I am sitting here reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the creation of the first web page by Sir Tim Berners-Lee on 6 August 1991 (which can still be seen at http://info.cern.ch/hypertext/WWW/TheProject.html), and what the Web has meant for the world so far.
What got me thinking about this was two things: Sky News rang me up to get a few thoughts on the topic as they prepare a piece for this Saturday on the occasion of the anniversary, and also my colleagues and I recently published a paper as part of a special issue of the journal New Media & Society on “The Web at 25” (more on that later).
One of the most brilliant things about the Web, of course, is that Berners-Lee didn’t need to dream up all the potential uses of the Web before launching that first website. The bigger commercial providers of online information in the 1980s (like Compuserve, AOL, or the one that I will own up to having subscribed to, Prodigy) were centralized: new services for users were decided centrally, and then introduced on the platform. Certainly email let you communicate with people on other platforms, and there were more specialized internet-based tools like Usenet that weren’t platform specific, but largely those providers were designed with the idea that you would connect to Prodigy or whatever provider you were paying monthly, and most of your online time would then be spent consuming the content they provided (including news, weather, entertainment, etc.).
The Web of course, is different. Once the Web started to take hold and the tools (Netscape, particularly) for accessing web pages and (most importantly) building your own web pages became widely available, anyone with a mad idea could register a domain name, code up a bit of HTML using simple free tools, and then see if they could get anyone to visit the site (remember hit counters on front pages, anyone?).
So Berners-Lee didn’t need to anticipate YouTube, Amazon, Wikipedia, and any of the millions of brilliant, odd, and offbeat uses of the Web before beginning. This openness to innovation is what made the Web generative (using the term from Jonathan Zittrain).
The brilliance of the Web is that you don’t need the digital equivalent of local planning permission to put up a new site. Can you imagine how much innovation would be stifled if we had millions of local councils deciding whether a new web site could be built? Would the Internet be the equivalent of British residential architecture?
One of my main areas of research is how knowledge production is changing as computers and data become embedded in research (see my 2015 book Knowledge Machines for details). In a recent study we published in New Media & Society, with my colleagues Ralph Schroeder and Josh Cowls we looked at how the Internet has become embedded in academic research.
It might not surprise anyone that the Internet has become more important to more areas of research over the last 25 years. And figure 1 shows exactly that:
What is more interesting to me is how internet-related publications spread right across all disciplines, as shown in the following figures:
What these figures show is internet-related research overlaid on a standardized map of all of science which lets you see how the Internet spreads right across most areas of research very quickly. You can find all the details of the study here:
(2016) “The net as a knowledge machine: How the Internet became embedded in research“, New Media & Society, .
(There is also an open-source version here if you can’t access the publisher version: https://ora.ox.ac.uk:443/objects/uuid:aab8bbed-880d-47fe-b1ec-e6c07a198a80).
I would argue that this ubiquity in research, and the incredible diversity and spread of the Internet right across all sectors of society, the economy, politics, is based on this underlying issue of openness.
So, Happy 25th Birthday, World Wide Web!