“The Web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect – to help people work together – and not as a technical toy.” – Tim Berner’s Lee (1999)
Tim Berners-Lee, a graduate of Oxford University, wrote a proposal for the World Wide Web in 1989. He wrote the first web client and server in 1990, enabling a mass adoption of using hypertext to connect disparate documents to one another.
As the size of the network increased, the potential to use the internet as a medium for self expression, collaboration, research and networking encouraged businesses and educators to explore new modes of communication and personalization. The personal web started with simple web pages enabling anyone with a modem and a basic understanding of using HTML to broadcast their content to the world. But this was only the beginning.
In 1996, Larry Page and Sergey Brin began working on the Stanford Digital Library Project, whose mission was “to develop the enabling technologies for a single, integrated and universal digital library.” Page explored the notion of representing the link structure established on the World Wide Web as a large graph. He focused on measuring the importance of a web page, based on the number of other web pages that linked to it. This research led to the development of the PageRank algorithm. Larry Page and Sergey Brin formally incorporated their company, Google Inc, on September 4, 1998. The algorithm that they had created served as the backbone for the Google search engine. The Google search engine provided a convenient method of finding information online and supplemented traditional hypertext browsing methods.
At the same time, the adoption of CGI (Common Gateway Interface) began changing the way that people communicated using the internet. Larry Wall, a linguist working as a systems administrator for NASA, developed a programming language called Perl that was designed make report processing easier. However, the language proved to be a powerful way to allow users to enter information into web forms and storing it for later use.
This advancement in internet-based communication is significant because websites were not limited to the traditional one-to-many broadcast model. Instead, the audience could talk back – adopting a many-to-many communication pattern. This shift spawned a mass adoption in regards to using discussion boards to talk about niche topics and enabled online communities to be formed. The transition from a static web to a platform that supported dynamic content provided a fertile base for a more ‘personalized’ web.
In 2001, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia, a free online encylopedia that could be edited by anyone in the world. Today, Wikipedia hosts more than 14 million articles in 260 languages, contributed by millions of users. The project was originally called Nupedia and only accepted articles from highly qualified volunteers. An elaborate multi-step peer review process hindered the website’s initial growth, generating only 12 articles in its first year. In an effort to encourage a more rapid growth, Wales and Sanger decided to develop an open system that allowed anyone to submit articles using a wiki as a vehicle for producing and editing content. Sanger writes, “No, this is not an indecent proposal. It’s an idea to add a little feature to Nupedia. Jimmy Wales thinks that many people might find the idea objectionable, but I think not. (…) As to Nupedia’s use of a wiki, this is the ULTIMATE “open” and simple format for developing content. We have occasionally bandied about ideas for simpler, more open projects to either replace or supplement Nupedia. It seems to me wikis can be implemented practically instantly, need very little maintenance, and in general are very low-risk. They’re also a potentially great source for content. So there’s little downside, as far as I can determine.” This decision caused an exponential increase in the number of articles submitted by users. Wikipedia has become one of the most successful collaborative projects in human history. Its success can be attributed to providing users with an easy way to contribute as little or as much content relating to their topic of interest.
The power of the social web is enabled by the ability for users to consume, produce, categorize and re-factor information without needing to understand the complex networks and scripting technologies used to host these types of applications.
Flickr, a community based photo sharing website encourages users to organize their photos by ‘tagging’ them (also known as Folksonomy). The idea of using this sort of metadata to categorize documents provides a method of indexing that could not be attained using traditional automated web crawlers. Flickr also provides a mechanism that allows users to comment on photos. This fosters a sense of community and conversation – but more importantly, it reminds contributors that other people are viewing their photos. In other words, the idea of presenting to an ‘audience’ becomes a significant motivator to share work. YouTube, the popular video hosting website also operates on these same assumptions.
In 2003, Joshua Schachter founded Delicious, a social bookmarking web service used to store, share and discover websites. It also uses a classification based on tags. When a user discovers a new website that is ‘bookmark worthy’, the user can submit the website to Delicious, providing: a title, tags and a note. While this makes it easy for the user to categorize their own bookmarks, the act of community-based bookmarking enables the most popular websites (the ones that many people choose to bookmark) to bubble to the surface. In a sense, this gives new meaning to the term, “peer reviewed”. In addition, the service provides a platform that enables users to view the bookmarks of similarly-minded individuals – helping the discovery of noteworthy websites even more transparent. The notion of collective intelligence is afforded by the aggregation of many users performing simple tasks.
In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg, a student at Harvard University began development on a social networking platform called ‘The Facebook” (later renamed to Facebook). “Everyone’s been talking a lot about a universal face book within Harvard,” Zuckerberg explains, “I think it’s kind of silly that it would take the University a couple of years to get around to it. I can do it better than they can, and I can do it in a week.” Within a short time after its release, Facebook was well adopted by the students at Harvard University and was extended to Stanford and Yale. Today, the Facebook community is not limited exclusively to college students. Facebook offers its services to anyone in the world, making it the most popular online social networking platform in the world.
The popularization of social media tools represents a fundamental shift in the way that we communicate. The increase in globalization influences how we consume and produce information. The micro-blogging tool, Twitter, is an example that shows how large groups can communicate based on the idea of subscribers (more commonly known as followers). Twitter enables its users to send and read messages known as tweets (text-based snippets up to 140 characters). Created in 2006 by Jack Dorsey, Twitter has often been described as the “SMS of the Internet”. It allows users to obtain a birds-eye view of what niche communities are doing in real-time (without the baggage of a full-blown social network).
The sense that “we are all in this together” is being perpetuated further by emerging platforms. In 2007, Time Magazine elected the person of the year award to: ‘You. Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world’. Since then, we have become increasingly networked. We continue to feed the network with more and more information about us. Facebook knows “who we may know”. Amazon knows our buying habits can make recommendations for us. If the internet already knows this much about us, imagine what it will know in twenty years from now. Social media platforms such as Justin.tv are making is so that everyone can have their own ‘Truman Show’. And this is still… just the beginning.