not tell GeekWire what that word was.

Overall, Owens said the Web Cultures Web Archive is a good example of what’s called “born digital” content, which requires a different way of thinking when archivists want to preserve it for future generations. “We’re not in a situation where we could go back to the analog originals and try and make some derivatives again,” like photos or other digital copies, Owens said. “The actual works are digital to begin with.”

The Web Cultures Web Archive is not the only born digital collection under the Library of Congress’ umbrella. Another, launched at the same time, is the Webcomics Web Archive that focuses on comics, such as XKCD, created specifically for the web.

Saylor said there are plans to keep adding to the Web Cultures Web Archive, and she is open to suggestions (which can be emailed to “The spirit of this project has always been to have it be co-curated with the community who’s on the web, and who’s looking at the web and studying the web,” she said.

Owens also sees a future for the Archive that goes beyond simply reviewing what’s visible on the surface. “We’ve got inside these archived sites massive amounts of resources, tens of thousands of those individual meme images,” Owens said. “We’re increasingly hearing from scholars that they want to be able to do computational research.”

But there likely will always be only one Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus, safely stashed in the Archive for posterity.

Listen to this episode in the player above and subscribe to the GeekWire Podcast in Apple PodcastsGoogle Play or your favorite podcast app. Podcast production and editing by Clare McGrane.

Previously in this series: Scaling to optimism: Futurist, author and computer scientist Ramez Naam on the power of cheap tech