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Unraveling the web's story

When the wizards of the web met

A screenshot of the announcement post from the world wide web wizards workshop, including a list of small things to work on to improve the web

On July 28, 1993, a group of about twenty people met at the O’Reilly offices in Cambridge to talk about the web. This special event was called the World-Wide Web Wizards Workshop (WWWW) In attendance were a group of the web’s earliest pioneers, including its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, one of its fiercest advocates, Dale Dougherty, and some of the first browser makers, Marc Andreessen and Lou Montulli.

I’ve marked the event before, and the lasting impact it had on the future of the web. The group gathered in the wake of CERN’s decision to enter the web into the public domain, which transformed iti into a forum for new ideas about an open web. At its center stood a key ideological divide about the nature and pace of improvements to the technology.

But reading over the research I’ve managed to scrape together about the workshop, it strikes me how ordinary and unassuming it was. Dry, even. In a post announcing the event, Dougherty set the tone:

The workshop will not be a tutorial for beginners; it will be organized as a discussion forum for developers. The objective is to establish common direction for Web development, so that developers can benefit from the work others are doing.

An agenda for the three-day workshop was attached, a practical list of the immediate needs of web technologies. There were protocols to discuss, authentication methods to hammer out, and stability issues to address. A laundry list of minutia to sort and explore.

A screenshot of the announcement post from the world wide web wizards workshop, including a list of small things to work on to improve the web
The initial list of agenda items, focused on the minutia of the technology

There were no massive keynotes, or blue-sky breakout sessions. The web was a technology, being worked on by a handful of people who very much liked to work on technology, and were delighted to spend all of their time buried in the details of its implementation. They were practitioners drawn in by the promise of global computing. And they simply wanted to get to work.

But when attendees left a few days later, a lot had been decided. Berners-Lee felt emboldened enough to start a consortium that would come to standardize web technologies. Andreessen and the Mosaic team left with more than a few ideas about the future of their browser, the seeds of which would eventually become Netscape. Dougherty was primed to make the web his central focus and talking point for years.

And I think that speaks to how incredibly powerful an idea like the World Wide Web even was, and the bizarre circumstances of its origin. A technology born in the hallways of a research institution that was barely paying attention to it, hacked together through digital transmissions that brought together a patchwork of hobbyists, researchers, and professionals who just wanted to see what the web could do. And through a lot of trial and error and tinkering at the margins, and with much less thought given to the lasting impact, they managed to conceive of an idea that changed the world.

Through each trial and error, the technology got better and better. It became more useful. It addressed the needs of actual people. And so, it spread.

There were 20 people that came to the Wizards Workshop. The next year, in May of 1994, Robert Calliau and Berners-Lee organized the first WWW conference in Geneva. Almost 400 people showed up. There was much more to discuss. By 1995, the web would go global, still being worked by two dozen people who got together to talk about what kind of things they could build.

The first International Web Conference, held in Geneva in 1994