Wednesday, June 20, 2012

21 years on the World Wide Web

by Sandra Parshall

The World Wide Web turns 21 this year, but we’ve all seen enough “revolutions” in the cyber world to know it’s still in its infancy and will never reach full, static adulthood.

On August 6, 1991, physicist Tim Berners-Lee created the first basic website and published it on the world’s first web server from the CERN facility in the Swiss Alps. The only people who could see it were Berners-Lee and his colleagues, because they were the only ones on Earth who had web browser software. The WWW didn’t become truly worldwide until the Mosaic browser (remember that?) was released in 1993.

But wait, I can hear you say, the internet was around before 1993. Yes, it was, but those of us who would rather pull out our teeth with tweezers than learn anything technical may forget that the internet didn’t begin as a vast collection of websites.

Like all great leaps forward, the concept of high-speed electronic communication and exchange of information existed in the minds of scientists before the technology to support it had been invented. MIT researchers published papers and memos on a “Galactic Network” and “packet-switching theory” in the early 1960s. These ideas drove the development of software and hardware. The first e-mail was sent in 1971 by computer scientist Ray Tomlinson – to himself, as a test. By the 1980s, the internet and e-mail were widely used in scientific and academic circles, and with the advent of small personal computers the cyber world opened up to the rest of us. Websites began to appear in the 1990s.

Although only about one-third of the world's population uses the internet, well over three billion e-mail accounts now exist worldwide. Depending on the source you consult, between 367 million and 555 million websites are up. Millions of sites are added every month. (Sometimes it seems as if most of them belong to writers, all of whom want me to “take a look and tell me what you think.”)  

My first computer was an IBM PC, purchased in the early 1980s, but I didn’t have the internet or even an e-mail account for another decade.  When I finally ventured online, I used the CompuServe subscription service. Cserve was born as a dial-up financial information service in 1969, and it evolved over the years into the world’s largest consumer information source. By 1990, it was an interactive social/professional network, complete with e-mail service. My first e-mail address consisted of my CompuServe account number. For a few years I spent hours every day on Cserve, where I was an unpaid sysop, or section manager, in the Writers Forum and the Authors Forum. This was the first community of writers I had ever been part of, and it changed my life in a very real way. I “met” the incomparable Diana Gabaldon (who was also a sysop) and many other writers there, and I learned a lot about writing, agents, and the publishing business. I also discovered the internet through Cserve, when it became the first online service to offer internet access to its subscribers at no extra cost.

America Online came along in 1989 for Apple and 1991 for PCs, and that meant trouble for CompuServe. When AOL bought Cserve in 1998, subscribers were promised that nothing would change, but within a year dozens of Cserve’s 400 forums had vanished, and the devastation continued until my cyber home was unrecognizable. I dropped my membership. I felt bereft, adrift, but that didn’t last long. By then the WWW was bursting with free special interest groups for writers. Both AOL and CompuServe still exist, but I don’t know why anybody would pay for either service when most of what they offer is available without charge.

By the time my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, was published in 2006, writers were expected to have websites where readers could learn more about them and their books. I hired Doranna Durgin, who designed a beauty for me, and it was up before the book came out. I was more resistant to blogging, which was fast becoming all the rage among writers. It looked like just another chore I didn’t want to take on, like an extra bathtub that needs scrubbing regularly. I could be heard ranting against the person who started the insidious practice of posting little essays about oneself.

I couldn’t pin the blame on any individual, though, because blogs didn’t spring up overnight in their current form, but rather evolved over several years and didn’t get a name that stuck until the late 1990s. The origin of blogs was being debated as long ago as 2007, when this article, which is still up on the CNET site (nothing on the internet ever goes away, does it?), first appeared. As the article notes, programmer and James Joyce scholar Jorn Borger coined the term “web log” in December of 1997. Before long the two words were compressed into one snappy moniker and blogs were born.

Although I resisted for a while, I was swayed by the refrain coming at me from every side: A writer MUST have a blog these days! Before long, here I was, posting once a week as part of this group we named Poe’s Deadly Daughters. As you can see, I’m still on board after nearly six years. Today the number of blogs on the web is reportedly between 180 and 200 million. I don’t want to guess at how many are writers’ blogs, competing for attention. I’ll settle for knowing that at least a few people will click in here to read this one. While it's true that on the internet nobody knows if you're a dog, I always try through this imperfect medium to be honest with you about who I am.

Those of us who couldn’t have imagined the internet 40 years ago are too wise to make firm predictions about its future. All we know for sure is this: it will change, and change again, endlessly, and as long as we’re alive we’ll change with it.


Sheila Connolly said...

When I worked at The Historical Society of Pennsylvania in the mid 1990s, the then-president was a Luddite--she firmly believed that the Internet was no more than a place to play games and had no practical value for an historical institution. A couple of years later I helped write the grant proposal to fund the first digitizing project so that members could view at least a portion of our resources online. Now there are millions of items available through the website. (P.S. that president was forced out by the Board.)

My daughter's fifth college reunion would have been this month. When I asked (tongue in cheek) if she was thinking of going, she said "we've got Facebook now--we know what everybody is doing anyway."

Life keeps moving forward.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Sandy, for an informative article. Thelma Straw, MWA-NY

Sandra Parshall said...

Sheila, it's become imperative for even the smallest businesses and cultural institutions to have websites. The web may be killing newspapers and magazines, but it's making life easier in a lot of ways.

Patg said...

I can't remember anything :), but I had a techy hubby and once they became for home use, we always had one. I visualize email and always using computers very early in life because was was such a SF fan. Technology is moving very fast, but it still hasn't caught up with some SF imaginings.
I think email was my all time favorite invention. That ability to do a quick, little blast of what was on your mind without going though all the 'proper' procedures of letter writing. And I speak from a position where I had lots of experience with business letters, of the British sort.

Sandra Parshall said...

Yes, e-mail is a great invention, Pat. Spammers really love it. :-) An estimated 71% of all e-mail worldwide is spam. My e-mail server, Verizon, used to be good at blocking spam, but now it seems to let a lot more stuff get through. Not the sex-related ads, though. My spam folder on the Verizon site is full of that garbage.

Diane said...

Even though I was a computer programmer, I didn't get onto the internet until the mid 1990s, a couple of years after I moved to Arizona. And you're right - is ever changing. Early on, my skeptical luddite of a mother said, okay, I've lost my recipe for pickled green beans. Bet you can't find one on the internet. Really? From booting up the ocmputer through printing it out took less than 10 minutes. She never said a thing about it after that. But wouldn't use it, either. I had set up an email account for her, because a couple of her friends had one. She made ME type out her answers (and, yes, she could type - or used to). Kind of missed the whole 'private' part of email.

JJM said...

My first glimpse of what would become the Internet in the mid 1980s when the campus computers became connected to something called Usenet, where a whole community of strangers were arguing about the "New Coke". A few years later came the "bitnet" era -- email and (thank you, Eric Thomas!) Listserv ™ -- including a lovely little community, mostly librarians, called Dorothy-L. It was also the era of gopher, and lynx, and archie. You could "finger" people to see if they were online -- or even one of the Coke vending machines at the Carnegie-Mellon U. to see what sodas it had stocked. And, yes, if you knew how, you could exchange instant messages. All this from the command line!

I remember how cool it was to point the 'puter to the Library of Congress ftp server and download graphics -- blindly, since all you had to go on was the file names. You didn't really know what you had until you viewed it in a graphics program.

My first personal computer communicated with the server at work via kermit, and I can still remember, note for note, the "handshake" tones.

And then came the web ... I remember how miraculous it seemed in the first half of the 1990s to attend, live, a wedding in Israel from an office in beautiful downtown Washington, DC through a series of photos taken and sent out at one minute intervals. Today, it'd be streaming, full colour and motion ...

What a magnificent world we live in, to be sure! And thank you, Sandra, for your excellent essay, and for giving me the excuse to wander down Memory Lane!


Anonymous said...

I first saw college when I was an undergrad in college. I saw someone poke a floppy disk into an Apple II and thought, "It's no better than a typewriter." Then I saw the "computer lab" at college where a person needed to know BASIC or some other computer language with long complicated commands to make the thing to work. In the 1980s I had a friend with AOL but I could never get their computer to work. For many, many years I had a DOS computer with WordPerfect that I dearly loved and would still be using except that everyone's on Word now (and WP is the better program).
Sally Carpenter

Cat Dubie said...

Great post, Sandy. Brought back memories of a time when the only way I could get online beyond local bulletin boards or the public library was to join CompuServe or AOL. I joined CompuServe and it seemed a whole world opened up. It was a revelation – I was not alone tapping the keyboard of my old 386, running Windows version 3.1! At that point to me the world wide web was a big scary place. What was going to be lurking out there? And I did venture out onto the web through CompuServe a few times, but always returned "home, where everybody knew your name." That all changed, as was inevitable, when CompuServe became just another web destination for anyone and access to the internet was easy through a browser.
I remember how few publishers and agents had Internet pages at first. There seemed a lot of resistance from those who saw it as a passing fad. Well, now those who don't have a page are the odd ones. That applies to businesses of all types. They need to have an Internet presence.
Kids nowadays are growing up with the Internet and the world at their fingertips. I sometimes feel like one of the fogeys who lived through the computer revolution. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hey there! Do you use Twitter? I'd like to follow you if that would be okay. I'm
absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to
new updates.

Visit my site; options trading software

Anonymous said...

What's up everyone, it's my first pay a quick visit at this site, and piece of writing is truly fruitful designed for me, keep up posting these posts.

Here is my blog post ... get free money online

Anonymous said...

Hello there! Do you know if they make any plugins to safeguard against hackers?
I'm kinda paranoid about losing everything I've worked hard on.
Any recommendations?

Feel free to surf to my page day trading stocksforex news live