World Wide Web 25th anniversary

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World Wide Web 25th anniversary

Post by MrFlibble » March 12th, 2014, 12:13 pm

25 years ago Tim Berners-Lee presented a proposal to his bosses at CERN where he outlined a computerized system of knowledge sharing that would eventually become the World Wide Web.

I knew next to nothing about it until my friend who works in an online news media source proposed that I write an article to commemorate the event. I agreed and quite enjoyed reading (and then writing in brief) about Tim's project and how it evolved into the present day WWW. I should say that before this I did not realise what the distinction between the Internet and the WWW actually was about, but thankfully Tim's page at the World Wide Web Consortium has some very interesting sources:

The World Wide Web: A very short personal history
Frequently asked questions
Answers for Young People
The Future of the World Wide Web

Reading all this really raised my awareness of the hypertext essence of the WWW, which comes as such a natural, self-evident thing that we tend to forget about it, whereas in reality this is something that could not be accomplished without the technological means of digital communication (or at least hypertexts outside a computer are very clumsy, limited and inefficient). Before this I thought more of the high speeds that the Internet brought to human communication, how it removed many boundaries etc. etc., but gave little attention to precisely the things that Tim Berners-Lee thought crucial, namely free, unrestricted social interaction and knowledge sharing that works outside any strict boundaries.

Being a long-term Internet forum user I was quite impressed how similar actual forums work to what was envisioned in the 1989 proposal. Tim observed that the researches at CERN would interact freely, share their opinions and cooperate on projects in an informal way, yet because of a high rate of personnel turnover at CERN this spontaneously accumulated knowledge had no way of being preserved or accessed easily:
The actual observed working structure of the organisation is a multiply connected "web" whose interconnections evolve with time. In this environment, a new person arriving, or someone taking on a new task, is normally given a few hints as to who would be useful people to talk to. Information about what facilities exist and how to find out about them travels in the corridor gossip and occasional newsletters, and the details about what is required to be done spread in a similar way. All things considered, the result is remarkably successful, despite occasional misunderstandings and duplicated effort.

A problem, however, is the high turnover of people. When two years is a typical length of stay, information is constantly being lost. The introduction of the new people demands a fair amount of their time and that of others before they have any idea of what goes on. The technical details of past projects are sometimes lost forever, or only recovered after a detective investigation in an emergency. Often, the information has been recorded, it just cannot be found.
Tim's idea as I understand it was to create a system that would allow to preserve all kinds of "lunch break talks" so to speak that may occur between the participants, and may contain useful snippets of information. One should note that even without a massive turnover of people it is hard to keep track of past conversations, if they are plentiful, - even within a relatively small, established group of people.

Internet forums work exactly in the fashion that Tim Berners-Lee proposed. Every conversation is recorded, and is publicly accessible long after it has occurred. Thus useful knowledge is accumulated and stored, and future users who may be not related to the original participants may indeed benefit from that past interaction. For example, it is common nowadays to search the web for answers to particular problems, and in many cases a solution can be found quickly without even asking anyone in a forum, simply because someone else had the same problem, asked for help in a forum and got an answer, which is still accessible since.

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