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Unraveling the web's story

November 2019 Weblog: Pre-Thanksgiving Wishes for the Web

Join me at Flashback Conference, February 10-11 in Orlando

Flashback conference logo

In February, I’ll be in Orlando, Florida giving a talk at Flashback Conference, a conference focused on the development of the web, and how its past has informed its present. It’s the first of its kind, which is going to pretty great right there, plus I’ll be joined by some truly incredible speakers. If you think you can make it, I’d love for you to join me. Early bird tickets are still available so book now. And if you’re going be sure to reply to this email and let me know so we can meet up and chat history ????

How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days

I missed this one last month, but Jeremy Keith posted a few ways to listen, watch or read his talk with Remy Sharp in which a group of 9 web designers and developers got together at CERN to recreate the world’s first ever browser called, perhaps unoriginally, The World Wide Web. It’s an offshoot of a similar project earlier this year to recreate the first website. The talk’s a nice blend of historical context and summary of what exactly it took to make the browser happen and definitely worth a watch.

How About a Different Kind of Web?

This month, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, published an op-ed in the New York Times. In it, he suggested that what we need is a contract for the web, one that can help dictate future policy and technological decisions and promotes freedom of access and freedom from harm on any digital platform. It’s a wonderful idea in theory, but we need to be careful about a one size fits all solution thats grounded in commitment from the tech giants. The issues of the web are complicated, wrapped up in questions around privacy, public discourse, and inalienable human rights. We need better web citizens, better tools to protect ourselves, and a way to enforce our rights. This discussion pairs exceptionally well with a sort of counterpoint, Sacha Baron Cohen’s incredible keynote at the Anti-Defamation League’s summit this month. He makes the simple argument that change will require action, from us as web users and from the builders of the web and in order to do that, we need the right legislation and the right checks in place, not simply commitment. I would do such a bad job summing up Baron Cohen’s primary thesis, that I suggest you simply all take the time to give it a watch.

Can I Get A Little Privacy?

This month has a bit of a theme: wishes I have for the web articulated better than I ever could. Garrett Dimmon does just that in his piece, The Web We’ve Madewhich opens with the extraordinary line:

The internet is an awesome thing, but we’re ruining it.

Dimmon focuses on issues of tracking and privacy, which have become so ubiquitous that we all browse the web with a bit of paranoia looming above us about our Alexa’s listening in on our conversations or AI coming to destroy us. Dimmon states the obvious, that each time a tracker is added to a website, that’s a decision someone made. A small one maybe, but those small decisions add up, and pretty soon we’re tracking users wherever they go. If you build the web, maybe you can help build a better one. Also, in an interesting move, Mozilla has more or less shifted their primary purpose to protecting the privacy and interests of their users. We need a bit more of that I think.

A Web That Doesn’t Rot Away

Came across an article from SLAC, home of the first web server in the United States, in my research by archivist by Jean Marie Deken. In it, she laments the sheer volume of information that has accumulated on the web, much of it a matter of official record, and how difficult it is to assign a process to the archiving and cataloging of web based documents. The kicker? This was written in 1997, well before the web would rise the level of popularity it inhabits today. But even early on, Deken recognized the issues that link rot would cause in the future. On hyperlinks, she wrote:

This ability to link and to renew links constitutes the communicative and functional beauty of the Web, but it makes the World Wide Web an artifact of the present with a disappearing past.

I think that captures things quite nicely. Earlier this year, Stephen Dowling attempted to answer the question of Why there’s so little left of the early Internet?, with some fascinating interviews with Dame Wendy Hall, Brewster Kahle and Alex Tew, all of whom have made appearances somewhere or another on this newsletter. Thankfully there are those that have made it their mission to archive the web or we may lose all of its pieces.