“Go figure out what that World Wide Web thing is.” Ironically, that was my first newspaper assignment. I’m still trying to untangle the infinite tunneling intricacies of the Web all these years later, even today on its 25th birthday. It’s what I do for a job, which an old-school print journalist like me might not even have if not for the web.
The idea for what would become the World Wide Web was proposed 25 years ago today on a NeXT computer, on March 12, 1989. This threadbare, imageless cluster of text is what the first web landing page looked like. It was nothing more than a white background with black words and a smattering of blue “hypermedia” links to click on. No Google. No Twitter. No Facebook. They were still years away. There were, however, all of 17 “subjects” to peruse, along with the web’s five-question inaugural FAQ, written by none other than physicist Tim Berners-Lee, the man who conceptualized the revolutionary information linking and sharing tool in a CERN office in Switzerland. (CERN is short for the European Organization for Nuclear Research.) The newborn web wasn’t exactly riveting, but it was a start. The birth of a fascinating intangible cultural force that matured into a churning virtual mass of some 4.1 billion pages, with countless more coming online right now as you read this. It’s an understatement to say that the web has forever changed the way we live, work, play and communicate, for better and for worse. I lean toward better.
So grab a slice of cake and check out these 10 cool historical facts about the web on its 25th anniversary:
1. The Father of the web wants you to fight for its freedom. Berners-Lee, 58, is celebrating the landmark anniversary of his pioneering collaborative communication protocol today by imploring its users to “defend its core principles” of freedom, non-censorship, and net neutrality.
The vocal Edward Snowden supporter is calling for people to back a universal “Internet Users Bill of Rights.” The “Web We Want” initiative sets out to establish personal user protections, including many now routinely trampled upon by the NSA. The project also aims to expand the web to the two-thirds of the world that still doesn’t have access to it.
2. The Internet’s first website went online on Aug. 6, 1991. Berners-Lee and his fellow CERN team members launched http://info.cern.ch with a landing page that only contained 153 words. It defined the World Wide Web (“W3”) as “a wide-area hypermedia information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents” and contained 25 links to basic additional information about the pioneering initiative.
3. Let freedom ring. On April 30, 1993, CERN announced that its World Wide Web technology would be available to all for free. The public statement declared that the main components of the web’s structure were to remain in the public domain, giving anyone in the world freedom to use them. “CERN relinquishes all intellectual property rights to this code, both source and binary and permission is given to anyone to use, duplicate, modify and distribute it,” the historic statement read.
4. You are now free to roam freely about the Internet. Archie, which is widely considered to be the first-ever primitive search engine, went live in 1990. But a slew of others followed suit over the following decade, including web crawling giants who still chug on strong today like Yahoo, MSN, and, yes, the almighty Google.
5. Librarians surf, too. We have a New York librarian who calls herself Net-mom® to thank for the term “Surf the Internet.” Jean Armour Polly penned an article called “Surfing the INTERNET” that was published in a University of Minnesota library bulletin in 1992. Some credit Mark McCahill, the programmer behind an early web alternative called the Gopher protocol, for dreaming up the phrase.
6. An all-girl band stars in the first ever picture posted online. Berners-Lee also boasts the bragging rights to another awesome first: uploading the first photo to the web in 1992. It was a picture snapped backstage of an all-girl physics-themed rock band called Les Horribles Cernettes, which was founded in 1990 by a graphic designer at CERN. Berners-Lee scanned the photo, uploaded it to a Mac and FTPd it to the now famous info.cern.ch. The web Berners-Lee invented lives on, but the Cernettes broke up in 2012. Bummer.
7. Primitive browsers helped the web reach critical mass. NCSAMosaic, the web’s first widely used graphical browser is often credited with bringing the internet out of geeky obscurity. Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina developed the iconic black, gray and blue browser at the University of Illinois National Center for Supercomputing Applications in 1993. Before Mosaic, web users had to slog through arduous, complicated character-based interfaces, like Lynx.
Netscape Navigator, which landed on the internet a year later on Dec. 15, 1994, also played a momentous role in making the web accessible to the general public. (Remember that first newspaper assignment I scored? I tackled my article research by drifting in a bottomless, frustratingly slow-loading Netscape vortex for three weird hours. Good times.)
Mosaic may take the title for the first popular web browser, but the honor of the inaugural graphical web browser belongs to ViolaWWW. The complex “hypermedia browser,” which only worked on the X Windows System and Unix workstations, launched on March 9, 1992.
8. The internet is not the web and the web is not the internet. Don’t get them twisted like most people do, especially not if you’re in Silicon Valley. The internet was a thing long before the web and the web wouldn’t exist without the internet. The internet, the roots of which can be traced as far back to the invention of the modem in 1958, is a massive infrastructure that bridges millions of computers throughout the globe. The World Wide Web is a vast system of interlinked hypertext documents accessed on the internet.
9. Billions of people surf the web. Of the world’s 7.1 billion people, an estimated 2.4 billion people go online today. That’s 37.7 percent of the world’s total population. About six out of seven people across the globe have internet access. Approximately 70 percent of internet users surf the web every day.
10. Americans rock the web the most. Users in the U.S. account for 78.6 percent of global web usage, trailed by Australia (67.6 percent), Europe (63.2 percent), Latin America/Caribbean (42.9 percent), Middle East (40.2 percent), Asia (25.7 percent) and Africa (15.6). Surprisingly, some 24 nations remain completely offline.