When in Doubt, Screenshot: Navigating the Challenges of Digital Research

The night before a final research presentation late last spring, I opened my computer, absentmindedly clicked on a saved bookmark, and felt my heart drop into my stomach: the website had vanished.

Instead of the normal cursive, Arabic font announcing that this was the homepage of the Moroccan Boutchichi Sufi order, the screen had turned gray, and that oh-too-familiar “error” screen glared dimly before my eyes. In my initial panic, I worried about how I would present my research without photos from the site, but I quickly realized that this posed a greater problem for my pre-dissertation research: How could I write about documents that no longer existed?

Fortunately, I am no stranger to having the digital rug pulled out from under me. While the stakes of documenting digital research have increased since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been navigating the whims of various website holders and social media users, as well as my own forgetfulness, since I was an undergraduate student. As an undergrad conducting research on Tunisian, Egyptian, and Moroccan female digital activists participating in the 2011 Arab Spring protests, I frequently had to contend with erased social media accounts. The blogs, Twitter, and Facebook accounts I was building my argument on would often go dark as a result of government censorship. Sometimes, they would reappear under different usernames or domains weeks later; at others, they would simply disappear.

I became obsessed with screenshots. Regardless of whether or not the information was important, I would snap it and file it away in increasingly unwieldy files.

As a first-year graduate student researching a small but growing online trend of alt right Muslim masculinity, I became more discerning with screenshots. I spent greater time in my initial research, creating clear analytical categories in order to classify the blogs, videos, and podcasts I was examining. Well equipped with the archival tools of Google’s “Wayback Machine,” I no longer catalogued everything under the sun. When blogs inevitably did vanish, or reappear under different headings, I would simply check my folders or retrieve the archived website through the Wayback Machine.

Once the initial shock of the Moroccan Sufi order’s website subsided, I quickly searched through my files and breathed a sigh of relief: the photos I needed for the topic were safely stored there. Similarly, I found a recent archive of the website stored online. While I am still navigating the challenges posed by shifting in-person ethnography to virtual mediums as a result of the pandemic, my many mishaps in digital research have proved instructive: When in doubt, screenshot.