It was just last week, at the end of April, that CERN announced the rebirth of The Very First URL, in all its responsive and completely presentable glory. If you hit the root level of the server, you get some wonderful information about the Web’s infancy and the extraordinary thing CERN did in releasing it, unencumbered by patent or licensing restrictions, into the world, twenty years ago.
That’s not at all minor point. I don’t believe it overstates the case to say that if CERN hadn’t made the web free and open to all, it wouldn’t have taken over the net. Like previous attempts at hypertext and similar information systems, it would have languished in a niche and eventually withered away. There were other things that had to happen for the web to really take off, but none of them would have mattered without this one simple, foundational decision.
I would go even further and argue that this act infused the web, defining the culture that was built on top of it. Because the medium was free and open, as was often the case in academic and hacker circles before it, the aesthetic of sharing freely became central to the web community. The dynamic of using ideas and resources freely shared by others, and then freely sharing your own resources and ideas in return, was strongly encouraged by the open nature of the web. It was an implicit encouragement, but no less strong for that. As always, the environment shapes those who live within it.
It was in that very spirit that Dave Shea launched the CSS Zen Garden ten years ago this week. After letting it lie fallow for the last few years, Dave has re-opened the site to submissions that make use of all the modern capabilities we have now.
It might be hard to understand this now, but the Zen Garden is one of the defining moments in the history of web design, and is truly critical to understanding the state of CSS before and after it debuted. When histories of web design are written — and there will be — there will be a chapters titled things like “Wired, ESPN, and the Zen Garden: Why CSS Ended Up In Everything”.
Before the Zen Garden, CSS was a thing you used to color text and set fonts, and maybe for a simple design, not for “serious” layout. CSS design is boxy and boring, and impossible to use for anything interesting, went the conventional wisdom. (The Wired and ESPN designs were held to be special cases.) Then Dave opened the gates on the Zen Garden, with its five utterly different designs based on the very same document…and the world turned.
I’m known to be a history buff, and these days a web history buff, so of course I’m super-excited to see both these sites online and actively looked after, but you should be too. You can see where it all started, and where a major shift in design occurred, right from the comfort of your cutting-edge nightly build of the latest and greatest browsers known to man. That’s a rare privilege, and a testimony to what CERN set free, two decades back.