I have been using the web since 1994: not quite as long as the web has been around. And yet in all those years, and with all the web sites I've created and blog posts I've written, I've never actually created a web page from scratch. It didn't seem right to write about the origins of the web without mucking about in its most granual form, so here I am, typing away in my favorite text editor, doing my formatting via HTML.
Simply hopping back and forth between my text editor and my browser (as I just did to find the URL I linked to above) feels like a voyage through time. Assemble a web page by working in a plain text editor, and it could be August 6, 1991, the day the world's first web site went online. Plunge into Chrome or Firefox and you've leapt forward to 2011, and the world that first web site birthed. A world in which, as the web's founder imagined, all our information is globally accessible and interlinked.
The web so dominates our use of the Internet today that it is hard to remember that the web is only one aspect of life online. The web is made up of web pages: individual files, written in HTML, each of which has its own unique location (its "URL") that other web pages can link to. Tim Berners-Lee, the web's inventor, offers a very clear explanation of the difference between the web and the net in his recent article on the importance of open standards:
The Web is an application that runs on the Internet, which is an electronic network that transmits packets of information among millions of computers according to a few open protocols. An analogy is that the Web is like a household appliance that runs on the electricity network. A refrigerator or printer can function as long as it uses a few standard protocols -- in the U.S., things like operating at 120 volts and 60 hertz. Similarly, any application -- among them the Web, e-mail or instant messaging -- can run on the Internet as long as it uses a few standard Internet protocols, such as TCP and IP.
Following this analogy, you might say that those of us who live on the web of today are like your average home owner. We love the fact that our beer is cold when we take it out of the fridge, but we don't know much about how a fridge actually works, let alone how it gets the electricity it needs to run. (There's something about turbines.) We get to live on the tidy surface, and we can almost completely forget that underneath there is a lot of heavy lifting going on.
And yet when you do get down in the guts you discover that there's poetry there, too. I created my first web sites using Dreamweaver, but it didn't take long for me to get annoyed with its limitations and start tweaking the underlying HTML. That familiarity served me well when social media appeared, and I found myself creating web content on a daily basis: if I couldn't get my WYSIWYG editor to work, I could always insert my links by hand. Later still, it gave me the courage to dive into web development with WordPress and Drupal, and to hack away at the little snippets of PHP that let me customize these sites: PHP may be a long way from HTML, but HTML let me know that I could look at code without panicking.
True, I could have blogged and tweeted and Facebooked and YouTubed without once laying hands on an HTML tag or CSS style. But a willingness to dive under the manicured surface is the difference between a site template that looks exactly the way it came out of the box, and a site template that looks like you. It's the difference between writing a blog post with pretty good formatting, and writing a blog post where you've been able to iron out the quirks in your bulleted lists. It's the difference between posting a video on YouTube, and embedding that video wherever you want it.
Most importantly, it's the difference between thinking of a web site as something that you use, and something that you make. Even tools like WordPress and or Drupal (which I cherish and rely on) keep us at a remove from the inner workings of the web. The danger of that remove is that we begin to think of the web as a set of really amazing technologies: the technologies that make it possible for someone like me -- someone who until this moment had never built an HTML page from scratch -- to create some pretty elaborate websites.
But the truth is, the web itself is pretty simple. HMTL 4 is not especially fancy (the same can't be said for HTML 5) and it doesn't take very long to figure out how to create a basic web site. The fundamental structure of the web remains much as it was 20 years ago: HTML pages, held together by URLs and hyperlinks.
Recognize the underlying simplicity of the web, and you have to let go of many of the myths that prevent us from fully participating in its life and its future. The web doesn't belong to the people who own the biggest web sites or have the highest level of tech skills. The decisions about how the web works or how much privacy we give up don't have to be made by the people who know the most about code. If it's within any of our grasp to manually create a web page, then it's within any of our grasp to help shape the web.
As Berners-Lee himself observed, the miracle of the web's creation didn't lie in its code:
[I]nventing it was easy. The amazing thing which makes it work is that so many people actually have made web servers, and that they all work the same way, on the Internet. They all use HTTP. So the difficult bit was persuading people to join in. And getting them to agree to all use the same sort of HTTP, and URLs, and HTML. I'm still doing that sort of thing. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is like a club of people and companies who feel the Web is important, and keeping it working is important, and making it even better and even more powerful is important. I am the director of W3C (I started it) but thousands of people are now working on all kinds of wonderful things.
If even the web's creator describes the technology as less challenging than the human coordination problem, the rest of us have to stop using technology as a way to get off the hook. Maybe you're no Tim Berners-Lee: maybe (like me) you've never created a page in HTML. But the web doesn't (just) need technologists: it needs people who know how to get people to join things. It needs people who know how to get people to work together. It needs people who know about people.
The web has been around for half my lifetime, now, but we've only witnessed the web's infancy. It still needs help growing up. And Tim Berners-Lee wants that help to come from you.