From the World Wide Web to the Global Sponge

By | Sunday, November 01, 2015 Leave a Comment

I started using, studying, and building tools for “The Web” in 1996. Back then we called it the “World Wide Web.” I attended the “W3C” (World Wide Web Consortium) Conference. The  addresses (URLs) for the most commonly visited sites started with “www”, which stood for “world wide web”. This differentiated them from other types of addresses such as “ftp” (file transfer protocol), “nntp” (network news transfer protocol), “pop” (post office protocol), and so forth. We tended to write and talk about the “world wide web” to distinguish the universe of web sites viewed in web browsers from the other ways that the Internet was used. Casually we would refer to it as “The Web”, though curiously, web sites themselves were often called “home pages.” Over the years, with its universality, the “World Wide” part of the “Web” has pretty much gone away. Lately it seems like the word “Web” is waning too.

Way back when, people got really good at typing “www.” It didn't take long to realize that 99% of everything anyone wanted to see started with “www.”, so servers (which we used to call “web servers”) and browsers (formerly “web browsers”) were changed to either automatically add “www.” to URLs, or assume that was what was meant if there was no prefix to a URL. Now you only need to add a prefix if it is something special such as “ftp”, and most people don't even realize that “www” used to mean something.

Since the World Wide Web is ubiquitous, saying “World Wide” is redundant. As with the “www” prefix, the only reason you would specify which “web” you are referring to is if you are talking about something different, for example the “Dark Web”, or some other experimental, alternative, or private internet.

Even the word “web” is in decline. Where it was always “web this” and “web that”, people are now much more likely to refer to “online” or “the Internet”. We used to say “Have you checked the web”; now most say, “Have you 'Googled' it”, or “Have you looked online.” Often, we refer not to the web as a whole but to a specific site or class of sites - Facebook, Google, Twitter, Weather.com, Wikipedia, Amazon, Uber, online dating, blogs (formerly Web-logs), etc. More and more often we use neo-verbs that refer to the act of using a specific site - Google (as a verb), tweet, post, pin, Uber, etc. [It is interesting to note that of the most used sites, Weather.com - having chosen a common English noun for its name - is always referred to with its “.com” suffix and hasn't been verbified.] There is the curious inverse case that today the term “home page” sounds quaint or even archaic. Now we call everything a site (unless it is a 'blog'), as in, "Hey, check out this new site for buying groceries online."

There is an argument to be made that we should stop using “web” to refer to sites on the Internet. In the early days before search engines, it really was a web. The only way to find anything was to traverse (“surf”) the “web”, following links from one page to another. If you didn't know the URL of any web sites at all, then the “World Wide Web” was completely useless to you. You had to step onto the web somewhere. From that starting point you could only get to other pages that were linked to from there, or pages linked to from those links, or the next page's links, and so on. Since pages further down the path could and often did link you back to previous sites, it was a web of pages, rather than a chain or a tree.

My original “home page” was just a list of links to web pages that I found useful, with descriptions of each. In 1996 an online magazine listed my home page in its list of World Wide Web resources. Not long afterwards, Yahoo! came to the rescue with its professionally curated card-catalog of web sites. That innovation begat the portal-wars, as AOL, Microsoft/MSN, Netscape, Yahoo!, and others competed to become your portal to the web. People set their browsers' start page to be the portal of their choice; they would get to the rest of the web from there. But portals weren't long lived. Soon search engines emerged as the beginning for almost every online foray, followed by a blend of searching, personal bookmarks, links shared through social media, and well-known site names.

Nowadays, by and large, people no longer traverse a web of Internet sites. The word “web” persists in our lexicon, and arguably there is still an interconnected set of links out there, but that is no longer how we interact with it. People now go directly to a site they know about or were pointed to, or use a search engine to find information they want. The webiness of The Web is less and less important. The online world has grown and morphed to become more like a sponge, sucking up all that is digital. It is a squishy, amorphous matrix that holds everything we pour into it, seemingly forever. It has become "The Global Sponge".

Based purely on personal nostalgia I miss the “World Wide Web”, but, I have to admit that “World Wide” is redundant, and “Web” is irrelevant. The “World Wide Web” is gone. Long live “The Global Sponge.”
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