Celebrating 25 years of Global Hypertext: World Wide Web!#♡@
Anniversaries are wonderful things. They help us reflect on our past, present, and future. Anniversaries can be complicated though. (My spouse and I have three of them, but that’s another story!) While Internet denizens celebrate the web’s “official” 25th anniversary today, we might pause to recognize how confusing and uncertain “inventions” and “births” sometimes are: is this about sowing an idea, convincing a boss of the idea’s viability, coding a computer program, connecting a web server, uploading the first webpage, logging in users, clicking links? Meanwhile, in the midst of spying, surveillance, and privacy concerns, we might remind ourselves that the web, from the beginning, has been a technology of connections. So what to make of the past 25 years?
Today’s “Happy 25th, Web” (the Web At 25) actually celebrates the publication of a document by the web’s primary inventor, Tim Berners-Lee: “Information Management: A Proposal.” Deemed “vague but exciting,” it proposed a solution to the problem of keeping track of all those little pieces that make up large projects at research institutions like CERN, the Swiss physics lab where Berners-Lee worked in the 1980s. The big idea of that proposal, and hence what we are really celebrating today, is global hypertext, nonlinear “linked information systems.” Bringing hypertext to the internet would create a single unified information space in which any document or piece of data, regardless of where or on which internet-connected machine it was located, could be instantly reached with a single mouse click.
Personally, I really do think the proposal (although initially rejected!) was a great idea and is worthy of celebration. The problem (besides all the other major problems about encryption, privacy, surveillance, etc.) is that the popular birthday narrative leaves out a lot of other things that didn’t make much sense at the time. In his book, Weaving the Web, Berners-Lee describes how hard it was to try to explain this vision to others between 1989-93: “People had to be able to grasp the Web in full, which meant imagining a whole world populated with Websites and browsers. They had to sense the abstract information space that the Web could bring into being. It was a lot to ask.” It WAS a lot to ask. I will admit, as a big internet fan these days, that I totally did not get it at first. (At first!) And I actually think this is an important and historically relevant thing to admit.
To consider what using the Internet was like without the web, check out Brendan Kehoe’s demo (Nov 1993) on the Computer Chronicles (skip to 09:08); we see Gopher, Finger, Telnet, and using Telnet to contact Compact Disc Connection (unfortunately, the system hangs before completing purchase of the Mariah Carey CD). There is no mention of the web, nearly five years after it’s “birth.” How could this even be? Teleological accounts of history assume a kind of forward march, where the past is rewritten in ways that make sense to contemporary minds.
The W3C Team is urging web users to share their “earliest memories” today, and in that spirit, I wanted to share just how hard it was for me (and I wasn’t alone!) to wrap my head around the Internet, let alone the web, when I first tried to connect in the fall of 1995. It was confusing trying to figure this stuff out with my fellow housemates and no tech wizard friends for aid!
Looking forward to investigating this “internet” thing I was hearing about, I bought my first computer at the start of my senior year of college in 1995. Alas, my college tech store didn’t realize I wanted to use the machine to go online, and so the computer had to be returned to IT and taught to speak internet. It was elaborate:
InterSLIP and InterPPP were installed, my computer had to learn TCP/IP, modem ports were configured, many a floppy disk was run. After all was said and done, I used my 14.4k baud modem (think slow, noisy) to at last see the World Wide Web world. It looked like this:
It was probably a few weeks before I realized that “eWorld” wasn’t “World Wide Web.” This was Apple’s (soon to fail) commercial online service, eWorld. When I introduce today’s college students, who no longer make distinctions between the internet, web or various platforms and apps—all is just “online”—to web history, I usually ask them to tell me how they would get to the internet. We take a tour through the town and discuss metaphors, space, each building, all of which were filled with forums, resources, chatrooms available to and for other eWorld users. Wasn’t I “online”? Wasn’t this the eWorld Wide Web? Well, yes and no. I was connected to other paid subscribers of Apple’s commercial online service. This was not the web, I finally realized. (A devoted fan has recreated the eWorld experience online! However, note that this simulation runs MUCH faster than the experience I remember.)
One day, my housemate clicked that tiny little statue holding the globe in the middle of the town, and we found our way out of eWorld and into a much bigger one, a World Wide Web. Once connected to the web, we moved around by gliding across “handwoven” hyperlinks, endless HotLists of Cool Sites. (These lists were filled with the “quality” sites of 1994: the Hawaii dinosaur museum! The Vatican! The Louvre before it was renamed and taken down because it wasn’t actually owned by the Louvre!) One could not count on search engines to lead you to the “best of it,” the useful, interesting, fun stuff—the “cool” sites of the day. You had to rely on the scattered lists of pointers made by other users.
While I am reluctant to embrace a single “anniversary” of the World Wide Web, I do believe that something special was taking shape when Berners-Lee was working out that proposal 25 years ago. It was the beginning framework for a shared (technical and imagined) information space that brought hypertext to the internet. These components—a collective imagination forged through global hypertext—were what I thought of as “the heart” of the web (once I figured out what that was!).
Today, to me, these characteristics seem considerably more elusive. As I shuffle through apps on my iPad, I’m often struck by the similarities with the pre-web internet that Kehoe demonstrated as he moved from gopher to telnet to finger and back in 1993. And likewise, as I click on links to web content shared through Facebook, I can’t help but note how hard the links work to keep me cloistered, safe within Facebook’s own little eWorld. Some of these experiences are (ruefully, to me) mandated by the affordances of these platforms. But others, it seems, are a combination of social protocols and habit, the ways we choose or refuse to link and weave our own personal narratives across our web histories and timelines. We must not let linking become a synonym for tagging or hashtags! These are very different technologies of connection. On this “anniversary,” I would just like to urge all of us to not give up on hypertext, to continue to seek new ways to make that kind of connection meaningful.