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?

4 Replies to “A little history of the web”

  1. Okay, I’m grumpy this morning, but the web is driving me nuts.

    If content used to be king, it wasn’t ruling very well. I’ve almost never found anything nearly as satisfying content-wise as a good paper magazine article or documentary online (other than what my friends write :). Writers actually want to be read. Maybe data was king?

    If sites were unusable when design was king, then they it wasn’t ruling very well either. A designer worth their salt acutally wants their sties to be used. Maybe decoration was king?

    If sites had crazy business plans that didn’t go anywhere when .com’s were king, then they weren’t ruling very well either. Business people want to make money, but at least some of them have to provide people with something useful to keep making it. Maybe greed was king?

    And, hey, let’s not forget to pick on the programmers and technicians that make the platform for content, design and business so gosh darn easy to use and understand. Was technology king? Maybe gagetry was.

    I’ve been doing this web design thing for a decade now, and I hold on to hope that websites will be worthwhile but it can be hard.

    But then I look around at other areas of content (newspapers, tv, magazines, etc), other areas of design (signage, brochures, buidings, advertising, etc.), other areas of business (industry, services, finance, etc.), other areas of technology (electronics, automotive, pharmaceutical, etc.) – and am reminded that 90% of everything is crap.

    Why this should be? I know I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, but I have to wonder about the quality of the kinds of people we have on the go. Looking through the (distorted) lens of the TV screen there is ample evidence for this theory.

    Maybe we don’t create great things because we’re not great people. People who actually care about creating great things, who are willing to put the effort into them, who have the skill and talent to pull great things off, and have the feirceness to hold onto them long enough to see them through.

    (Although, put it that way, and there’s probably only going to be 10% of any population who have that combination of qualities anyway. And to further that thought, how are people supposed to learn those qualities, and who are the mentors to inspire us?)

    Alternatively, and to make matters more complex, is it that to accomplish something really good you have to have so many good things line up perfectly? That is, does a good site have to have good content, good design, good business model and good technology – waver on one aspect and the fragile thread is lost? Again, the odds are stacked up against the creation of something great.

    Forcing myself now to a conclusion (I do have to work, after all), I guess a hopeful note is that if the creation of great sites requires tenatious and unusual characters as well as solid collaboration and cooperation among those individuals, then those of us who have done some online work that they are fairly proud of should consider ourselves fortunate.

    Looking accross the wasteland of websites that exist today, and remembering the 90% rule, the decision is really whether or not one cares enough to wade through it to find the great 10% that you care about. And maybe it should be that way – what is the value of the great without contrast against the truly bad and the vast stretches of the simply ordinary?

  2. Okay, I’m grumpy this morning, but the web is driving me nuts.

    If content used to be king, it wasn’t ruling very well. I’ve almost never found anything nearly as satisfying content-wise as a good paper magazine article or documentary online (other than what my friends write :). Writers actually want to be read. Maybe data was king?

    If sites were unusable when design was king, then they it wasn’t ruling very well either. A designer worth their salt acutally wants their sties to be used. Maybe decoration was king?

    If sites had crazy business plans that didn’t go anywhere when .com’s were king, then they weren’t ruling very well either. Business people want to make money, but at least some of them have to provide people with something useful to keep making it. Maybe greed was king?

    And, hey, let’s not forget to pick on the programmers and technicians that make the platform for content, design and business so gosh darn easy to use and understand. Was technology king? Maybe gagetry was.

    I’ve been doing this web design thing for a decade now, and I hold on to hope that websites will be worthwhile but it can be hard.

    But then I look around at other areas of content (newspapers, tv, magazines, etc), other areas of design (signage, brochures, buidings, advertising, etc.), other areas of business (industry, services, finance, etc.), other areas of technology (electronics, automotive, pharmaceutical, etc.) – and am reminded that 90% of everything is crap.

    Why this should be? I know I woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, but I have to wonder about the quality of the kinds of people we have on the go. Looking through the (distorted) lens of the TV screen there is ample evidence for this theory.

    Maybe we don’t create great things because we’re not great people. People who actually care about creating great things, who are willing to put the effort into them, who have the skill and talent to pull great things off, and have the feirceness to hold onto them long enough to see them through.

    (Although, put it that way, and there’s probably only going to be 10% of any population who have that combination of qualities anyway. And to further that thought, how are people supposed to learn those qualities, and who are the mentors to inspire us?)

    Alternatively, and to make matters more complex, is it that to accomplish something really good you have to have so many good things line up perfectly? That is, does a good site have to have good content, good design, good business model and good technology – waver on one aspect and the fragile thread is lost? Again, the odds are stacked up against the creation of something great.

    Forcing myself now to a conclusion (I do have to work, after all), I guess a hopeful note is that if the creation of great sites requires tenatious and unusual characters as well as solid collaboration and cooperation among those individuals, then those of us who have done some online work that they are fairly proud of should consider ourselves fortunate.

    Looking accross the wasteland of websites that exist today, and remembering the 90% rule, the decision is really whether or not one cares enough to wade through it to find the great 10% that you care about. And maybe it should be that way – what is the value of the great without contrast against the truly bad and the vast stretches of the simply ordinary?

  3. I was writing this, I went through the same process of – well, if things weren’t working, it was all negative, but, feeling particularly hopeful for the future of the web these days, I thought again, and framed virtually the same, in a more positive spin. But speaking of programmers. I worry that we haven’t had our day yet. I worry, in fact, with the increased ease of adding applications to sites, that maybe the day of interactivity-glut may be upon us. Which would be good financially, but bad karmically for me. So hopefully there’ll be some middle ground

  4. I was writing this, I went through the same process of – well, if things weren’t working, it was all negative, but, feeling particularly hopeful for the future of the web these days, I thought again, and framed virtually the same, in a more positive spin. But speaking of programmers. I worry that we haven’t had our day yet. I worry, in fact, with the increased ease of adding applications to sites, that maybe the day of interactivity-glut may be upon us. Which would be good financially, but bad karmically for me. So hopefully there’ll be some middle ground

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