Frances Corry Explores the Afterlives of Digital Platforms

September 11, 2023

“We think of our daily posts on social media as incidental rather than being an important historical document. But you know, 50 years on, it might look different,” said Frances Corry, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Culture and Data Stewardship. She is always considering the implications of this possibility when conducting her research.

Corry’s work focuses on “the effects of socio-technical systems as they decay, and as they die.”  Though such systems may be dead, Corry said she is “making the argument these systems still have effects, even at the point at which they die, or age, or the point at which we don’t pay attention to them anymore.” Her work utilizes archival research alongside a theoretical approach informed by insights from science and technology studies (STS) and critical infrastructure studies.

Corry’s interest in exploring what happens when platforms recede from attention began in part with the thesis she wrote as an undergraduate.  She “wrote about how The New York Times Company got used to the idea of the Internet, as well as how they introduced it to their readers.”  To complete the project, Corry used the Wayback Machine, a digital archive that allows users to examine how a website appeared at different points in time through examining archived captures of a page.

While interviewing the first online editor of The New York Times, there was a “really powerful moment” when she showed him the paper’s first online page. “He hadn’t seen it in like 15 or 20 years,” Corry said, adding that his “emotional response” to the page was “very useful” for thinking about “what the presence of old stuff on the Internet could do.” 

She contrasted that moment with another experience she had while conducting archival research. Corry discovered that, unlike traditional paper-based archives she had used, some of the online “archives weren’t complete, or they were kind of lossy and missing things you would expect to be there. There would be chunks of pages missing when you would use the Wayback Machine.” 

In computer science, compression is the process of decreasing the amount of space required to store information. But during the process of compression, some information might not be preserved. “Lossy” modes of compression do preserve information, but some parts are left out as the volume of information is reduced for storage. Corry’s experiences with well-preserved archives and “lossy archives” prompted her to consider not only how user activity on online platforms might become primary sources for historical inquiry in the future, but also how loss and exclusion shape them.

 “A motivation for my work is to take lesser known and less visible acts like deletions and erasure seriously, because we often are able to see and understand technology differently, to understand the way it affects communities differently and, to see how different people are part of the socio-technical process that would otherwise be invisible,” Corry said. “By focusing on the afterlives of things, you get to have a different perspective and greater access than you would if you focused on contemporary technologies, where people are actively working on them.” 

Students have several opportunities to study with Corry in the upcoming academic year. This fall, Corry is teaching a digital humanities course. In the spring, she is planning a course focusing on "new frontiers in information studies." 

 “I’d be interested in talking to master’s students about what work on deletion and erasure might look like, and how that might be emphasized in what they’re studying,” she said. 

In all of her courses, Corry said that she prioritizes students working on projects that are “a useful stepping stone for the goals that they want to achieve.” Rather than restrict students to a single deliverable that each participant must submit to complete the course, Corry favors allowing students to pursue projects that will help them realize their own self-defined goals. 

“One of the options for the final project of say, an MLIS student who wants to work at a university library, could be designing their own tutorial for teaching a digital humanities tool, and that could be useful for them when they go on to their next step,” she said. “Perhaps a PhD student who wants to pursue a research-oriented position at a university would write a fairly traditional research paper, so that they can apply to a conference with it.” 


--Daniel Beresheim