The web at #20years old

When I saw the emails start floating by about EMC’s ON Magazine’s special issue about 20 years of the web, I flagged them for later attention and promptly moved on.  That may have been a mistake.  Recently, I cracked open the PDF and paged through it.  Something on every page caught my attention.  Except for a few times, I forgot I was reading something written by people at EMC.  I guiltily asked myself, “are we really this cool?”

So here, as requested by Natalie, is my version of the web at 20…

How has the web changed my life?

It’s a bit of a cheat for me to answer this question, because what truly changed my life were the networks that predated what we think of as the Web.  The web made them easier to use and broadened their scope by orders of magnitude, but the damage was already done.

I would not be where I am in life without the Internet.  As a teenager, I hungrily sought out information from any source I could.  On a TRS-80 Color Computer hooked up to a tiny black&white TV, at 300 baud, I connected to (and eventually ran) bulletin boards, snuck into unprotected university dialins to play MUDs and read Usenet, and connected to individuals and information from a much bigger world.  I am still in contact with some of those people, still use the behaviors I learned back then every day.

But it wasn’t until college, in 1993, that I saw those things melded together into The Web.  It may have been technically 3 years old by then, but it was just getting its momentum.  It became my immediate and constant companion, and has been since.  Everything I cherished about the Internet was boiled down into one magical term: Home Page.  We didn’t have net connections in our dorms, so all that gweeping was done in the semi-dark basements of the CS building, in labs shared with giant line printers and dozens of black and white monitors.

I can still taste the Mountain Dew … and the freedom.

I created my first web page in those years, when the best web search engine was called WebCrawler and people still coded for users of Lynx.  The Internet Archive has a version of that page, from right before I graduated.  Most of the links are incredibly broken, but you can still see a snapshot of my personality in the text, personal branding way before the Millennials “discovered” it.

Dave's home page main menu

This was the brave new world.  And we thought we’d keep it to ourselves forever: nerds arguing over Star Trek and D&D, posting pictures of our cats, and researching new technologies.

And then some damn fool figured out how to make money off it all.

How has the web changed business and society?

I like to say the changes to society and business associated with the web have come (and are coming) in waves.  For a long time, businesses saw the web as nothing but a giant Yellow Pages, and society saw the web as a place to argue over Star Trek.  I remember a magical period in the Web’s history when business hadn’t caught on yet, but there were enough people for actual connections to be made.  You could find people who had been to far away places and talk to them about their experiences.  You could bump into groups who were dedicated to obscure programming languages and figure out how to solve bizarre software problems.

And then the marketers took over, clumsily but powerfully. When you tried to find real people, you found storefronts instead.  Search engines were new, and SEO technology outpaced the search algorithms.  You couldn’t trust the web any more.  Communities were buried, hard to find.  It was difficult to meet new people and form new interactions.

Eventually the old sense of community emerged from its hibernation.  Strong web forums with passionate moderators helped people with similar interests hook up, and some of them lasted long enough to become trusted sources of information.  Social media sites formed and helped us track trusted crowds.  Web page technology got decent, bandwidth got cheap, blogs became mainstream, and suddenly (if you knew where to look) the web was social again.  Now there were two webs, the social web and the static clumsy business web.

Then, most recently, businesses figured out how to leverage the new (old) online world.  Instead of trying to take over, they tried to engage.  And the business web became social.

And so we’re back where we started, but better.  We’re free to argue over Star Trek and post pictures of our cats … and route around government censorship … and collaborate on new technologies … and tallk directly to our government … and order pizza online … and monitor millions of conversations until you find an unhappy customer in Paraguay … and finally engage with that person following the same unwritten rules we geeks help put into place 20 years ago.

It’s a beautiful time to be an information professional.

(What I think is an important followup point here is that there are areas where the web hasn’t changed society.  Vast stretches of people are not connected, and the disconnect isn’t shrinking.  Let’s not forget this.)

What do I think the web will look like in twenty years?

To answer this I tried to think back on the past twenty years.  Many of the technologies existed when the “web” was born, but we found innovative ways of tying them together, made bandwidth cheaper, and exponentially extended its reach.  So what do we have the technology to do now, but aren’t doing yet?  What will change when (and if) the digital divide narrows?

The easiest answer is that dumb search will disappear.  All search will be contextual by default, whether that context is geographical, social, historical, or something else we haven’t thought of yet.  Our tools will serve us, help us filter the world automatically in contexts that make sense to us.  Based on aggregating data about ourselves, our histories, and our friends, the tools will be highly predictive and accurate.  They’ll work on objects other than text (we’re improving image search, but let’s imagine all of youtube indexed not by metadata but by the data itself!).

This will come at the cost of privacy, of course, and the mad scientists of the 2030s will be those who refuse to make that trade.  Like a person in today’s world who refuses to have a credit card or a bank account, most of us won’t be able to understand how they can reject all that convenience.

Another easy one is that we’ll take the cloud for granted.  If you have data somewhere, you’ll have that data everywhere.  The concept of remembering a URL or bookmarking it and losing that bookmark will seem archaic.  There’s some fascinating security and usability problems to be solved there, of course.  It’ll be fun to see that fall into place.

Fads will come and go faster than they do today.  With the ability to spin up a virtual data center and tear it down with no delay, a startup can flare up and disappear within hours.  Low-budget clones of such companies will appear worldwide, and the battles over who had an idea first will be epic.

Another trend I think will continue is the shrinking of content.  Real writers will be harder to find, as the majority of content providers end up doing nothing but sharing links and snippets.  Our attention spans will shrink further.  If we can’t read it or watch it in 30 seconds, we won’t care.  And the few of us who insist that things used to be better will be laughed at by our juniors.

One thing I can predict is that twenty years from now, my daughter will 21 years old, and she will laugh uproariously at how wrong we all are about where things are headed.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’ll ask Jamie Pappas, a colleague at EMC, to continue the discussion next.  Jamie?

1 comment so far ↓

#1 The web at #20years old | Forge network on 02.01.10 at 8:37 am

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