The Greatest Hits of the Web 1989-2022
Where we’ve been and where are we going?
The world wide web is 33 years old this year. In human years that would suggest it was mature and established, but the reality is more akin to a toddler learning to walk, there’s some great achievements but a lot of effort is required to control the movement.
Right now the hype feels like it’s switched up several gears, perhaps it’s just another effect of the pandemic, but we are being told things are changing, faster and faster with bolder and bolder claims about Web3 and the Metaverse that echo the sounds of the 90’s dotcom boom and bust period.
We have looked back at 10 landmarks achievements of the web and spoken with tech journalist Martin SFP Bryant about what the future really holds.
As everything around us becomes more digital (yes that is still possible) and better connected we take a look at what’s happened to the internet and where we are going? There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors that have long been associated with these digital spaces and right now it feels like the hype loop is getting out of control…blockchain, NFT’s, the metaverse and much more.
For whilst we hear these terms pretty much every day, scratch beneath the surface and there’s often little if any real substance to these claims. It feels rather like someone has taken a beautiful, new vinyl album and is playing it at the wrong speed – voices all frantic and high pitched, the tune lost as it charges along, chasing faster and faster. What is it chasing? Honestly, we don’t know!
Vinyl and more particularly music – where it’s stored and how we interact with it are a fascinating part of the development of the web. Whilst the technology has moved the boundaries of what’s possible, going beyond the expectations of everyone, human values have gravitated back to the analogue joys and things like vinyl have seen a lot of love. It’s really interesting to see these, for there are so many retro and reworked pieces of outdated technology that have these resurgences in popularity, where the old skool technology still connects with us in ways the digital consumption of music simply cannot replicate. Maybe it’s a kind of ying and yang as we cram more digital into our lives, we need to increase the analogue experiences too, trying to maintain an equilibrium, a sense of balance and what it is to be human?
As we approach the 33rd year of the world wide web, we wanted to reflect on what’s happened, from the earliest days of ‘surfing’ to where we will be in another few years. What’s come before and where it might be heading. It’s time to play the album, a kind of greatest hits of the web. Ready? Let’s go, here’s ten landmark ‘tracks’ that have defined this period.
1. We’re connected
Track 1 on any album is really important, it’s the taste test, the sample (sometimes literally a sample) of what’s to come. Well there was only ever one place that we could start, and that’s here – 1969 and the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). This was the first step towards creating what we now know as the internet. It was a system that allowed government computers across the USA to interact with each other and share information across that network using telephone lines.
2. Pork with ham meat added, salt, water, potato starch, sugar and sodium nitrite
Yes you’ve got it, SPAM! What is it about humans? We make amazing, highly complex and intelligent tools and then use them to generate absolute rubbish! Stand up Gary Thuerk, who sent a message to hundreds of ARPANET users, his claim was, “I thought of it as e-marketing. This is the first example of mass unsolicited email promoting a product, it was sent in May 1978.
Unfortunately Thuerk’s actions made his company millions in sales resulting from the spam, but he also noted that “complaints started coming in almost immediately.” And here we are many years later and it’s still happening every minute of every day. People didn’t like spam then and no one likes it now, so why does it still exist?
3. Welcome to my domain
Track three is all about Symbolics, a computer company from Massachusetts who on March 15th 1985, were the first people to register a .com domain name. They were way ahead of the curve, a full twelve months ahead of HP and IBM and two years ahead of Apple. Unfortunately, Symbolics went out of business in 1993, but its domain remains active, serving as an online museum, dedicated to the history of the internet.
4. What? What? What?
The world wide web was first proposed by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, it was a solution for scientists to share data. The World Wide Web was described as a collection of pages that are accessible through a network of computers called the internet. Berners-Lee wrote three technologies — URL, HTML, and HTTP — that would create a user-friendly interface for this process, allowing it to spread and be adopted by millions around the world. In 1991, Berners-Lee published the first-ever webpage, which was simply a set of instructions detailing how to use the World Wide Web. You can still view it here.
5. The browser
A common every day term today and as the idea of internet took hold and people wanted to access this new space, there were many barriers to entry, not least the level of computer programming knowledge and competency required. New tools were needed, enter Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina, who together launched the first widely adopted web browser – Mosaic - in January 1993. One of the reasons Mosaic became instantly popular with people was its speed and the ability to let users see the images embedded on pages.
They’re next version was called Netscape, released on April 4, 1994. Netscape became synonymous with the web, kicking off the dot com boom. But it had competition in the form of ‘internet navigator’ that was also easy to use.
6. In the Meme time
Did you know that it was Richard Dawkins, who coined the term “meme” back in 1976. He intended for it to be used in terms of evolutionary biology. But then the internet arrived and users adopted the phrase for something quite different. In a 2013 interview, Dawkins said “the internet is a first class ecology for memes to spread, and it’s no wonder that the world ‘meme’ has taken up in the internet, because that’s exactly what it is.” The next time you reference or share a meme remember where it came from and give a little thank you to Professor Dawkins for providing us with a succinct term that’s universally understood.
7. You’ve got mail
Sending physical mail through your letterbox to introduce virtual mail. How many CD’s did AOL and Yahoo produce? They were everywhere in the 1990’s. If you were online you needed an email address, what you’d receive in those early days was often very simple text documents and messages - real life letters, typed onto a computer and sent digitally around the world.
Let’s look at AOL as they hit the number 1 spot. They originally provided a dial-up service to millions of Americans, this was based up with a series of other services, including a web portal, e-mail, instant messaging and a web browser - after they bought Netscape. In 2001, at the height of its popularity, AOL purchased the media conglomerate Time Warner in the largest merger in U.S. history.
But, like so many internet businesses, where the numbers involved were astounding on the upwards trajectory, they then experienced a massive slump, with the associated painful numbers due to the decline of dial-up services and the shift of power away from them into physical wires and broadband providers.
This has become the default pathway to the web, wireless technology has spawned immeasurable numbers of devices (it’s estimated to be in the region of 3 billion/year) and technologies that operate through the air, as if by magic. The reality is that they are using radio waves beamed out from a wireless router, which is hard wired into your broadband. Wifi is a great example of a seemingly outdated concept, radio waves, that has evolved to once again become central to our communications.
This was one of the first sites to really get media attention, a place where you could share your music collection with others. Taking the expensive CD you’d bought in the store and sharing it with anyone, quickly and easily. The legalities of this were far from clear, but Napster paved the way for music streaming as we know it today. It caught the music industry fast asleep, ignoring what was happening online. It’s an industry that feels like it’s never really caught up, as the heady days of selling physical items are long gone, you only have to look at Blockbuster and HMV (in the UK) to see what happens when you ignore the power of the web.
It was Apple who pioneered the digital music space with the iPod, a small, beautifully packaged (as always), portable hard drive with a user-friendly OS and a simple screen, creating history, the musical dye was set, digital music was embedded into life through iTunes.
What happened to Napster? It was founded by Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker. As their software became more popular, the company ran into legal difficulties over copyright infringement, they found themselves spending more time in court than anywhere else, leading to them ultimately ceasing operations in 2001.
In the early days of the web people didn’t question what they saw, it was deemed to be trustworthy. This leap of faith was a big problem as people aren’t always what they appear to be and within a very short space of time and that created a lot of problems. Problems that remain to this day because there was, and still is, no internet police, no authority to control what’s going on in these spaces.
Don’t get me wrong, today with have VPN’s and many other sophisticated tools and technologies checking what we see and hear online, but when it comes to impartial fact checking, Wikipedia has carved out a reputation as an unbiased source of truth. Whether this is justified, as the content is all user generated and curated, remains one of the many issues that faces the web as we move forwards.
What’s next for the web?
It’s a good question and it’s something that we hear more and more about almost every day. We have our ideas, but they are just that - ideas, so we went to an expert, Martin Bryant, to get his views. Martin is a respected tech journalist and podcaster who is an authority on all things tech. He’s also a really nice guy, very down to earth, the perfect person to cut through the noise and tell us what’s the reality of these claims. Let’s explore some of the terms we are hearing and find out what Martin thinks they will actually deliver…
Q What is Web3?
A Modern society simply cannot get enough of new tech. It’s an addiction. The hype for this type of thing runs way ahead of any form of reality. For example, let’s look at crypto currency, how many people are being scammed in that space? The same can be said for NFT’s, where people hand over vast amounts of money for worthless digital assets, that they don’t actually own. These spaces are ripe for snake oil salesmen and women.
There’s a massive conflict of conscience going on, NFT’s proclaim decentralisation as the future of society, this naturally attracts some people, but when these people get ‘burnt’ in this space, and it’s happening with an alarming frequency, they are outraged that there is no safety net, ironically calling for centralisation of the system.
When we look to the future, web3 could be the turning point where the established systems are challenged, things like banking where we have already seen a lot of digital disruption are good examples of sectors ripe for change.
I was thinking the other day, what else is 33 years old? Then I remembered The Lawnmower Man! A film that got everyone really excited about VR and how it would change the world. Yet here we are, 33 years later and that technology has advanced a lot in some ways, but it is still a long way from what was ‘promised’ at the time.
Q What about VR and AR in Web3?
A As I’ve mentioned, it’s improving all the time, but it too will want to shake off the metaverse label as it’s already clear that this is more 2022 hype.
Q What is the Metaverse?
A I think Phil Libin sums this up really well, when he says, “The metaverse is a term that in a year’ s time you just won’t want to use”. His reasoning is sound, the hype will burn out long before the tech is able to deliver the multi experiencial ‘places’ that Mark Zuckerburg and others are talking up right now.
Ok that’s a bit about the here and now, or should I say what we hear about the hear and now. We’d like to also take the opportunity to talk to you about the past 33 years, we’ve already highlighted some of the landmarks in our track listing (above), but let’s see what Martin remembers about the early days of the web.
Q What are your strongest memories of the early days of the web?
A In the 1990’s, Super Nintendo magazine had a feature called “What’s happening on the web”? And I simply couldn’t get enough of this idea – what was out there? What was I missing?
In those early days of web browsing my overriding feeling was one of connection to the world. Suddenly I had this massive information catelogue where I could locate anything that I was interested in, taking me way outside the sphere of influence that I’d known, geographically and in other media, like TV and radio. It really got me thinking, maybe I’m capable of much more than I’d thought up until that point in time? My horizons were broadened like never before, starting my own online music magazine, shaping me into what I’ve ended up doing.
Q Do you remember the sound of dial-up!
A I remember that sound distinctively, it was fun, like you were entering the internet, passing over some kind of threshold. Today the internet is ever present, from the moment you get up in the morning, pick up your phone, everything you do with that device is web enabled, it’s silent and most important, it’s instant. When dial-up was a thing, you had to plan your time online as your phone line would be taken up connecting to the internet, this planning, carving out time in your day, combined with the sounds and the processes involved with dialling in, made the whole being ‘online’ thing feel more special.
Q The web is social, it seems that we just can’t get enough
A Tech wise these channels tend to not being innovating the technology itself, it’s more about the user experience. Right now, they are all copying one another as they don’t know what’s going to work the best, so expect to see Instagram looking more like TikTok and so on.
Today it’s much harder for a new platform to break through, it’s not that the tech isn’t evolving, for it is, it’s more about the funding you would need to incentivise prominent people, ‘influencers’ to use a new channel, spending time on there, interacting and creating content, so it’s harder than ever to get something new up and running.
What we are seeing more clearly now is the cultural and societal impacts of social media. How we deal with this is the important subject, there’s lots of talk of regulation. Online safety is a big thing for the UK government at the moment with bills going through and we will have to see if OfComm is fit for purpose as a regulator? The US is also exploring these avenues but they have bigger problems, it looks like democracy itself could be destabilised to the point of distruction.
Q What will people think about the activities of today in 33 years time?
A The obvious starting point feels like NFT’s, but that’s not to say that they don’t have value to society in general, they are ways of goods being traded that automatically pay the producers of those items. The problem is it’s just so messy right now, it feels like version 0.3 or something and it’s simply not fit for purpose.
Sadly we will look back at how we have let social media destroy society. That said we can’t put all the blame on those shoulders. There’s lots of things that the platforms have done wrong, but they are the products of a broader failure in society, where power is distributed across a smaller number of people, who take this power for granted. This leaves those in the middle with fewer and fewer opportunities.
A good example of this is the internet meme “What’s the one thing that’s shows your age, that the young people of today wouldn’t understand?” I saw a really insightful comment on this recently – Let’s buy a house! This is a good example of the power vacuum that has been created, I think it’s wrong to blame social media for all of this. Sure it has played a part, but when we look back I think that we will be disappointed that we didn’t real it in, control and shape it sooner.
Q What about the impact on our Planet and the environment?
A What’s often thrown at the web world is the damage of Blockchain and Crypto mining, where huge banks of servers are creating these ‘proof of works’, it’s massively inefficient process. But it’s out of sight, in the ether and so becomes hard for many of us to quantify. For example, what’s the carbon impact of things like Netflix? I read recently about the environmental damage of AI, where it takes huge amounts of electricity to train an algorithm. These are abstract things that we don’t think about as much as we should.
We really should be thinking about these more that we do. For the creators the environmental angle is always secondary, they worry about the impact once they have developed the solution, when it really should be part of the development of that solution. In the Web3 world there is a lot of talk about greener, cleaner Blockchains, but it’s always a secondary concern that comes after the ‘thing’ has been created. I’d like to think that the environment, and the impact of any activity on it, is built in to the initial development plans in the future, as a primary action, not is response to negative PR for example.
Thanks Martin, it’s interesting to see that while the hype continues to get higher and higher, the reality is that these evolutions take much longer and involve many more small steps than the giant leaps we hear proclaimed almost every day. As the saying goes, “we live in interesting times”, what we’ll think about these times when we look back is hard to know, nostalgia always creeps in, you can see that above with the found recollections of dial-up, a process that was, let’s be honest, a real pain in the arse. Nevertheless it played a major part in the evolution of the web.
What do you think we’ll see more of in the next few years of the web?
This is real crystal ball stuff, of course we’d love to know, it’s part of that addiction that we have developed for technology, something that has been part of human evolution for centuries, but are we reaching a critical mass? Could this be the turning point? Time will tell, whether you’re already in the digital space, creating NFT’s with Blockchain systems and crypto or perhaps you’re sat there saying, what more can technology do, we’ve plateaued, there’s only so much capacity that we have as human beings. The levels of digital life are already at incredibly dizzy heights, and you’re longing for more long-form, slower and more analogue experiences. For whilst the tech has innovated music, the proclaimed death of print and in particular books, this has not been as prophecised.
Before we sign off, we’re going to turn the record over, go through that precise and controlled set of actions that are required to get the needle just where you want it, in that tiny gap between the tracks. Here we go, ready to watch the needles on the amp start bouncing. Is this for real or is this just fantasy? We are most certainly caught in landslide as we try to escape from reality.