On the Web's 20th Birthday

Yesterday was 6 August 2011. Exactly 20 years ago, Tim Berners-Lee posted a message to a newsgroup called alt.hypertext. He introduced the group to a new project, something he called the WorldWideWeb.

See for yourself (link via http://twitter.com/HD41117) http://groups.google.com/group/alt.hypertext/tree/browse_frm/thread/7824...

I first heard about the Web in 1993 or 1994, when I was a member of the ECHO (East Coast Hang Out) group here in NYC. Through ECHO i had a Unix acct and access to the Internet and Newsgroups. I would fire up my laptop, and connect to a city made of words. Sometimes there were meetups and I got a chance to meet the hackers, artists, journalists who used ECHO. Some of them became my friends. I would ride my bike to roof-top parties on the Lower East Side, and to F2Fs (face-to-faces) at the White Horse Tavern and Brooklyn bars.

One day, one of the guys who ran Panix, a public-access Unix company, started a new topic. He titled it "New tool for browsing the Internet." He described something that sounded fantastical: he had downloaded an app that allowed him to visit servers all around the world and to view images and text in the same window, at the same time (OMG!) "sort of like anonymous FTP without the need to login as anonymous..." Then by clicking on the text or image he activated a "hypertext link" (what is that?!) which would catapult him to another server, perhaps on the other side of the planet. He said it was magic, revolutionary. I was not impressed.

Who had enough cash to buy a computer that could run a Web browser? Nobody! The guy who ran Panix offered to let anyone give it a try at his office, on his NeXT workstation which cost thousands.

About 9 months later I entered graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, and when I arrived one of the first things I did was get my computer center account hooked up. I sat down at what was then a $4,000, very high-end Mac and fired up Mosaic 1.1. What the guy from Panix had said was true. It was wild, revolutionary. One site led to another. I didn't stop for hours and hours. Back then it was mainly grad students and professors talking about everything from home-brewing to dark matter.

20 years later, Moore's law has produced a computer that is probably 1000X more powerful and costs one tenth as much. Now many more can access the Web. That's good. But some of the sites your find now are fraudulent, bogus, full of malware and deception. That's bad. It's still a young medium.

The Web is improving technologically: the group of technologies/techniques called HTML5 and CSS3 offer cross-device and platform hope, and things like geo-location and machine-translation both make things more local and more accessible. Now the world is connecting or connected. China's number of connected users will soon pass America's connected users.

The Web is also improving socially. There are plenty of communities (open source and other) that are thriving and producing visualizations and art like processing.org, and platforms / content management systems like Django, Drupal, and Plone, to name a few, and there are also commercial outfits like Google that are making significant contributions to the whole ecosystem. So, I think things are looking pretty good.

For the Web's next 20 years I hope we can keep the principles of universal accessibility and 'give to get' and make them even stronger.