The history of the Web, and why it matters

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Before we can understand online journalism and its many forms and functions, we have to understand the Web itself. That means not only grasping the technical terminology and general architecture—which you got from the “Journalism 2.0” reading last week—but also digging a little deeper into the very ethos of the Web. That’s prerequisite. To “get” Web journalism, we have to get the Web.

So, let’s start with a little history. Watch:

Now: Who invented the Web, and why? What does the Web’s very makeup—its structure, its linking, etc.—have to do with big-picture issues regarding how we communicate, on a mass scale and in an interpersonal way? Should we care? Does any of this matter for journalism? (OK, that’s rhetorical. But why does this matter?)

Bring some of those questions as you jump into this piece from Vanity Fair. It’s a long but rather interesting history of the medium, as told by the key players themselves. Try not to get bogged down with names and dates; I’d rather you skim that stuff and instead focus on the larger (and perhaps more subtle) issues at work here—the socio-cultural elements and implications of the Web’s development during the past 50 years. What are some of the takeaway lessons as we think about rebooting journalism for the 21st century?

As always, please respond by 8 p.m. the night before class—in this case, by Wednesday night.

p.s. We don’t have time to watch all of “Download: The Story of the Internet,” which aired on the Discovery Channel last year, but a couple of clips are useful, such as this one on social networking:

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18 Responses to “The history of the Web, and why it matters”


  1. 1 Katherine September 2, 2009 at 9:01 am

    The Youtube piece says that the internet was created for government purposes fifty years ago. I never knew its primary purpose was for communication if a bomb attacked us and radio frequencies weren’t available. Paul Baran says in his audio interview, “the importance from communication and stopping a war was greatly under appreciated.” It’s quite interesting to see how far we have progressed from the government’s usage, to the launching of Mosaic for everyone else.

    I thought it was interesting how Kleinrock compared how no one really paid any attention to the birth of the internet. Kleinrock says that in 1969 there was Woodstock, Manson killings, man on the moon, and Mets winning the World Series. But nobody cared for the internet having its first connection to a host. There were no parades or media attention for the launch of the network. Maybe society wasn’t 100% ready for the big switch.

    Further in the Vanity Fair piece, the article mentions that once the internet finally exploded into mainstream America, businesses began to flourish. Perhaps the future of journalism will take the same turn. This could just be a challenge for the journalists. At times I feel just like Paul Baran, where he says communication (i.e.-great journalism) is often under appreciated. It took the internet decades to be understood and valued. Rebooting journalism might take the same.

  2. 2 billbowmanut September 2, 2009 at 11:22 am

    I thought that the two videos and the article were very interesting. They exposed me to some ideas and information that I was unaware of. For example, I knew that the government pioneered the use of the internet, but I was not fully aware that they use it primarily to communicate during nuclear attack.

    I thought the point that they made in second video about how the internet is returning to what its founder’s and innovators first imagined, a two way method of communication, was very interesting. Today, the internet truly is a collaborative process, unlike say, eight years ago when I felt for the most part that I was just a passive viewer, a la TV.

    I also found it interesting that many times, individuals or small groups of people made most of the innovation and change in the internet, not large companies (for the most part). The democratizing nature of the internet is what made this possible. The fact that these changes have been made thanks to one or two people has an impact on journalism. Now, journalistic innovations and ideas can be made by one or two people, rather than the NYT or another mega-company. This is thanks to the ease of use and low cost of internet publishing.

  3. 3 Grant Derigo September 2, 2009 at 11:58 am

    I think that this is a very interesting and insightful post. I knew much of this history already, but it was much more captivating hearing from the people who were actually involved with the development at crucial junctures.

    I find it especially interesting that much of what made the Internet such a revolutionary tool was not the reasons it was originally conceived, but the uses that individual users found for it. It really caught on once it was made accessible to everyday people. Even if those who’d created the Internet saw the benefit that could people could derive from it, they trivialized these benefits because they didn’t think they were “important.” This is the same thing that happened decades earlier with the original telephones. They were only sold to businesses because they thought that housewives would just use them to chat with friends and not conduct “important” activities. Once they were finally made available to the public, housewives were the main users of telephones. A similar phenomenon happened with cell phones, particularly smart phones. They were originally marketed for commercial use and the smart phones were loaded with different business applications, yet the primary users of both are teenagers and young adults, most of which aren’t even out of school.

    I think this is what is so amazing about Web 2.0 is that people are finally realizing that regardless of an idea’s purpose or benefits it can provide, it is ultimately the individual user that will determine it’s purpose – so why not let the individual users be the developers?

    This is one reason why so many people use open source software’s like those developed by Mozilla. Any user can identify a problem or an improvement and either fix it themselves or find someone who knows how. They don’t have to wait years for companies like Microsoft to realize how bad their products are and that the competition is surpassing them, before they even attempt to make improvements.

  4. 4 Samantha Borger September 2, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    I think the most important aspects about the development of the Internet had to do with creating a sense of community and also the idea of letting innovators run wild with their ideas.

    In the early developments of the Vanity Fair story, one man mentions how the content was all secondary to them at the time. They were more interested in connecting people around the world instantly, and making people feel like a community was waiting at their fingertips. Today, the Internet has definitely achieved this, especially through social networking and e-mail.

    I also think we could learn a lot from the way people were encouraged to develop their ideas in the 1960’s. If they had a notion, they were given money to work with and then they were left alone to experiment until they figured it out. In order to create new applications on the Internet to move journalism forward, we need to take people’s ideas seriously and trust them to achieve. Journalism shouldn’t be like AT&T in the early stages of the Internet by trying to stick with the old ways because it’s easier and safer than trying something new.

    I agree with Grant about individuals being the key to the development of Web 2.0 and beyond. I think that’s what’s cool about the Knight news grant project we’ll be working on. It gives innovators the tools they need to achieve their ideas, implement the aspects of the web that work well and make them better.

  5. 5 Tiffany Tso September 2, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    I thought it was very interesting to be reading about the history of the internet, on the internet, and in all of the different mediums that we were offered through this reading and the videos. We had Youtube videos, videos hosted by Discovery that one could “share,” audio clips of interviews of the originators of the internet, text with hyperlinks to other parts of the article, photo slide shows, etc. There was just so much and just for the purpose of relaying this particular information.

    It was crazy to see the time period they were working in. The 1960s doesn’t seem so far away. Yes, that was over 40 years ago, but it is strange to think our parents were alive when this was happening, or that I own clothing from people who lived in a time without internet (vintage clothing that is, not gravedigging). I suppose it is important to know where it (the Internet, networking, etc) all came from. To be honest, I was quite alright with just being ignorant about it, just blissfully e-mailing and blogging and browsing away my braincells without any knowledge of how this all came about, but it is really mind-blowing to think about all the thought and work and time it took to develop something that I take for granted everyday. It is really quite a privilege to be living in the time period I live in, where we have these luxuries, because the people years and years older than us had the mind to create it. What geniuses.

  6. 6 Lonny.A September 2, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Although really long, I thought this was an interesting read. I was surprised to see that during the earlier stages of the internet, the developers, rather than focus on finding ways to get rich off of it, focused on spreading the word to the people. I was also surprised at how they seemed to go with the flow, especially with the use of the @. I was a bit confused on the part when Microsoft was going to give out Internet Explorer for free. Were people paying for browsers before that? I don’t see why that was such a big deal.

    My first memory of the computer was with those ancient computers that required floppy disks to operate programs like word. Keying in random letters was a treat for me back then, but then again I was maybe four years old. My earliest memory of the internet was logging into America online and having to listen to that “connecting” sound. To see how fast the internet is evolving is pretty amazing especially during the mid 90s with Ebay, Amazon, and Craigslist. While those were popping up, I was probably still playing with walkie talkies.

    During the earlier part of the read and the youtube clip, there was a lot about creating a community. Although it seems more people today are using the internet as a way to make money, with each new Ebay or Facebook, the internet is bringing the community closer together.

  7. 7 jwhitcomb September 2, 2009 at 4:03 pm

    First off, this post was so fascinating to me! I really thought I knew the basic history of the Internet – how it all came about, etc – but I was actually a bit blown away by all the details. I think Grant made a really good point when he said that hearing from the people who were actually involved in the development of the Internet made the topic much more interesting.

    Dave Winer’s comment in the Vanity Fair article really stood out and was certainly the takeaway point for me. Winer says he “didn’t want the verdict of the press to be the last word.” This is so simply stated but I think the core reason so many people find themselves engaged with the Internet as well as something to consider when looking at the reconfiguration of journalism. The Internet has given a voice to people and really personalized society. There isn’t just the the press any more. There are interests groups and people who think differently and you can find these people so easily – they don’t have to live in your zip code anymore.

    I guess all that is pretty basic but I think what I’m trying to get at is that community really is at the center of the Internet’s success and will be at the center of the success for journalism. I thought this sentiment ran throughout the Vanity Fair article and truly does articulate what we should look at when talking about journalism in the 21st century.

  8. 8 timgarlitz September 2, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    The beginnings of the internet were based in the exclusive communities of science and the military, normally used in a function dictated by the government. However, the rapid evolution of the internet over the past 20+ years seems to have been dictated by the will of the people. The demands that accompany the expansion of the free market necessitated the advancement in technology and services that the internet has come to offer in its current incarnation.

    One quote that stood out to me from the second video was the host’s statement that was intended to tie the piece together: “The web is finally turning into something that it’s originators always hoped for, something that big business can never hope to control.” Although I have no idea where the internet is headed or how it will look in ten years, I’m not entirely sure that you could say that the internet is now “free” from the control of corporations. It seems that the entrepreneurs who founded many of these services and the companies that they currently run are on their way toward or have already become “big businesses.” Many of these startup companies were sold early on and are now part of mainstream corporations. Saying that big business can never hope to control the expansion of the internet seems slightly off-base from a profits perspective. If he was referring to the internet’s ability to expand apart from the influence of corporations from an entrepreneurial or technological perspective, then I would agree. I just wish he would have been a little more clear about what he meant.

  9. 9 timgarlitz September 2, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    I’m sorry. I seem to be having technical difficulties with my gravatar. Maybe someone with more technical knowhow can help me fix this in class.

  10. 10 Cassandra H September 2, 2009 at 5:35 pm

    I really enjoyed this post as well. I love the Vanity Fair piece because they did a great job with the interviews of the people who were there first hand. I love little tid bits of inside things such as AT&T choosing not to be involved in early networking because they did not feel it was a credible business venture at the time. I liked Metcalfe’s quote that “to this day, [he] still cringe at the mention of AT&T. That’s why [his] cell phone is a T-Mobile.” You wouldn’t get that kind of information in the YouTube video.

    I loved the visuals in the YouTube history video, especially of the cooling room with this massive computer in it. I am sitting here looking at my computer thinking how at that time, if people had this telescope of the future and could see what kind of world we live in now, they would either be really excited or scared of how important the work that they did has effected society today.

    One of my favorite ideas from the Vanity Fair piece is the concept that when AOL was launched, it was all about people connecting to people. Community trumped content. That is the same idea that brought about Web 2.0 applications such as Facebook. After understanding and realizing the history, it makes me more excited about journalism on the web. As journalists, we serve the people.

  11. 11 msherfield September 2, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    Like most everyone above, I found the videos and article to be very informative. It’s amazing that we generally know so little about a subject that has so thoroughly changed our lives in the past 30 years.
    The underlying theme of the article seems to me to be the unique nature of the internet, which gives everyone an equal opportunity to have a voice and express themselves in ways we never have been able to. Communication has been revolutionized because we have tapped into millions of new voices who all of a sudden have the means to say something to the rest of the world.
    This stands in direct conflict to the corporate nature of our previous means of long distance communication. As the story points out, one of the main obstacles in the early development on the internet was AT&T, who controlled almost all telephone networks in the United States. The static nature of corporations trying to protect what they have now stands in opposition to the dynamic nature of the internet as we know it, which is constantly unlocking new ideas and new ways for people to communicate.
    As journalists, we have to figure out what this means. So far, what I can see is a need for interactiveness with our readers as opposed to the old medium where we talked and they listened.
    All in all, communications have undergone a revolution in the past generation and we’re at the epicenter.

  12. 12 brandonfried September 2, 2009 at 5:45 pm

    Like you said, I tried to keep myself from getting bogged down in people and dates and instead tried to keep thinking about the socio-cultural implications of these historic events.

    But, of course, this was a great opportunity to learn the gritty details of the fledgling ‘net back in the 1960s and the number of collaborative people it took to get the whole thing going, perhaps foreshadowing how the web would function today.

    I really liked how simple Cailliau described that the web is actually the convergence of three main technologies: the hypertext, the personal computer, and the network. It’s really easy to think it’s all just one big easy system that we depend on for everything today and this was a great reminder that it really takes more than just a computer to get yourself going online.

    The other idea that resonated with me was how often the scientists and other innovators had to remind themselves that what they were doing was great, but that it was all for naught should they not create a means of use for the average person. This idea of course persists today since the vast majority of Internet users are regular people and everything, from browsers to operating systems to applications must be accessible for everyone to be both successful and lasting.

    I also really respect, like Samantha, the approach given to the early developers. Those funding the projects knew to act relatively hands-off in their proposal and leave the experts to what they were doing.

    Grant really hits the nail on the head though – the impact of the Internet is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s how people, like all of us, can use these tools and develop them even more to help others in the future.

  13. 13 Leigh. September 2, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    I originally read this Vanity Fair piece about a month ago, and found it really interesting, albeit a bit long.

    A guess the biggest “takeaway lesson,” so to speak, that I inferred from it was simply the incredible rate of growth that the Internet has had. Everyone always questions, ‘What did people do before the Internet existed? How did society function?’ and this article makes it clear the way the Internet has changed from being this cumbersome and somewhat foreign object to something that is absolutely necessary.

    It’s easy to be resistant to “Journalism 2.0” or, I guess at this point “2.5” or “3.0” or whatever it’s called, but when comparing pre-Internet to its importance today, it makes it a bit easier to see it with an open mind.

  14. 14 Erin Harris September 2, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    I remember sitting in computer class in elementary school, playing on KidPic, Mavis Beacon, and Netscape on our clunky Macintosh desktops in the computer lab. So old-fashioned, right? Wrong! At least I could run multiple programs at once and multi-task!

    Boy have we come a long way in just about half a century.

    The creation of the Internet, as with most inventions, started with recognizing a need. With the launch of Sputnik on Oct 4, 1957, America saw a need to accelerate knowledge transfer and communication for fear of a Russian missile.

    Fast-forward to the invention of YouTube. Its creators recognized the barriers for people who wanted to distribute and document their videos. Now people can easily share their home videos with relatives and few people even get their start from this site.

    It takes one person (or a team of people) to recognize a vacancy in our world, something that makes normal activity more efficient, user-friendly, and effective… to create something big, to make people think: what would I do without _____?

  15. 15 James September 2, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    I really enjoyed reading these first hand accounts in the Vanity Fair piece. It was interesting to learn how the Soviet launch of Sputnik initiated what we know today as the Internet, but I found the creation of the World Wide Web and what occurred afterwards far more compelling. The whole idea of the Web as a way of connecting people and creating new rules for the way society functions is fascinating.

    The most encouraging aspect of this article is the fact that many of these early creators were fresh out of college, or still in, and yet had the vision to create a tool that has changed the way everyone lives their lives. Moreover, many of these people were just experimenting and trying new things that they were unsure would even work or be profitable.

    Just as the young people then created a new way to communicate, I believe that we students in this new world of journalism can play a similar role. And we have an enormous toolbox to create these new lines of communication as we see fit. Indeed, it is an exciting time to be in journalism.

  16. 16 Adam Aldrete September 2, 2009 at 6:40 pm

    The first video provided a good historical background. Although I was aware of the large warehouses used to house large computers, it was still eye opening (and funny) to remember that we have gone from that to the macbook air, iphones, and kindles. Also, it debunks any possible rumors about the creation of the Internet. However, what struck me most about this post was the altruistic nature of some of the most famous innovators.
    The interview of Craig, which enticed me to go to Craig’s list for the first time, was very eye opening. As journalists, our salaries are paid primarily through advertising revenue. However, Craig has proven that some folks are willing to host websites without seeking high profit margins. Unfortunately, both Craig and free blogs are the competition with our industry and will remain that way in the foreseeable future. Although online advertising can prove to be lucrative enough to support some news businesses, many users, myself included grow tired of ads on websites and may flock toward free services like these.

  17. 17 frankie marin September 2, 2009 at 7:29 pm

    What an amazing, rich history. I honestly had no clue there was so much pre-development going back into the 1950s. As children of the technological age, I think we take for granted what the internet has done to enrich our perpetually developing society and culture — for instance, I can remember being impatient with dial-up speeds as I downloaded songs with Kazaa and Limewire in middle and high school. Now, we’ve grown accustomed to grabbing gigabyte-heavy torrents of movies and whole artist discographies. The Vanity Fair piece was pretty enlightening as well — like Cassandra, I found that the idea that people were connecting to people and “trumping content” was really a precursor or a primer for today’s Web 2.0 apps and developments. I can only hope in the near future that we’ll get to see what Web 3.0 or 4.0 will look like and what it’ll be able to do.

  18. 18 austintries5 September 2, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Like many of you were I’m sure, I was completely shocked to hear that Al Gore did not in fact create the Internet. It was like learning there was no Santa Clause. However I have gotten over it and on a less sarcastic note, it is interesting to think about how little I know about the biggest technological invention of my lifetime and possibly of all time. While most of the language used in this youtube video was foreign to me, the concept of the Internet in its fundamental state is quite simple; a group of users connected together for shared use. This video also proved the evolution and change in our society in that I learned about the Internet from a video on the Internet. Not from a book or from word of mouth. This is a direct correlation to where journalism is going in the future.

    The article made many interesting points that centers on a theme of the Internet equalizing all of the users. With a collection of computers linked, effective communication is no longer determined by someone’s proximity. Like Sherfield pointed out, this is another direction we need to pay attention to in journalism. Like the Internet, where users can add content and participate in innovative technology, journalism will eventually be less of us talking down to readers and more of a collaborative relationship with citizens.

    I thought the most interesting aspect of the video was when the discussed the Cuban Missile Crisis and what would happen in case of an atomic bomb to the network with radio waves. Out of crisis comes creation and I think that could be the future of journalism.


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