It’s 20 years to the day since I published my first website.
It’s obvious to say things have changed in that time – after all, 20 is 200 in Computer Years. The technology has certainly changed; but even more spectacular is the way the internet grew to dominate mainstream media, business and culture.
When I put my first web page online, people were still debating if the internet would ever be more than a geeky toy. We’d had BBSes for years and they were definitely a geek’s world.
The internet wasn’t so much a wild and dangerous frontier as it was a massive playground for tech heads. Nobody seemed to know what it was for, but it was techy and fun – which is a perfect geek recipe. Who needed a reason? It was there. We played with it.
Online geek culture was inevitable, but mainstream adoption was not a given. I don’t think anyone truly expected to see everyone using the web as much as geeks, even if only to post selfies and photos of food.
Many people wanted to see money being made before they could take the internet seriously. It seemed hard to imagine people would trust websites with their credit cards, or that people would buy physical products they’d never touched.
Most people seemed simultaneously terrified of hackers and clueless about security. Accounts were often issued to all users with the same first password (usually literally “first” or “password”), but there’d be a sense of outrage if a hacker gained access to the system. Documentaries about hackers often had a completely freaked-out tone.
So there was a mixture of excitement and trepidation about the internet.
I was at university at the time, working in a computer shop on campus. We sold stacks (literally) of Microsoft Office, which came with a massive printed manual and 20+ floppies. These days the manual seems more anachronistic than the floppies. The crates were so heavy the guy in the loading dock made me do an impromptu 'safe trolley handling’ induction before he’d let me take them up to the store.
While working there a work friend gave me some space on his web server, so I uploaded some of the dodgiest HTML in the history of the web. I was learning by viewing source on other sites and reverse engineering effects I wanted to use.
It was unusual that my friend had a domain so early – mostly we used
~username web space or joined free hosting services like Geocities and Tripod (this was before free sites went down in a blaze of banner ads). My site moved around a lot for a few years, before I finally bought my own domain.
My page wasn’t a blog and even if it was the word wasn’t being used yet. We just had “home pages”. RSS wasn’t a thing yet, Blogger hadn’t appeared yet, let alone social networks (LiveJournal would soon change that in my circles). You had to find interesting sites and then periodically visit them to see if they’d updated. Bookmark maintenance was a big deal.
To publish your own content you had to be able to build the pages yourself – journals, photos, collections of links. To share something, you built a web page and uploaded it. These days we call self-publication the indieweb, back then it was just the web.
The IndieWeb approach has a lot going for it. While the non-geek world has embraced self-publication, it has also become aware that they don’t really control the content. They want to share, but they want control as well.
For the time being convenience is winning over ownership. People are content in the web’s pleasant walled gardens, not sufficiently motivated to go it alone.
20 years on, I think people still have a mix of excitement and trepidation about the internet.
The internet certainly proved it can make money. Many people are still terrified and clueless about security. Geeks still play with it Because They Can.
The technology has both changed and stayed the same. It’s evolved, it’s more powerful, more complex. But the web trinity (HTML, CSS, JS) hasn’t changed; the need for servers and connectivity hasn’t changed.
The human desire to tell stories and share photos with friends hasn’t changed. The web is above all a human thing, a communication medium. We love the machines because they connect us with humans.
Predictions are foolish... we rarely know specifically what comes next, although we like to guess the general shape of things to come.
Change is the only constant. Empires come and go on the web just as they do anywhere else. No company is too big to fail, no movement too popular to fade.
Most ideas are biased by the limits of contemporary technology and society. We tend to imagine the internet, but bigger, faster or with more things on it. These are not bad ideas, but they won’t be revolutionary if they don’t solve a human problem.
Maybe virtual reality really is ready for prime time, because people want to hang out with friends on the other side of the planet. Maybe the next phase is controlling computers with brain waves, because that bypasses a range of physical constraints. Maybe putting all our household 'things' on the network really will change our lives, because machines can take care of the little details for us.
Or maybe the next big thing is something so completely different it's still considered science fiction, because where that's where so many ideas are tried on for size.
We don’t really know. We just know it’s going to be exciting to find out.