We live our lives online. The recent COVID-19 Pandemic has fuelled what was already a sustained trend. The average person now spends an incredible 145 minutes a day online. The ubiquity of the Web is all but complete. But what about its origins? Just how old is the World Wide Web?
Try this experiment: Ask someone, the first website was launched on August 6th; what was the year?
Their guesses may astonish you.
Many will say some year in the 1980s, even the 1970s, a few choose a date in the 1960s. Some will even react with a blank stare as if the question has no meaning: Hasn’t there always been a web?
No, in fact, there hasn’t.
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The Land of Cheese and Chocolate
It was on August 6, 1991, that the first website was put online by physicist and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee at a research laboratory in Geneva. That’s not in Silicon Valley; that’s in Switzerland. The land of cheese and chocolate.
The brain: that came from the United Kingdom.
The institute, CERN, is world-renowned, and would later place the software in the public domain. Since 2013, the original website has been restored and can be found online (of course) here.
This one small event launched a change in the way billions of people around the earth communicate, do business, learn, even protest.
The World Wide Web has changed the world.
Don’t confuse the World Wide Web with the Internet. The Internet is a network of interconnected computer networks – a network of networks – that has existed since the late 1960s, when it was created to allow the various centers of the United States government and military to communicate, particularly in the case of disaster (read: “nuclear war”). To actually use it, however, required that the person at the keyboard have some specialized computer skills.
Although the structure of the Internet existed – and was expanded throughout most of the world – the number of users was very limited, as were the use-cases.
The Technology Hasn’t Really Changed
The World Wide Web was meant to simplify all this, allowing anyone who wished to share information to do so using a set of programs that make the process easy.
It works in this way: Servers (computers) act as hosts for websites, which are simply files formatted in a special computer language called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).
Other computers are connected to the Internet through an Internet Service Provider (ISP), which, in most cases, is either a telephone company or cable/dish company.
These “client” computers can send a request, via the ISP, asking to see the web page. In order to make this request, the user has to know the web address, or Uniform Resource Locator (URL): This is where the “www-dot-whatever” part comes in.
The request is made through a web browser (for example, Microsoft’s Edge Browser, Mozilla’s Firefox, or Google Chrome), which sends the request to the host computer using a program called Hypertext Transfer Protocol (which is where the “http” in web addresses come from).
The host computer sends a copy of the main page to the client computer making the request.
Now the two computers are linked, in communication with each other. It doesn’t matter where the user (client) is, and it doesn’t matter where the server (host) is: As long as the signal can get through via telephone, cable, or satellite, the connection is made.
If the web page is a “secure site,” the user will have to have a username and password to get in; this is common with banking sites or subscription sites.
Once in full communication with the website, the user can navigate around the site, using links to jump around from one page to another (this is where the “hypertext” comes into use).
The user can download files, enter information, search, ask questions, pay bills, check the weather, get driving directions, order products, or whatever else the website was designed to do.
Email and User Groups
Even though personal desktop computers had become fairly common by 1991, and the number of Internet users was beginning to increase, most activity centered around using email and taking part in user groups (bulletin boards where people could post comments and replies to others’ comments).
The new concept of websites, however, took quite a while to catch on.
At first, websites were limited to the original model of the Internet: Academic, technology/engineering, and some government subjects prevailed.
From August 1991 until January 1999, the number of websites was quite small, about 100,000 or so (the exact number is difficult to gauge).
Party Like it’s 1999
The year 1999 marked the point at which companies began to recognize the utility of having a website.
Catalogs of products could be displayed online without the cost of printing and mailing. These catalogs could also be larger, more detailed, and updated more frequently.
Information about products, user manuals, and answers to frequently asked questions could be provided much more efficiently.
Commercial sites, ranging from the web equivalent of storefront businesses to large multinational corporations, began to appear.
The Web grew in a see-saw-type motion, as some organizations and companies recognized the potential of this technology, they began to create sites; as users began to find out that these resources were available online, they visited them more frequently.
The Exponential Growth of Websites
The number of websites began to move upward in a steady curve: 10 million (January 2000), then about 25 million (January 2001), steadily up to about 70 million (January 2006).
Not all of these were commercial sites, of course; libraries, non-profit organizations, political parties, clubs, religious groups, and news publications began to build websites.
This was the period in which the term “migrating to the Web” was used (bringing to mind great herds of wildebeest roaming across the Serengeti plains).
After that, the Web caught fire: The number of websites doubled every 18 months. By the 20-year mark, August 2011, there were an estimated 350 million websites.
It was not a matter of “If you build it, they will come” so much as “There are a bunch of people out there banging on the door, so we’d better build it!” It seems as if practically every company, group, society, syndicate or coalition with a product, offer, idea, or ideology now has a website.
Modern estimates put the number of websites at over 1 billion!
Government on a Retail Level
While the United States government has always had a presence on the Web, a new phenomenon that could be called “government on a retail level” began to show up.
Information ranging from State Department travel warnings to local building codes and zoning laws were posted; routine tasks such as renewing automobile license plates and driver’s licenses and even paying parking tickets could now be handled on a DMV website (thereby saving countless hours spent standing in line).
From the town council of White Mountain, Alaska (population 203) to the Shanghai, China Post Office, smaller government units began to appear on the World Wide Web.
The Bloggers are Coming
Many individuals established their own websites, to post information, thoughts (blogs), photographs, video clips, and whatever else struck their fancy. And so blogging was born!
At first, an individual had to know enough about HTML to build a site, but soon pre-packaged templates were offered by, of course, online companies.
In 2004, the introduction of Facebook shattered the model. Suddenly, everyone could have a personal website (which is what a Facebook page really is).
From a few hundred thousand members in its first year, Facebook now has an estimated 1.7 billion users, 70% of whom are outside the United States.
Since the inception of Facebook, the phenomenon of hosting your own website has been reborn – utilizing the power of technologies such as WordPress and Wix. Pre-packaged blog templates and integrated shopping modules allow for instant online presence.
All That Shimmers is Not Gold
Not everything on the Web is sweetness and altruistic light. Hackers, phishers, stalkers, predators, and con men seem to come up with new ploys as rapidly as new electronic protection against them is produced.
Identity thieves even have their own hidden websites where they can buy and sell stolen credit card numbers.
As populations become familiar with, even dependent upon, the Web as a source of information, totalitarian governments work to filter and block those very sources.
Personal information of all kinds is being vacuumed up by governments, agencies, companies, information brokers, and criminals with frightening efficiency so that it takes a conscious effort to maintain even a modicum of privacy.
The way we work, think, and live has changed because of the World Wide Web. A recent Pew Research poll shows that 86% of adult Americans use the Internet as their primary source of news.
Of course, rumors, misinformation, and even outright propaganda can now spread as quickly as objective facts. Allegations of fake news and the meddling of foreign powers abounded during the recent presidential elections.
The now-common reference to something going “viral” on the Web raises the image of a source of infection rather than information.
Print editions of newspapers are disappearing, as are “brick-and-mortar” book stores; online and downloadable print is faster and cheaper than paper. On the other hand, more people than ever are using libraries, even if they never set foot in one.
The World Wide Web allows a schoolchild on the Falkland Islands in the far south Atlantic to view a gallery of paintings in the Louvre in Paris.
A worried mother in Belgium can look up the symptoms of mumps at midnight, local time.
A rancher in Bill, Wyoming can download an ebook of the complete works of H.H. Munroe, and a bus driver in Izmir, Turkey can watch streaming video of old Star Trek episodes and laugh at Lt. Uhuru’s stupid-looking Bluetooth.
And you can read an article about the World Wide Web on, well, the World Wide Web!
In the final analysis, the World Wide Web is a tool. It’s a pretty cool tool, admittedly, but, to quote the inventor:
We all have to ensure that the society we build with the Web is the sort we intend.Tim Berners-Lee, 2004
What kind of society do we intend? If we can measure and harness the best parts of the Web, perhaps we can all build a society that we’d like to live in.
The Web is not quite pre-historic; it’s aged well and not-so-well. Let’s see where it ends up!