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Archiving Yahoo Groups

October 18th, 2019
logging, tech  [html]
On December 14th Yahoo will shut down Yahoo Groups. Since my communities have mostly moved away from @yahoogroups.com hosting, to Facebook, @googlegroups, and other places, the bit that hit me was that they are deleting all the mailing list archives.

Digital archives of text conversations are close to ideal from the perspective of a historian: unlike in-person or audio-based interaction this naturally leaves a skimmable and easily searchable record. If I want to know, say, what people were thinking about in the early days of GiveWell, their early blog posts (including comments) are a great source. Their early mailing list archives, however, are about to be deleted.

Luckily we still have two months to export the data before it's wiped, and people have written tools to do automate this. Here's how to download a backup of all the conversations in a group:

# Download the archiver
$ git clone https://github.com/andrewferguson/YahooGroups-Archiver.git

$ cd YahooGroups-Archiver/

# Start archiving the group.
$ python archive_group.py [group-name]

If things are going well it will start spitting out messages like:

Archiving message 1 of 8098
Archiving message 2 of 8098
Archiving message 3 of 8098

And it will be creating files:

$ ls [group-name]/
1.json
2.json
3.json
...

If you get a message like:

Archiving message 5221 of 8098
Archiving message 5222 of 8098
Archiving message 5223 of 8098
Cannot get message 5223, attempt
   1 of 3 due to HTTP status code 500
Cannot get message 5223, attempt
   2 of 3 due to HTTP status code 500
Cannot get message 5223, attempt
   3 of 3 due to HTTP status code 500
Archive halted - it appears Yahoo has blocked you. Check if you can
   access the group's homepage from your browser. If you can't, you
   have been blocked. Don't worry, in a few hours (normally less than
   3) you'll be unblocked and you can run this script again - it'll
   continue where you left off.
It may mean that you have been blocked, but it may also just mean that for some reason an individual message can't be downloaded. In that case, to tell it to give up on that message and just continue on, create the json file with the stuck message number:
$ touch [group-name]/5223.json
You might also get a message like:
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "archive_group.py", line 150, in 
    archive_group(sys.argv[1])
  File "archive_group.py", line 71, in archive_group
    max = group_messages_max(groupName)
  File "archive_group.py", line 94, in group_messages_max
    raise valueError
  File "archive_group.py", line 87, in group_messages_max
    pageJson = json.loads(pageHTML)
  ...
    raise JSONDecodeError("Expecting value", s, err.value) from None
json.decoder.JSONDecodeError: Expecting value: line 1 column 1 (char 0)
This is what I see if I try to archive a private group. It's still possible to use the tool to archive a private group that you have access to, but it's a bit involved. First you visit Yahoo Groups in your web browser with Devtools open to the Networking tab. Then you look at what cookies are set on the HTML request, and find the T and Y cookies. The T cookie should start with z= and the Y cookie should start with v=. Paste these into the cookie_T and cookie_Y variable definitions at the beginning of archive_group.py.

Once you've downloaded all the messages in a group you can run:

$ pip2 install natsort
$ python2 make_Yearly_Text_Archive_html.py [group-name]
Which will create a bunch of files like [group-name]-archive/archive-YYYY.html. They're not that easy to read, because it doesn't do any kind of quote folding, but we can always do that later. If you made any empty files to get around messages that wouldn't archive (see the touch command above) you'll get an error at this stage; just delete the empty files and re-run.

I've archived five groups: givewell, Boston-Contra, BostonAreaContraCommunity, contrasf, and trad-dance-callers. The first two are public groups with public archives, so I've made archives available at /givewell-archive and /Boston-Contra-archive. The remaining three are private, but if you want to look at them and you were a participant or otherwise have a good reason let me know.

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