Look to the past to improve the future of the Internet

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In October 1993, when the World Wide Web consisted of no more than a handful of sites – I created what was probably the very first website to work out of someone’s home. It was because I owned a computer workstation, needed to run the web server software. Also, because I had a modem that could dial up and connect this workstation to the Internet. And, finally, because it was so easy to create a website.

Back then, you could get away with websites consisting of nothing more than text. If you really wanted to be dramatic, you could add a few “tags” – web-specific shortcuts in parentheses”“. tag made text fat. Another created italics. Yet another, ““, did exactly what it said on the box: display blinking text on the screen.

Connect to an Internet Service Provider by dialing a phone number on a conventional phone line. It was called Dial-up. Credit: webdesignmuseum.org

Part of the joy of the early web was this simplicity and immediacy. You would make a change, hit save, reload the page and bingo! – you would see the product of your handiwork. This rapid feedback has kept a small army of people (including myself) busy adding to our fledgling websites.

Nearly 30 years later, the web has become middle-aged sophistication – sophisticated here used in its original definition of “unnecessarily complex”. Most modern web pages contain very little text. Instead, they have step-by-step instructions on where to retrieve text from a content management system (CMS). Another set of instructions tells the browser where to enter the details of the visual layout of this text, using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, masses of program code, written in JavaScript, orchestrate the loading, rendering, and behavior of everything you see on screen, and everything you can’t: behavioral profilers, recommendation engines and personalization tools.

Part of the joy of the early web was this simplicity and immediacy.

Today’s web pages look like a Frankenstein-esque jumble of parts from different quadrants, often fed to your browser from different countries, and almost always from an array of different companies. Years of intense standardization processes mean that these parts generally work well together. But sometimes some parts don’t arrive or work properly. We often blame ourselves when this happens, unless it’s pretty obvious that a particular website has gone down. A web made up of so many pieces from so many places has become increasingly fragile. As our lives increasingly depend on online resources, this fragility can have consequences.

the Internet
Apple’s homepage in 1998 informing customers of Apple products available for purchase in stores. Credit: webdesignmuseum.org

One answer to this is simply to hand over the entire mess of the web to huge tech giants. You know who they are: Google (or Alphabet, if we’re talking about the parent company), Facebook (or Meta, as they are nowadays), Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. Yet a centralized Internet is in many ways even more fragile than the chaos we have created for ourselves. Every time Amazon, Google, or Microsoft experience a service outage, they impact not only their own customers, but many other businesses that rely on their massive “cloud” infrastructure. Centralization enlarges the greats without providing a real solution – and goes against the whole philosophy of Internet design, which rightly sees the decentralization of resources as a central pillar of resilience.

If we ever hope to reclaim the essential promise of the Web – a system of publication and access to information that is free and open to all – we may have to rethink what we need from the Web, in order to separate it from that we want. We seem to have confused fireworks for substance and beauty for utility. What we very rarely need requires a lot of fanfare.

Consider Wikipedia, almost unchanged in its essential form since its launch 21 years ago. These pages of text, links and images function as they did when his corpus consisted of a few thousand topic entries. The biggest changes to Wikipedia during this period improved support for citations – so that people can easily access via Wikipedia the “primary sources” on which a given article draws its facts, and the conversation system and behind-the-scenes moderation that sets the gold standard for how communities with strongly differing opinions on matters of fact can mediate a working consensus. Neither should be taken lightly, but neither do they influence how an article looks on Wikipedia, or whether any of its billions of users can press an “edit” button in an article and start adding their own knowledge to their content. large deposit.

Consider Wikipedia, almost unchanged in its essential form since its launch 21 years ago.

Wikipedia is just one of many possible uses of the web, but its long-standing stability, accessibility, and ability to edit make many of the web’s newest developments sound more like sizzle than substance. . It’s a rule by which we should measure the rest of our web experience, to help us tell the difference between usefulness and futility.

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Youtube’s home page when it was launched in 2005. Credit: webdesignmuseum.org

I recently had a play with LinkTree, an Australian social media startup that just achieved “unicorn” status (a valuation over $1 billion). LinkTree provides a wonderfully easy to use tool for building a basic website that lets me share links to my bio, podcasts, recent posts, and more. He gets the copyright, and for that he deserves praise. For too long it has been too difficult for people to create their own web pages. Something that was extremely simple in the early days of the web has become the domain of highly skilled designers, coders, and engineers. That’s not to say they’re useless – LinkTree certainly needed them to make their service work so well – but such work should always support individual creativity, rather than replace it.

So maybe we should take a step back and rethink the whole Web project? This is the premise of the Gemini project, which promises a return to a pre-lapsarian Internet, before the Web and its 30 years of tooling made everything too difficult for mere mortals. If he claims to have no claim to replace the Web, he urges us to adopt his protocols and his philosophy: simplicity, usefulness and confidentiality. Given that these are areas where the Web, in middle age, has become decidedly flabby, Project Gemini serves at the very least as a necessary spur to our under-exercised imagination of what we should expect from massive connectivity. of the mid-21st century. It doesn’t have to be like that, he seems to say. There are other ways to be connected. After so many years of relying on the Web, can we entertain fantasies of a new operating environment? So much depends on the web as it is – not just the fortunes of tech goliaths, but the way we share information about our lives, our communities and our planet – that it seems almost foolish to consider alternatives. We have made our bed and we must lie in it. But later, with our eyes closed, do we have the right to dream of a world where everyone can simply, easily and individually share what they know? For a brief, brilliant moment a generation ago, the web made that dream come true. Can we dare to dream of a return to the sources?

In June 1996, Microsoft released Microsoft FrontPage 1.1 WYSIWYG Web Site Editor.



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