30 years ago, on August 6, 1991, a computer scientist working at CERN introduced a project to the public he had been working on for several months. The project, as he described, combined “the techniques of information retrieval and hypertext to make an easy but powerful global information system”. The name of the project: the “World Wide Web”. “Try it”, Tim Berners-Lee wrote in his message on Usenet. And we did.
Over the past 30 years, the Web has grown up. But just like with every other new medium, we first had to overcome our limiting views and habits from the past. Because like every other medium that came before it, the Web is different.
The Web is ever-expanding.
The Web is device-agnostic.
The Web is unpredictable.
The Web is evermore standardized.
The Web is non-linear.
The Web is flexible.
The Web is responsive.
The Web is a playground.
The Web is open.
If you have been around since the 1990s or early 2000s, you know all of this. You have experienced the early years of wild and rampant exploration and experimentation. You also marveled at the fast pace of the industry with companies growing like fury just to be insignificant or even out of business a few years later. You have learned to dance with the ever-changing nature of the Web and you’ve seen web standards emerge from a soup of different approaches and philosophies. You have seen Flash come and go. You witnessed the rise of the blogosphere, user-generated content, and Social Media. And regardless of what your individual contribution was, (even if it was the Spacer GIF) we all made the Web what it is today.
There is also a lot to not like about today’s Web. No wonder many people feel nostalgic about the early days. But while 30 years can feel like a lot of time and things seem to be set in stone, it is important to remember that the Web is still in its infancy as a medium and as a set of standards and technologies.
When cinema was 30 years old, people were still watching silent films in black and white. It was only in the 1920s and 1930s when the use of sound and color – at first two colors and then even three (“Technicolor!”) – would become mainstream. No sound and color. After 30 years. This is where we are with the Web. We have left behind the first phase of imitation and exploration that cinema underwent as well. We are standing on the shoulders of giants (called web standards) but we are still just getting started.
What if the 2020s will be for the Web what the 1920s were for cinema? What if, both in terms of artistic creative expression and technological advancements, the best is yet to come? I have no idea what the web will look like in another 30 years. But I am sure that we will look back at the first 30 years of the Web like we look back at the silent era in cinema today: as the formative years of a medium that was about to evolve to even higher heights.
The Web has always been about what each and every one of us contributes. And contributing is easier and more important than ever. So let’s not leave the future of the Web to big tech alone. Inclusiveness, accessibility, performance, security, usability, decentralization, openness – in almost all areas, the Web is far from done. I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years on the Web will bring. Let’s shape them together.
If you are new to the Web or would like to learn more about its history, there is a marvelous newsletter by Jay Hofmann called The History of the Web. Jeremy Keith also read it on the ShopTalk Show podcast. Make sure to give it a listen!