The other day I was speaking with a friend on the east coast about some of the nuances of the HTTP protocol and the HTML/XHTML standards which have changed over time, which diverged after I had answered his immediate question to reminiscencing about the actual content available today over the Internet. This short session of remembering the “good old days” of circa 1995 got me thinking over the past few days what really has changed on a fundamental level over the past 15 years within the content of the World Wide Web itself.
For one, search engines have dramatically improved. For those who remember OpenText and AltaVista as some of the only search engines that allowed free-form queries of pages without finding sites through canonical directories, as Yahoo! used to only provide, getting a relevant search result was truly an art. Finding a site on “june bugs” could yield any page that contained either word, whether contextually used together, or simply those talking about bugs, which mentioned temperatures in the month of June. Utilizing tools that simply indexed words on pages required the understanding a whole metalanguage to requiring and disallowing certain words or hosting domain names and group words with Boolean operators. Even with a mastery of the technique needs needed to coerce relevant results, one usually had to wade through pages of results; I recall configuring AltaVista in particular to show 100 results per page, so I could find results more quickly, since each successive “show next page” request did take a while over my 14.4 modem. Today, I rarely scroll down from the first three results on Google, much less ask for ‘another page’ of results.
Second, we use very few client tools today to access content on the Internet. 15 years ago, I fired up Trumpet Winsock to access the Internet on Windows 3.0, PowWow for IM, Netscape for web browsing, Eudora for e-mail and USENET newsgroups, wsFTP to actually download files, and HyperComm to connect to remote systems to surf non-HTTP sites. Today, virtually everything 99% of Internet denizens do is within a web browser, from search, to downloading, to chatting. Traffic has moved from the various communication and sometimes vendor-specific protocols to a smaller subset of standards, mostly based on HTTP and XML, and therefore, our browsers have turned into Swiss Army knifes to tackle everything a user needs.
Third, collaboration in non-transient mediums has drastically changed. If I wanted to share an idea 15 years ago, I opened my trusty Windows Notepad, typed up a quick HTML page (because, who doesn’t know hypertext markup language?), and FTP’ed it to my Geocities account to share to the world. Someone, somewhere, would eventually construct a search query that linked to my page, or eventually my page might be included in a directory, such as Yahoo!’s old format, and if that person wanted to praise or criticize my content, then they could do the same thing on their personal web page, and link my site. Content was scattered across hundreds of different hosting providers, in visual designs and contextual organization that varied widely from page to page. Today, the advent of Wiki’s and other Web 2.0 collaborative workspaces have drastically lowered the knowledge barrier of entry to participate in the exchange of ideas — virtually anything you’d ever want to know about is in a Yahoo! or LiveJournal group for it. Web 2.0 truly is, as Tim Berners-Lee has argued, just jargon for the same thing we’ve been doing through CGI for over 15 years to make sites interactive and collaborative. The “Web 2.0” buzzword doesn’t represent any fundamental technology evolution, but simply a proliferation of what has been available for a very long time.
So, I haven’t told anyone who has been around at least as long as I have anything they didn’t already know — but, these three aspects highlight the fundamental change I see: as the Internet expands its reach, particularly with a new generation unfamiliar with the technical framework that it is built upon, since the need to have such an understanding for its basic use is no longer there, we are seeing a shift from a “loosely coupled, poorly organized” body of information to a “structured and organized” body of information. Especially important in my opinion, is this shift is changing the quantity of content. By virtue of me writing these thoughts on a WordPress blog, I’ve chosen convenience over creativity. I could write a web page and style it as I wish just as easily as type these thoughts, but I have made a conscious decision not to use my knowledge of HTML and FTP and to make this easier for other users to casually find, since I syndicate this blog onto my LinkedIn feed. Consequently, I realize my thoughts may be littered with interjected advertisements by those providing this ‘convenience’, and I accept the limitations of the format: I cannot express my thoughts outside of the framework WordPress has provided for me to do so. Now, WordPress is pretty flexible, and I probably wouldn’t otherwise use the advanced markup that I know WordPress cannot support, however, the limitations become much more understandable in more popular formats. A quick export and calculation of my Facebook friends’ News Feed shows that 72% of content my friends have written in the past two months are status updates. Another 10% are photograph uploads, and the remaining 18% are a collection of ‘apps’, such as Mafia Wars and Farmville, which litter my ‘content’ feed with self-promoting advertisements for the apps themselves. When I tried to paste this post into the ‘status updates’ for Facebook, I received an error stating that my formatting would be lost and that my content was too long. Similarly, were I to exclusively microblog through a service like Twitter, the richness of my thoughts are limited to 140 characters and stripped of all multimedia. I now receive over 1,000 tweets a day from less than 20 friends, most of which produce content no other way. I say “content” loosely with regards to Twitter and Facebook, as the quality of posts in limited space vs. personal web presences and blogs is akin to the difference of the content from a lecturer to the content value of casual conversation, where one party may simply reply with “Okay. Right.” Posting much and often is a far cry from sharing thoughts and ideas.
It is my sincere desire that as we seek continued convenience to reach wider audiences and connect them in engaging communities, that we do not let our desire for structure and searchability constrain the richness of our thought. Similarly, we are quickly losing a level of technical aptitutde still very relevant in today’s Internet among our future generations, who lack the necessity to understand the technologies we use today to create easy-to-use sites that attract the masses. These skills, of underlying protocols and interactions common to the whole infrastructure, aren’t taught in any university, and are specialty subjects at technical trade schools. If we are going to embrace structure for accessibility sake, we must be careful not to box ourselves in creatively now, and then pass an empty box to the next generation.