‘Suppose all the information stored on computers everywhere were linked. Suppose I could program my computer to create a space in which everything could be linked to everything.’
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
The World Wide Web is 30 years old. It has fundamentally and permanently changed the way we live and as impossible as it is to imagine life without cat videos, Twitter spats and pizza at the click of a button, it wasn’t created with that in mind…
The Birth of The World Wide Web
On 12th March 1989, the man that became Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee OM KBE FRS FREng FRSA FBCS but was then plain old Tim Berners-Lee or TimBL, submitted a paper called Information Management: A Proposal to Mike Sendall, his boss at CERN (Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire).
‘Vague, but exciting’ was the now infamous handwritten note Sendall scrawled across the document’s cover. At the very end, he wrote ‘And now?’
The initial aim of what has become without question the most revolutionary, paradigm-shifting idea in the history of mankind was to allow the thousands of scientists working at CERN to keep track of the information and ideas being developed for the creation of the Large Hadron Collider.
Like most of the world’s great inventions, the original idea was simply a solution to a small-scale problem. TimBL was getting frustrated at having to switch computers to access specific documents not stored on his own machine so he did something about it.
The Spotty Teenage Angst Years
In the early 1990s, the World Wide Web was being utilised more and more by organisations like CERN to share information and TimBL working alongside Belgian informatics engineer, computer scientist and author Robert Cailliau developed the skeletal outlines of the internet which included the world’s first web browser and a dedicated web server.
Here is the world’s first website that TimBL brought online from a lab in the Swiss Alps in 1991.
While still a series of text pages, the first major breakthrough came in 1993 when the Mosaic web browser was released and in the same year, the introduction of the first iteration of search engines allowed for the indexing of page titles and headers. A year later, WebCrawler started indexing entire pages and within two years, Hotmail and ICQ emerged as the first free and publicly available email and instant messaging services.
It’s no coincidence that during the 90s, sales of home computers sky-rocketed and today, half the world is online.
Page & Brin
With more and more information being made available, two Stanford University PhD students called Lawrence Edward Page and Sergey Mikhaylovich Brin wondered if conventional search engines were doing it wrong. They supposed that it would be more relevant to analyse the relationships between websites and not just count how many times a ‘searched for’ term appeared.
Working from a friend’s garage in Menlo Park, California (Susan Wojcicki, now the CEO of YouTube), they called their first search engine BackRub because their system checked backlinks to estimate the importance of a website but eventually changed it’s name to Google.
*INTERESTING ASIDE* Given the fact that Page and Brin are now worth a combined $102 billion, their first funding cheque was for $100,000 from Andy Bechtolsheim (co-founder of Sun Microsystems) but the story goes that the business wasn’t incorporated and they didn’t have a bank account to put it in…!
So as the World Wide Web’s influence started to take hold on our collective consciousnesses and there was an accurate way of searching for what you were looking for, we experienced what was known as the dotcom boom in the late 90s and early 2000s where retailers, news sources and entertainment moved online.
‘You can’t propose that something be a universal space and at the same time keep control of it.’
Tim Berners-Lee, 1998
In it’s formative years, the web consisted of websites whose creators published their own information and there was no interaction between the creators and the users but very quickly, users demanded interaction and with it, came the beginnings of social networking.
LinkedIn and MySpace (remember them?) started in 2003 and a year later, über-geek Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook and the world hasn’t been the same since!
The plethora of interactive websites and platforms for knowledge sharing, user-generated content, online collaboration and of course social networking has given the world a voice – for good or for bad dependent on your standpoint – and the World Wide Web has become a place to interact.
We’ve seen them all – ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger, classmates.com, Friends Reunited, Friendster, MySpace, LinkedIn, Instagram, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr and of course Facebook – and it can be argued that the World Wide Web’s original intention, i.e. a social construct designed to connect disparate communities of scientists and researchers to share information has simply been extended to include literally everyone and everything.
Whether you’re a scientist sharing documents at CERN or a proud mum sharing your kids’ art homework on Instagram, it’s all much of a muchness and if you throw smartphones into the mix, social networks have also become services, like Airbnb and Uber which allow services to be traded directly rather than via large, faceless corporations.
A World Wide Web Minute
To illustrate our online reliance, here’s a snapshot of an average minute:
Facebook – 973,000 logins
WhatsApp – 38,000,000 messages sent
YouTube – 4,300,000 videos viewed, 300 hours of video uploaded
Twitter – 481,000 tweets sent
Tinder – 1,100,000 swipes
Email – 187,000,000 sent
Twitch – 936,000 views
SMS – 18,000,000 messages sent
Snapchat – 2,400,000 snaps created
Online Spending – $863,000
Netflix – 266,000 hours watched
Google – 3,700,000 searches
It’s no understatement to say that the World Wide Web has fundamentally and permanently changed the world we live in and on it’s 30th birthday it’s worth taking a minute to both celebrate how far we’ve come but also to reflect on how much more work there is to do.
We can do our shopping, our banking, our food deliveries, our doctor’s appointments and even our schooling online. It’s how we interact, make friends, stay in touch and discover the world around us but, in an open letter published on webfoundation.org, TimBL gives us all a reality check. ‘While the web has created opportunity, given marginalised groups a voice, and made our daily lives easier, it has also created opportunity for scammers, given a voice to those who spread hatred, and made all kinds of crime easier to commit.’
The answer to the question ‘and now?’ is impossible to answer. Even five years ago no-one could have predicted where the web was going to be and the same amount of people know what it’s going to be like five years from now but while it remains a digital adolescent, we have a collective responsibility to ensure it becomes a responsible, mature adult and not a dark, risky place to where no-one wants to go.
You can always go onto YouTube and watch cat videos…
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