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What is the Web?

A few months back, Xavier Ho, now an interaction design lecturer at Monash University (who over the years has attended and spoken at our conferences, and even been our videographer for a couple) asked me to give a lecture to his design students.

I delivered that last week, but it brought together many of the themes and ideas I’ve been thinking about this strange year, and about the Web’s role in the strangeness, so I thought I’d reproduce it here.

To be blunt, I feel we, the folks who have been involved with designing and developing for the web for a significant period of time–including me as I feel a strong sense of personal responsibility here–are in no small part responsible for it falling far short of its promise.
And I charge these students, just beginning their careers with the responsibility of doing better. 

What is the Web?

Imagine a painter not understanding the nature of paint, its properties and chemistry. A movie director the nature of light and of cameras A musician the timbre of particular instruments. Or for that matter a civil engineer the nature of cement and steel, an architect of space and surfaces

Imagine too these artists, crafts people, practitioners unaware of the history of their field, its evolution, and of course its direction

You’re studying web design, or is it web development? Or both? Are they distinct practices, or inextricably intertwined?

But more fundamentally still, what is the Web? Is that even an interesting question? And if so why might it be?

Few if any of you were born when the web came into being. It has doubtless been part of your entire conscious life.

You are perhaps a little like the fish in this modern parable of David Foster Wallace

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

So what the hell is the Web? And is the Web of 1990 the Web of 2020, and will it be the web of 2050 (rather unsettlingly the year when as much time will have passed again since its creation).

That’s what I want to consider today, and then to consider what the web might become (that is, what you might help it become)

In the beginning

A short bit of the history

Proposed and initially developed by more or less one person, Tim Berners-Lee, at CERN in the early 1990s, the World Wide Web is a stack of technologies that sits on top of another stack of technologies that we call the internet.

HTTP, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and the browser’s document object model, or DOM, all of which are developed more or less independently, by a number of different organisations.

Now, few if any information technologies from 1990 continue to exist in any significant way today–other than UNIX, just about everything else that makes up the information technology universe has come since-from programming languages to chip architectures.

So why does the Web persist?

Tim Berners-Lee was very intentional about the principles that motivated the Web, and has written extensively about this over the last 30 years.

The Web had and has a mission-hiding in plain sight in its name–the World Wide bit of the name–a platform “available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability”

And the principles that Berners-Lee has articularted included Decentralization, Tolerance, The Test of Independent Invention, Truth and Hope…

…strange foundations to build a world spanning civilisation transforming technology on.

So how, with principles like these do we end up with a web of silos like Facebook, shut off from those outside its walls?

And a platform that by connecting us has seen and enabled the wildfire spread of dangerous misinformation on vaccination, fostered the re-emergence of nazism and fascism, seen literally deranged conspiracy theories like Qanon take root around the world?

OK, let’s take a deep breath. 

Why does this matter?

What does this have to do with those of you studying how to design and develop for the Web? Just beginning your careers.

I look back on the optimism and hope of the early web, something I’ve been involved with for almost all its history, all my professional, indeed adult life.

And in some ways its that very optimism that has lead us here.

The earliest web did not have a business model. Those who helped nurture it in its early years were typically not motivated by commerce.

And yet, when the first banner ad appeared on Wired magazine’s Hotwired website in 1994, to unprecedented success, it seemed that the Web had found its business model. The same business model that had driven the media, newspapers, magazines, radio and then television for centuries.

Boundless free content, all paid for by clicking on these ads.

More recently though, advertising has been called the Web’s original sin. As more or less the only source of revenue for almost all web properties (at least consumer focussed ones), revenue which halves in value every year to 18 months (meaning you need twice the number of clicks each 18 months to maintain the same amount of revenue)

So the single most important incentive for the web from a revenue perspective became attention, and converting that attention into clicks (and more recently taps). 

And with the staggering amount of data available about user behavior, and extraordinary developments in machine learning, the big got bigger, and learned just how to draw and keep our attention.

As an early Facebook engineer, Jeff Hammerbacher put it, in a corruption of Alan Ginsberg‘s famous poem Howl

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”

But again, What does this have to do you studying how to design and develop for the Web? Just beginning your career?

The web as it is, is a choice-it is the choice of designers and developers and founders. Who through naïveté, irrational exuberance, cynicism, chose to build these algorithms, optimise for clicks, which biases for negativity, and rage, and worse.

Who chose to ignore the potential, then actual misuse of their products and technologies.


Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are minor characters in Hamlet*, but the Playwright Tom Stoppard makes their story central in this retelling, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Charged by the King to take Hamlet to England, where his death awaits, Hamlet outwits his erstwhile friends and condemns them to death

And then, standing on the gallows, one observes to the other

There must have been a time, in the beginning, when we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it

A time, at the beginning…

There is a time, at the beginning of every project, before the genie is out of the bottle, when we can most readily choose–to imagine the worst impact our work might have, and say no. To do things differently. 

And for you, at the very beginning of your careers, you have that greatest chance to say no. To make better choices for the Web’s next 30 years than we made for the last.

So that the Web of 2050 is closer to its promise than the Web of 2020.

The future

But before we go what will the web of the coming decade or so look like?

On the desktop, the Web has won. 60% or more of the time people spend on a desktop they spend in their browser.

Which may seem mundane to you, but this idea a decade ago, let alone 15 years ago, would have seemed to say the least far fetched. 

Windows, Mac OS, these giants of the platform wars dominated computing at the time, but really no longer matter. They are legacy technologies. And while the web is more than capable of displaying text, visual, audio and video content, and providing the kinds of UI patterns people expect in the desktop paradigm, these too are legacy technologies and a legacy paradigm of computing.

It’s now Mobile that matters. A computing paradigm once more dominated by two platforms, now iOS and Android.

On one of these, Android, the Web is, while perhaps not quite a first class citizen, at least not the pariah it is on iOS, where Apple excludes all browser engines other than its own from the app store, and then curtails the capabilities of the browser on the platform.

On mobile, revolutionary user experiences came from geolocation, the camera, and other sensors at the heart of the device (gyroscopes, magnetometers, light sensors, NFC, bluetooth). Ride Sharing does not work in a desktop world (which may not be a bad thing.) It is geolocation, and an always with you device that makes these services possible.

Instagram, tik tok, these are experiences unique to mobile, and a camera we take with us everywhere and from which we can always and anywhere upload. 

Some of these capabilities are available to web based apps, often in limited ways, others only to native apps on these platforms.

But the Web, when not world wide, is not really the Web. It’s that very ubiquity that is one its great strengths. While we often conceive of it like this, and design and develop for it like this, the web is not simply a technology stack for building sites or apps or experiences, it’s something different.

It’s a network that connects billions of people. Billions of devices. An operating system of sorts, but one that is highly, if not evenly distributed.

I doubt anything will ever come close to it–this is our one shot to connect the planet.

So what happens next? And what does that mean for you?

The Web has had its low points–the early 2000s, when it seemed to have almost completely stagnated. Internet Explorer had 90+ market share, and was barely updated in years.

Firefox, along with Safari on the Mac reignited innovation on the web platform.

Today things are not nearly so dire.

While one browser (Chrome), and one engine in particular (Chromium which powers chrome, edge and a myriad smaller browsers) dominates the desktop of half of the mobile landscape, the team and organisation, Google, behind it are strongly focussed on the Web’s future.

And on bringing the capabilities of the browser up to those of native apps with Project Fugu, Which aims to standardize capabilities in the browser to that include bluetooh, NFC, access to contacts, access to the File System, deeper camera integration (like pan, tilt zoom) ambient light sensors and more.

Beyond the app

But, we need to think though beyond the app.

We’ve been trapped in an app-centric local maximum of human computer interaction for nearly half a century.

  • silos of monolithic functionality
  • largely text based
  • passive unintelligent interfaces waiting our conscious input–a tap, a click, a keystroke

What comes next will harness the global connectivity unique to the Web. The sensors that make our devices deeply integrated into the world around them machine learning capabilities that can diminish the need for conscious human interaction

But you need to think beyond the app, and taps and clicks and buttons. And beyond the ad, and the relentless thirst for attention web experiences need, and which provides perverse incentives to follow attention wherever it leads

The Web is 30 years old, which seems a long time, but you only need look back to when Television was 30 years old, or radio, or cinema, to see how nascient the field is, and what opportunities await you.

*the Rosencrantz and Gildenstern analogy and quote I’ve taken from Stephanie Troeth from a presentation she gave at our Design conference in 2018

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Dave Greiner Founder, Campaign Monitor