Weekly Feature


The People Have Spoken: The Internet in 2007

December 17, 2007
by findingDulcinea Staff
Forty years ago the Internet could be considered a new, hip gadget—in essence, a modest tool used for government research that only a small group of people knew or cared about. In the past few years alone the World Wide Web has turned into a veritable society, a continually expanding fantasy land, a vast information portal, and the most liberal communication platform of all time. This week we look back at the foundation of the Web and the innovations that have led us to today’s Internet. Just how did the masses seize power of the Web, and where is it leading us?

Remembering the Origins of the Web

The Internet emerged in 1966 as a simple, organized, and well-contained phenomenon, nothing like the vast, almost amorphous universe it is today. It is hard to believe something that caters to so many of our interests and needs today was taking shape over forty years ago, alongside the first NASA missions to space.

The World Wide Web’s prototype was a project of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, a division of the U.S. Department of Defense. Taking the name ARPANET, this fledging Web connected universities and other research centers and was focused on the perceived threat of nuclear warfare, which was at the forefront of government priorities at the time. The Computer History Museum carefully deconstructs the history of the Internet, beginning with its origins in the early 60s, and including pictures and diagrams of key players, machines, and designs. The exhibit takes us from the relatively short-lived ARPANET, put to bed in the late 1970s, all the way through to the present day.

Take a look at these maps to see how ARPANET grew in scope from its California-based hub in 1966, which was just a two-part network between UCLA and Stanford University, to a network in 1977 that included several hubs in each of a dozen states, plus one in London, England.

What happened next? For the answer, look to The Zakon Group, a team of technology experts who have compiled a dense timeline of the Internet’s history from the early 1960s to today. The events here indicate how organically the Internet grew; each development in technology was a stepping stone for the next, even if the projects were independent of each other and finite. Not surprisingly, it was online communication that fostered much of the exchange of ideas that allowed ARPANET to move forward from subsequent developments like Ethernet and TCP/IP to the World Wide Web.

"Weaving the Web"

Tim Berners-Lee, an Oxford University graduate and currently a Senior Research Scientist in computer programming and artificial intelligence at MIT, is credited with inventing the World Wide Web in 1989. On the Web site of the WWW Consortium, an organization and online knowledge base of which Berners-Lee is a member, read a biography of the mastermind, view screenshots of the first-ever Web site, and learn about his current projects and past endeavors, which include the Virtual Library, a now defunct, but still online, index of the best sites on the Web.

For more on Berners-Lee’s story, read his 1997 book Weaving the Web, a commentary on the invention and “ultimate destiny” of the Web.

Clicking Forward

“Imagining the Internet” is a joint venture of Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, and the Pew Internet Project, that outlines some of the post-ARPANET milestones, including Robert Metcalfe’s Ethernet, a data-transfer system unveiled in 1976. But the heart of this story remains ARPANET, which, compared with today’s Web, was a seamlessly run network, nothing like the barely controlled chaos we know and love today.

Imagining the Internet’s article “Development of the Internet” features quotes from dozens of technocrats’ mid-90s predictions of what the World Wide Web would become. One professor’s prediction was that the Internet would give us access to the “godmind,” allowing the average citizen to be granted more power in a virtual world than he could in reality. We’re getting there; virtual environments like Second Life allow us to almost completely replicate our lives in a virtual setting, editing out the parts we don’t like, and enhancing the parts we do.

Webtime Stories

Two sites are particularly useful in exploring the story of the Internet and how different areas of culture, commerce, and daily life came to exist online.

The first is the Internet Society, a nonprofit organization based in Reston, VA. The society works to promote leadership and regulation on the Internet. The organization’s site has a lot of resources on the birth and evolution of the Internet, including dense chronologies of the technology involved and interesting links to other sites that contribute to the tapestry of the Internet story. Visit the “Histories of the Internet” page for links to some resources chosen by the ISOC, including NetHistory, mentioned below.

The second site, which ISOC led us to, is NetHistory, created by Ian Peters, an Internet historian whose goal was to make the history of the Web more accessible to the average user. Read Peters’s “History of the World Wide Web.”

The Next (Mis)step

As Peters’s history helps illuminate, the World Wide Web went from technological enigma in the early 90s, to educational tool, to virtual money tree. As programmers started proving their fluency in html, the market for potentially profitable online products grew exponentially. But evidence shows that it happened too fast. Certainly the sites were there; their designs were solid, and so was their funding. But were the offerings tangible? When they were tangible, sometimes the demand exceeded the supply. Many of these companies, such as eToys.com (#5 on CNET’s “Top 10 dot-com Flops” list), weren’t ready for the enthusiasm of their users. Others, like WebVan (#1 on CNET’s list) weren’t ready for the fact that their audience didn’t show as much enthusiasm as their investors.

The dot-com boom and bust, which neatly straddled the end of an old and the beginning of a new millennium, is explained in detail on Investopedia, an online resource for both new and seasoned investors. Its article provides important insight into this overzealous chapter of Internet history, when heavy investing into new Web sites led to a wide-reaching and severely damaging backlash when those sites failed to make money or failed to form long-term business plans. As the article explains, "Companies underwent a similar phenomenon to the one that gripped 17th-century England and America in the early '80s: investors wanted big ideas more than a solid business plan." The Internet was simply too nebulous and too new for companies to have a solid understanding of its potential and realized impact on users.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is an adage we can attribute to the correct person (George Santayana) just by Googling it. Perhaps the dot-com crash of the millennium won’t return in the same form, but new ventures mean new risk. The Internet and its businesses may have studied up on Web 1.0, stretching out their “beta” phases, as findingDulcinea has done, and not jumped to a first round of bidding with investors. This allows sites to better showcase their product to potential investors and users before they ask them to sign on the dotted line. But the fact remains that there is money to be made online—more than ever—and the existence of brand-new ideas in an apparently limitless environment still leaves room for more business-side innovation. With new types of online businesses should come new types of online business plans, and a flexibility and adaptability that takes into account past pitfalls and the fact that trends can die over night.

On Friday we’ll be investigating more of the Web 1.0 boom and bust by looking at e-commerce and how it’s changed in the past decade.

The Rebirth: What’s Happening Now

At the end of 2006, a Time magazine cover story articulated an idea that had been lurking around for some time: that the Internet is shaped by its users, and in turn, the Internet shapes the real world—bloggers become influential pundits, message boards become veritable communities, and online “scribes,” both Web authors, commenters, and message board attendees affect the plots of television shows (as Rolling Stone argued in an article this summer). The New York Times preceded many in its commentary of the phenomenon of the Internet, a densely populated platform, melding with television, so long a medium that people simply witnessed, but couldn’t affect in the ways they do now. For evidence of our online pulling power, just take a look at the Web sites that are top dog these days. They're global, unscripted undertakings like YouTube, the ubiquitous Google adoptee where users register for free and upload videos seen by fellow bloggers, diarists, filmmakers, actors, comedians, and musicians around the world.

Time's article is just one of several journalistic forays announcing the power of the collective "us." The magazine caught some attention on the newsstands (and in the media) because of its shiny mirrored surface: staring into the cover, we saw ourselves framed by the caption, "Time's Person of the Year: You." Alerting us that the times they are a' changin', the article's author, Lev Grossman, began with an anecdote on 19th-century history:

"Thomas Carlyle ... believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species."

As Grossman put it, that wisdom "took a serious beating" in 2006.

You & UGC

Many new sites are responding to the inherent desire that our offline worlds simply be available to us on our computers, where we're spending so much of our time. Why not create a site that lets you see your entire calendar in your browser? (In fact, there are probably twenty such sites in operation right now; HiTask is just one of them.) How about a site that lets you create a personalized “newspaper” to share goings on with your friends and family? Whatever the innovation, most new, socially driven Web sites are founded upon old traditions: the desire to connect, stay connected, stay organized, and feel at home, even while you’re navigating around a Web browser.

The key phrase is ”user-generated content,“ or UGC: written or other forms of material that we provide a Web site. We're a technologically savvy culture with many of our interests, information, and friends at our fingertips, and they arrived at our fingertips due in no small part to our input. There are hundreds of outlets on the Web specifically catering to our needs and asking us to freely participate.

In the next four parts in this series we’ll be looking at the myriad ways that the Internet user is being invited to take part; in activities they’ve always enjoyed, and activities that have been revolutionized by the Web.

Most Recent Features