A little history of the web

There are millions of these out there, each conflicting slightly with the other, each more or less valid, each biased by the writer’s own experience in the medium. To this end, I thought I’d share with you an ill-thought-out idea that’s been percolating through my brain about the history of this very medium. There’s a chronology, but like most things, there’s some backing up that a timeline can’t really account for. So here goes:

First, a preamble on how websites come to be. As I see it, there are 5 parties that are involved in the existence of the website. These 5 parties are: Content Developers, Designers, Programmers (builders), Site Owners and Site Users. Sometimes, obviously, several of these roles are served by the same person(s). However, each serve a distinct purpose. The Content Developer gives flavour to the copy of the website. The Designer gives the site visual appeal. The builder makes it work. The Site Owner gives the site purpose, direction. The Site User gives the site a reason to exist.

At the dawn of the web (91-94), the Content Developer was king. The web was mostly academic & scientific, and what was most important was what was being said. USENET was huge, the exchange of ideas was fast and links were linking all over the place to one another. It was also not user-friendly. If one did not already know how and where to find something, it was pretty difficult to do so. Most navigation was chance, hopping from one site to another on a hyperlinked word, or perhaps from a link directory.

Soon after the release of Mosaic, in early 1993, the web starts to leak out to a more general public. It is still populated mostly by the technological elite, but nodes are mulitplying exponentially. This era is the dawn of the personal homepage. Along these lines, the builder is king. With the release of Netscape Navigator in late 1994, the web really explodes. Site everywhere show up, taking full advantage of the new HTML 2.0 features. Logos spin, images pop-up, horizontal rules animate and the status bar talks to you and background images are massive. Every feature that could be imagined starts to be packed into a site, to the detriment of all. The era of whiz-bang, builder-driven sites lasts well into 1998.

By late 1996, designers were beginning to take notice of the web, and things started to change. The dawn of the 3rd generation of websites was upon us. These sites were driven by the designer. They were beautiful, complexly laid out, and often, completely unusable. The design-as-god website probably reached its highest point around 2000, judging by web-design award sites, but can still be found today. Often these sites would lock you into a particular navigational path, forcing you to experience the design as the designer intended, and quite often would not allow a way out. This era began the balkanization of the web, as designers were far more interested in experimenting with the medium, rather than working within the medium.

By 1997, the Dot-Com craze was in full swing, and the race to corporatize the web was in full swing. Banner ads were everywhere, as were domain-name lawsuits and billion-dollar IPOs. The Site Owner would drive web development here. Every company needed to be on the web, even if they didn’t know how or why. The more savvy, veteran online companies really began developing online identities at this point – the IBM blue stripe showed up around now, linking all IBM sites together visually, as did the MSNs, GO.coms, etc. Intra-linking to commercially linked sites was common, but you were less and less likely to be able to get anywhere just by following content links. Fortunately, search engines started to really mature, and gradually replaced inter-linking as the navigational tool of choice. Wanted to go somewhere? Look it up at Yahoo. Want to go somewhere else? Go back to Yahoo and look that up. The Site Owner, in many ways, still drives the web today for the new companies online. However, in 2001, the user suddenly go noticed by many people, ending the 4th generation of the web.

With the Dot-Com crash, people started to really think about what made a website work. Clearly, you could not simply build it and expect people to come. Information Architecture became recognised as a valid trade and important part of a website. The customer of the website became a dominant concern of a webshop, not just the client hiring them. Things simplified again, and sites broke out of book-mode into a more open format, more suited to the medium. We stand now at the end of this realization, and the beginning of implementation. A site builder must now take accessibility into account. The browser companies have been forced to standardize, to the same end. Design is again a method of communication rather than an end to itself. Content writers, many now with nearly a decade of writing for the web under their belts, are comfortable in the medium, and start to exploit it appropriately again. Site Owners realise that their website is not for them, but their consumer, and look to solutions to that end. Programmers, the mystery of the web destroyed, are forced to make their applications usable, rather than functional.

Even within the last 4 months, I’ve noticed a dramatic shift around the web to this end. In many ways, it feels like a return to basics: content is showing up on home pages again, in-copy links are returning to sites (while still often in-site only, the more tech-savvy sites are now clearly differentiating internal and external links with styles), early tools like ftp, gopher, usenet are being finally replaced with user-friendly web-based equivalents, built into the site architecture. I describe this like we’ve reached utopia, but we’re still far from it. Our technology is still primitive, and the cost to use much of this technology is prohibitive for many. Companies are only starting to see the benefits of standards and accessibility. Online commerce is still in its infancy, overly complex for both the store owner and the shopper to use. And so on, and so forth.

Entire genres of websites have clearly been missed by me here, and other’s importance perhaps overly stated. I honestly don’t know how community sites fit in here. They’ve been around forever, and I’m not sure how much they’ve evolved beyond their functionality. Webrings and the like just seem like homepage collectors, and should be relegated to such. Blogs run the gamut from glorified homepages with rants instead of cat pictures like this one to commercial outlets like Macromedia’s product evangelist blogs. News sites, quickly online, have certainly evolved, but perhaps differently? Advertorial sites, like movie sites, are still driven mostly by a trailer, and with a few exceptions, have yet to truly find a ‘web-format’ in my opinion.

Your thoughts?