Hard News by Russell Brown


The Web

As you may have read in the news, the World Wide Web turns a quarter of a century on Wednesday. That doesn't, however, mean that on March 12, 1989, it actually existed as anything more than a concept. But that's the day that Tim Berners-Lee is recorded as having written a paper called Information Management: A Proposal, in which he set out the technical basis of a better way of structuring all the information generated at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, where he was a fellow.

This wasn't the first time anyone had thought in detail about the potential of what in 1989 was already known as hypertext. That honour goes to Vannevar Bush, whose famous essay As We may Think -- which conjured a theoretical microfilm-based machine called the memex -- was published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945.

The difference, in part, is that Berners-Lee intended his idea to ship. He wanted it to solve a real-world problem. And both concept and keyword were there in place in that first proposal:

In providing a system for manipulating this sort of information, the hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organisation and the projects it describes. For this to be possible, the method of storage must not place its own restraints on the information. This is why a "web" of notes with links (like references) between them is far more useful than a fixed hierarchical system.

From there, Berners-Lee and his team set about establishing the means by which data would be sent and received in such a system (HTTP) and the way it could be displayed (HTML). They released their work for free from Christmas 1990.

And that's where we pause and win our virtual pub argument with libertarians and public-spending jihadists. Like the underlying internet protocols devised by Vint Cerf and others, the web was not only invented on the taxpayer dollar, it was invented by people on a fairly long leash.

When the first graphical web browser, NCSA Mosaic, emerged from the US National Centre for Supercomputing Applications in 1993 -- setting a template for the web browser that persists still -- the story was the same. Indeed, it was not an uncommon view in the early 90s that that was where the web ought to stay -- well clear of commerce.

That's not how things turned out, of course. We not only saw business on the web, we saw entirely new kinds of business. Google arrived as not only a better search engine (and search engines really were fairly rubbish until it did), but one that prioritised results according to the links we'd made ourselves. And then it gradually became a giant global business based in that same user behaviour.

All this has had an extraordinary impact on the trade in which I personally work. The internet had already given me access from my own home to information that had previously only been available to journalists working in corporate environments, but when Mosaic turned up (1994, for me), that was the point where internet could become a popular platform. The available information exploded along with the internet population.

It was in 1996 that I read what remains the most important thing I've ever seen in a web browser. Our older son had been given a diagnosis that was itself officially not yet three years old -- Asperger Syndrome. Immediately after we got this mystifying news, I saw down in my home office, searched for the words and found Barb Kirby's original O.A.S.I.S. website, which explained so much. One of the things that made O.A.S.I.S. so useful was that the information came not only from doctors and experts, but from families like ours. That's your revolution, right there.

For journalists and journalism, the blessings have been mixed. The flipside of a world of mostly free information and the collected knowledge of all the smart individuals now within reach was that, to an extent, anyone could do our hallowed jobs. Before long, we were also competing with all the journalists at all those remote media organisations that could reach us with their versions of the truth. But the real problem was Trade Me and every other company that disaggregated journalism from the advertising that had so long sustained it.

I say that without rancour. The news media came to believe that being underwritten by advertising was a birthright, and it wasn't. The phenomenon that sees The Guardian, a paper with around 200,000 readers in print, reach an internet audience of 36 million is the same that sees The Guardian burn up its trust account at the rate of £30 million to £40 million every year.

Now, we're watching the grand openness being closed down. Both Stuff and the Herald will start charging for access online this year. But their paywalls will be porous, because the vast currency of the internet is still vital.

As John Naughton has pointed out in The Observer there are many worrying things about this new world. But as the Pew Research Internet Project's The Web at 25 is showing, none of us are giving it up.

We also have this website you're reading. In my work, I've often embraced the contradiction of preferring to work alone, but drawing a crowd while I'm doing it. Public Address has allowed that crowd to manifest as a community. People come, people go. They make real-world friends and have blazing trainwreck arguments. But the fact that everyone's here and sometimes really good things come from that fact: my goodness, it's a miracle.

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