Celebrating 40 years of the Web

Happy New Year and Happy 40th Birthday to the Internet!

Classic 90s dancing baby gif.

While the technology that ultimately led to the Internet began in the 60’s, January 1st is considered the official birthday of the Web thanks to the development of TCP/IP (Transfer Control Protocol/Interwork Protocol) which created a standard for computers in different networks to “talk” to each other. As people who work on the internet, we here at Chromatic would like to celebrate 40 years of the internet by sharing some of our thoughts and favorite things about the web: past, present and future.

Web 1.0

We have long evolved past chain emails, dial-up and Rickrolling, but that’s not to say there weren't some memorable elements from the past worth looking back at and reminiscing about:

I love how a tiny little subset of SGML was stripped down and simplified into a very simple semantic markup subset that allowed almost anyone to make web pages. And I love how effectively people have leveraged this simple set of markup to create so many different kinds of documents and content. The power of simplification.

— Kristofer Widholm

I was a kid at the height of Geocities and Angelfire sites. While I loved the free-form, GIF-laden designs common on those free site builders, I specifically had a soft spot for the HTML Marquee element. Was it distracting? Yes. Was it ever necessary? No, but I loved it anyway!

— Michele Smolensky

Some of my fondest memories of learning web development came by way of the original CSS Zen Garden. In the early days of Cascading Style Sheets, these examples of separating a site's content from its presentation were both radical and beautiful. I spent countless hours studying these pages and learning how the artists pulled off such wildly different designs from the same source HTML. It felt like magic.

— Chris Free

Webrings as the search tool before Google, or Jenkins for that matter. There was just something cozy and fun about finding your way to a fan or hobby site and being able to explore related web sites and forums that way. The organic way communities arose on the internet always felt like you were really discovering something, rather than being “served” something that might fit your interests.

— Michele Smolensky

With that said though, there are also things that are good we have left behind…

[That we] stopped using tables to create website layouts.

— Alex Davidovic

Web 2.0

The current state of the internet – no longer is spending hours on your computer going to get you called a nerd! It can be easy to focus on the negatives of Web 2.0, but there’s a lot to be appreciated and enjoyed:

The introduction of Accessibility and the importance of having an accessible website (the famous Domino’s trial) as there are many people out there with disabilities that benefit from this.

— Alex Davidovic

One thing I like about the web is how we used to tease older web users for writing full sentences into search engines. For example, “How long can I keep shredded cheese in the freezer?”, but that's exactly how we use the web now!

— Lina Calin

In 1996, Warner Brothers created a marketing website for Space Jam. It was one of the first websites that broke the linear up-and-down mold of internet layouts. Some sites followed that mold and iterated on it, but the technology at the time (tables and splices) and continuing even for another decade or so made it difficult to truly change what you could do with layouts. Nowadays, we have a particularly awesome technology, in my opinion at least, that allows us to truly transform the linear consumption of website layouts: WebGL. Not only does this technology allow for 3D renderings and interactions on the web, but if done right it is extremely performant. A great example of how 3D changes dissemination of information is Smithsonian's 3D Digitization project. This is sort of like an online library of their tangible assets archive. Allowing anyone (no matter the device, to a certain degree) to zoom in and turn objects often limited to physical exhibitions or locked inside plastic boxes.

— Dan Arbello

The incredible trove of information people share online. I love learning new things and I love that no matter what I might be curious about, I can likely find free and paid content and even suppliers to make it happen! Am I curious how to crochet? Need to change a tire? How about making my own shoes? There is someone online who will teach you.

— Michele Smolensky

But of course, there’s still plenty of room for growth and improvement…

As web professionals, we are experts with the tools used to navigate the internet and it's easy to forget that the average person, especially older generations, might be unfamiliar with how things work online. Performing usability tests I often noticed users that:

  • Double-click hyperlinks.
  • Enter a full web address (e.g. www.amazon.com) into Google search instead of directly into the browser's address bar.
  • Don't know what a web browser actually is. They just know there's an icon on their computer that they click to get online.
  • Justifiably [they] get confused when a link obnoxiously opens a new browser window, breaking the Back button.

I suppose my point is that even though the web has been around for decades, there's lots of room to make our tools and sites more intuitive and easier to use.

— Märt Matsoo

Web 3.0 and beyond

The internet is a fast moving place so it’s hard to truly imagine what the future of the web might look like. For example, just in 2022 NFTs took the world by storm as an exciting use case for blockchain technology and already feels mundane. But, there are a few developments we are particularly excited about:

One thing I'm most excited about where it's going is in how the web creates community between strangers. One of the most common criticisms of web things is that it creates distance in human interaction. But through the wave of social media and oversharing, I don't find that to be true at all. Through social media, we're able to see how common our human experience is. Suddenly I don't feel so strange and alone in my love for Marvel, my neurodivergence, my mental health, the weird way I eat skittles, etc. etc. We've seen strangers raising thousands of dollars for someone down on their luck, a brand new car purchased for a striving young man who walks to work every day, nearly bankrupt family restaurants getting sold out daily after one good review, and lost pets returned to their owners because of the internet. It connects people, and I'm excited to see how that continues and becomes more normal.

— Lina Calin

ChatGPT. It is a new thing, but I think it will have an impact on the web and us developers. I know for sure that StackOverflow will lose some pageviews.

— Alex Davidovic

Web 0

All that said, none of these things would likely be possible in the past, present or future, if it wasn’t for the ethos and underlying structure of the web that stays evergreen and allows for the innovation we enjoy and build on top of:

With so much evolving over the years, there's something I appreciate about just how much Craigslist has embraced the concept of “if it ain't broke, don't fix it”. It's the same vibe you get when walking into a great old bookstore.

— Katie High

I love RSS. I get a kick out of it every time someone posts about how RSS is dead, yet the vast majority of people listen to podcasts via players that utilize RSS to pull in all of the show data. Thanks Dave Winer!

— Mark Dorison

I love that you can still learn from others by viewing source. In fact, I think “view source” is the one radically simple decision in the Mosaic browser that made the web explode. If you saw a web page and liked something about how it was structured, you could just steal that idea with copy paste, and then even possibly improve on it. That copy/paste teaching+learning model is what eventually led to StackOverflow. I don't think anyone in the early nineties would have predicted that know-how would become freely interchanged on the web, not just hard information.

— Kristofer Widholm

+1 for “view source”. I would not be here today if it wasn't for the ability to learn from the work of others on the web.

— Mark Dorison

I love that the web, despite many of its standards having been co-opted for commercial purposes instead of machine-readable information categorization, still adheres to its original vision via RDF and RSS.

— Kristofer Widholm

My favorite thing about the web is how it is built on a foundation of openness facilitated by interoperability. Siloed platforms and walled gardens are doomed to fail ultimately because, to quote Tom Waits, “you can drive out nature with a pitch fork, but it always comes roaring back again” and it is in the web’s nature to be open.

— Alfonso Gómez-Arzola