Without Tim Berners-Lee, we might all be slaves to Gopher by now.
You could probably celebrate an online anniversary of some kind every day, but April 30 marks the moment, 15 years ago, when Berners-Lee and CERN renounced all claims of intellectual property around the protocols that allow users to access information over the Internet. Until then, the best we had was Gopher, a spin-off from the University of Minnesota which gave away browsers for free but charged for its servers. The World Wide Web knocked Gopher aside like a troublesome rodent.
In a thoughtful, easy-to-read overview published on the BBC Web site, CERN director of communications James Gillies points out that CERN’s altruistic approach meant we had a uniform way of navigating the Internet, “instead of a Microsoft Web, a Macintosh Web and who knows, perhaps even an Amstrad Web.” We still, however, might end up with a Facebook Web.
Although I set up a Facebook profile in order to administrate our publication’s group, I had put off filling out the details because it’s not a way I tend to communicate. A friend of mine – who has recently surpassed the 1,000 friend mark – changed my mind, when he pointed out that there are many people he knows he can contact through Facebook, but who tend to be unavailable any other way. Although I’m more of LinkedIn guy, that got me thinking, so I have added more information to my profile.
The World Wide Web was set up to read things in cyberspace, but a lot has changed in 15 years. After years of discussing its promise, social networking is putting the emphasis on relationships rather than information. Even as some organizations ban Facebook and similar sites, there is a growing recognition that a shift is talking place in online communication. Just as there was a time when we realized that some people were more likely to respond by e-mail than return a phone call, some people are using social networking services to avoid interaction by more traditional means.
The difference is that we tend to congregate as users not in open, public services but in those owned by a single company, like Facebook. If CERN had invented Facebook, its focus would probably not have been on the advertising opportunities but the chance to enlarge the online conversation.
In a recent interview with Esquire, Vint Cerf admitted there was no great “ah-ha!” moment when he and others set the Internet in motion. “They see the Internet now and think, Well, thirty-six years ago someone imagined what it would look like in 2008, and that is what drove the process. It wasn’t like that at all.” The same holds true for the Web. Although we tend to think those that forget their history are doomed to repeat it, we have to make sure as we wax nostalgic about the early days of the online revolution that we don’t lose sight of the principles which guided it.