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August 20, 2012 | Leave a comment

Tim Berners-LeeSir Tim Berners-Lee, on August 19, 1991:

WorldWideWeb is a hypertext browser/editor which allows one to read information from local files and remote servers. It allows hypertext links to be made and traversed, and also remote indexes to be interrogated for lists of useful documents. Local files may be edited, and links made from areas of text to other files, remote files, remote indexes, remote index searches, internet news groups and articles. All these sources of information are presented in a consistent way to the reader. For example, an index search returns a hypertext document with pointers to documents matching the query. Internet news articles are displayed with hypertext links to other referenced articles and groups.

[...] This project is experimental and of course comes without any warranty whatsoever. However, it could start a revolution in information access. We are currently using WWW for user support at CERN. We would be very interested in comments from anyone trying WWW, and especially those making other data available, as part of a truly world-wide web.

Tim Berners-Lee’s original WWW announcement.

Almost twenty-one years later, Sir Tim tweeted from the London 2012 opening ceremony, following a multi-million-pound song and dance routine in his honor:

Tim could have chosen to license the system he developed, and he and CERN would have probably made some decent revenue through doing so. Instead, though, he had the foresight to open it to the world, even recognizing in his initial announcement that it could start a revolution in how information is accessed.

This website is hosted in Dallas, Texas, and runs open source software written all over the world. The words were written in Berkeley, California. The photo was uploaded from São Paulo, Brazil, and was served from one of Yahoo!’s datacenters. The embedded tweet was pulled from Twitter’s servers. It took me 20 minutes to pull all of this together and post it, and no more than a couple of seconds to reach you, and none of this is magic any more.

That any of us can reach each other, no matter who we are or where we are in the world, and can publish to a wide audience, is no longer something amazing or rare in 2012. It’s a baseline; something incredibly common in the developed world, that we hope to provide to the places that don’t have it yet, because they should have it too.

It’s a democratizer, a unifier, a tool of empowerment and social freedom, all because one man decided it should be free.

Thank you, Tim.

Keeping the web decentralized

November 20, 2010 | 2 comments

3Com Campus in Massachusetts: 1999Tim Berners-Lee has an article in December’s Scientific American about the future of the web. It serves, in many ways, as a list of baselines – things that should be obvious to anyone who’s worked with the web for any real length of time. He argues for net neutrality, for open standards, and for the decentralization of web-based functionality; all things that I agree must be fundamental to the platform if it is to have a healthy future. It’s required reading, and worth sending to all your non-technical friends who use websites as part of their lives.

Decentralization is another important design feature. You do not have to get approval from any central authority to add a page or make a link. All you have to do is use three simple, standard protocols: write a page in the HTML (hypertext markup language) format, name it with the URI naming convention, and serve it up on the Internet using HTTP (hypertext transfer protocol). Decentralization has made widespread innovation possible and will continue to do so in the future.

[…] Several threats to the Web’s universality have arisen recently. Cable television companies that sell Internet connectivity are considering whether to limit their Internet users to downloading only the company’s mix of entertainment. Social-networking sites present a different kind of problem. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster and others typically provide value by capturing information as you enter it: your birthday, your e-mail address, your likes, and links indicating who is friends with whom and who is in which photograph. The sites assemble these bits of data into brilliant databases and reuse the information to provide value-added service—but only within their sites. Once you enter your data into one of these services, you cannot easily use them on another site. Each site is a silo, walled off from the others. Yes, your site’s pages are on the Web, but your data are not. You can access a Web page about a list of people you have created in one site, but you cannot send that list, or items from it, to another site.

The full article is over here.

I’m waiting for an application layer to emerge that embodies these traits (here are some ideas about how to make it a reality), but funnily enough, most web companies don’t seem to like the idea of letting go of their proprietary databases and competing on features rather than lock-in. Of course, the likes of Status.net and Diaspora are making a go of it, but in both cases, the applications create communities in themselves (which are interoperable with other communities) rather than single, WordPress-style nodes with social hooks that sit directly on the web.

In some ways, these applications aren’t directly social at all – certainly not in the “social networking” sense. There don’t have to be profiles, friends lists, or even direct sharing. They might be social in the sense that they are web applications – by definition, applications that are connected to the web (and therefore the billions of people who now use it). They provide notifications to their operators, allow access to content to be controlled according to a standard access control list, and allow that content to be commented on and relinked elsewhere. The “decentralized social web” is really just an evolved form of the standard publish-and-read model we’ve been using with blogs for over a decade, combined with the linked data concepts Berners-Lee champions.

So when do we get to use it? Well, to be honest with you, it’s kind of irritating. This is one of those inventions that are discovered rather than created as such: I have a complete picture of how this software would work in practice, and I understand how to create a business model that would render the software both widely attractive and financially sustainable. At some point I’ll give up on waiting for it to magically emerge and set to work – right now there is no competition (aside from other, different communication models), and a bunch of real-world problems that it would solve.

What kind of problems? Here’s a hint. Stop thinking in terms of publishing on the web, and start thinking in terms of distributed communications, and distributed, open markets. (Not just markets of ideas, but also tangible business markets.) Stop thinking about software and data, and start thinking about empowering people who are striving to bypass the gatekeepers in their way and connect, directly, with each other. Stop trying to own peoples’ lives, experience, skills and information, and put them in full control to let them talk, share, create and do business with each other.

Photo of Tim Berners-Lee by Jim Grisanzio, released under a Creative Commons license.