The Web is celebrating its 25th anniversary today, taking as its starting point the March 1989 publication of “Information Management: A Proposal”. I was honored to contribute a small greeting to the Greetings page over at The Web At 25. Following on that, I wanted to add a few more words here, mostly about my own Web history, because the Web is nothing if not a vast collection of all of us sharing ourselves.
I was first exposed to the Web in mid- to late 1993 by my friend and (then) co-worker, Jim Nauer, and it instantly caught my imagination. I’d worked on some hypertext systems before, including a summer spent on a DOS-based hypertext system whose name now escapes me that was used to mark up the Ohio Legal Code on CD-ROM for a publisher named Banks-Baldwin, now a division of Thomson Reuters. This Web thing, though, this was something altogether different and more powerful. By late fall I’d gotten my hands on a paper copy of the HTML 2.0 specification and on December 3th, 1993, I finished marking up my first document: the Incomplete Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episode Guide.
At the time, I was a hardware jockey for the Library Information Technologies department at Case Western Reserve University, swapping out bad SIMM chips in online catalog terminals and maintaining a database of equipment serial numbers. So in my downtime between service calls and database updates, I had the freedom to install Mosaic betas and start surfing around to see what there was to be seen. My increasing obsession with the Web eventually led me to become Webmaster of CWRU’s first “pure” Web site. (Before that, there was an HTTP interface to our Gopher server, which was the first www.cwru.edu.) And as part of that, I published tutorials and compatibility charts and spent a lot of time on Usenet and mailing lists dedicated to this new Web thing.
I do remember the moment that the Web blew me away a second time, and it’s a moment of total coincidence, which is of course why I remember it. On April 3rd, 1996, I discovered (I forget exactly how) that CNN had a Web site, and I was astonished — a news network taking the Web seriously? Really? So I loaded it up, and the top headline was “RON BROWN KILLED IN PLANE CRASH” or words to that effect. We turned on a radio, and there was nothing about the crash for at least an hour, maybe more, and of course newspapers wouldn’t have anything to say until morning, and I remember thinking: What is wrong with these other channels, that they’re so slow and unresponsive? That was my first direct glimpse of the future of information velocity, something that permanently altered my instincts.
Over the years, the Web has obviously been good to me, and I’ve tried to be good to it in return. The original Internet aesthetic of sharing what you know and making use of what others share, one that carried onto the early Web, has always resonated with me, as did the obvious simplicity (and thus robustness) of the Web itself. As simple as possible, and no simpler; small pieces loosely joined; openness to all — these are principles I held dear and which the Web has always embodied. Which means that the Web helped me maintain those principles, over these past two decades, by showing that they can and do work.
As I said in my greeting for The Web at 25:
The web is the most human information system we have ever seen and that may ever be, open to anyone with the interest to build something, gargantuan and riotous and everything we are and hope to be. It’s been a privilege just to witness its emergence, let alone play a part in it.
I suppose I could have just posted that here, and skipped the lengthy reminiscing, but what fun would that be?