A Quarter Century of the World Wide Web

by Mary Martialay on December 1, 2016

(For some 2016 is the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web (more about the veracity of that milestone below). In this post, Rensselaer professor James Hendler answers some questions about the evolution of the web in its first 25 years, and what we can expect in the next quarter century. Hendler, one of the originators of the Semantic Web, is the director of the Rensselaer Institute for Data Exploration and Applications (IDEA) — a campus wide institute that supports data-centric, interdisciplinary activities — and the Tetherless World Professor of Computer, Web and Cognitive Sciences at Rensselaer.)

How has the World Wide Web changed since it was first conceived?

In 25 years of the web, what we’ve really seen is that we’ve gone through several different stages. In the early days, researchers saw the web as a very active place, but a lot of the companies thought it would be like TV, they would own the content, we would use their web browser and just look at things. But, from the very beginning, it’s been clear that people wanted to write, they wanted to contribute, they wanted to post photographs, they wanted to do things.

Around the year 2000, we started seeing the term “Web 2.0” to mean putting things on the web, blogging, and marking up photos, and that in turn led to the growth of social networks, Wikipedia and many of the other things we see on the web now. A lot of people now feel we’re on the verge of a third stage of the web, where we’re looking at that same conflict – will the big companies that own social networks own the web, or will the web continue to grow as a very decentralized, active, innovative place?

The history of web has been this very interesting tradeoff  between innovative companies coming in, these companies taking a lot of the real estate as it were (and trying to own the web), and then individuals creating a new and exciting thing, that lead to new companies. We hope the cycle will continue, and that it will remain a place of innovation and active exploration.

What can be expected of the web in the future?

The web in the future is sort of complicated to describe because it’s a combination of two things. Part of the web is what’s moving to your mobile phone. Many people still think the web is what they see on their browser, but the web is also an infrastructure that lives under all of those apps that you’re using, especially as those apps increasingly are starting to interact with each other. So when you’re in Facebook and you want to go to a page that takes you somewhere else on the web, or you’re writing an entry and you want to put your own photos in it, all of those things are about sharing information across many different ways, and the web is the platform upon which we build.

But the web is also about data. And as we see more and more data coming through the web, we see people bringing their new products and new ideas to the web, we see much more information sharing.

In the midst of this, the idea is to really keep the web open and to use a technical term, “decentralized,” meaning that no one owns it, anyone can bring a machine, or some new information and add it to the web.

Did you expect the web to grow as much as it has?

I think the question that’s often asked is: What did the early web researchers think the web was going to be like? I like to say that Tim Berners-Lee is probably the only person who’s never really been surprised. He’s the inventor of the web and he named it the “World Wide Web” in the beginning – he knew this was something that could really become what it is.

I think what’s been a surprise to many of us is not so much how it’s grown, but how much industry has been there, how many different models there are for how people make money on the web, the changes between selling advertising and open information, and the way that so much is available for free on the web that we used to pay for (and the input that is having on society). I think all of that has been very exciting to watch and many people expected some of the different parts of all this, but it all coming together in such a large vision is really what Tim Berners-Lee predicted 27 years ago when he first published his outline for the project he called the World Wide Web.

How should the web be regulated?

We’re going to see a lot of different kinds of regulation for the web. There are two strains the web puts on the regulatory system; one is the speed of innovation, the laws move slowly, the web moves quickly making it hard to control legally.

The other one is international because I can click on a website here that’s based in France, that’s being provided to me by a multinational company that’s giving me the information on a cell phone that’s operating in New York state. So what happens when state law, our federal law, and international law don’t all agree? There are many treaties and conventions over web use, but each country has a lot of control over its own and each company has a lot of control over what they’d like to see.

So we see fights like the privacy fights in Europe where companies like Google and Facebook are arguing for openness, whereas in the United States we have very different policies and companies are arguing that we need to keep the net neutral so that everyone can have access while at the same time, they’d like everyone to come primarily to their site. So it’s a constant struggle for regulation of control versus the benefit of openness.

The other thing that’s very tricky on the web is that this very openness, this very thing that makes it work, allows people you disagree with to be there. I used to tell the story that the morning I discovered I was really a web researcher was when I was looking for an example for an article, and I decided to use a web article on the question of “how many cows are there in Texas?” because I knew I could get many different answers and I was working in Texas at the time. One of the pages that came up very early on — and this is before Google even existed — was a page that claimed that there are no cows in Texas, because they’ve been replaced by symbiotes put here by aliens from UFOs, and that’s why you should not eat meat. So it was a radical UFO-ollogist vegetarian website, 25 years ago now. I still to this day have no idea whether it was a joke or serious. But the web was open enough that someone like that could put it out.

If you want to get rid of that, or say violent extremists — maybe you ask ‘why do we allow terrorists to speak on the web?” — the problem is there’s no way to take off one set of voices without someone else being able to close off another. To the UFO folks, my beliefs were just as crazy as theirs seemed to me. Spaceships replacing cows would seem normal and I would be abnormal. So Tim Berners-Lee’s vision was to allow everybody to be able to get on, share, and let societies, communities, social mechanisms, dictate what would work and what would not work – the questions we ask in the emerging web science research area.

Is this year really the “25th anniversary” of the web?

It’s interesting how August 2016 suddenly become this date that was magically the 25th anniversary of the web. The problem with any technology is — what do you date it to? Tim Berners-Lee likes to give 1989 as the start of the web. That’s when the first document using that name was published and got people excited. A lot of people use 1991 because that’s when the code became available that was most sharable. A date that a lot of other people use is 1993, because that’s when Mosaic browser (that led to Netscape, that led to Firefox and Chrome and all these other browsers we use nowadays) came out. As another example, I was one of the researchers who created something called the semantic web, and that work started in the late ’90s and was first brought to public attention in the late ’90s but is usually dated to an article that Tim and I and another colleague wrote that was in Scientific American in 2001. So these anniversaries of technology are always hard to get a handle on. But most people in the web believe that ’89 is really when we should celebrate the start of the web, and spring of ‘91 as really the start of web development.