Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Remember Your First Time? (Part 2)

It took one click, and then...

Nothing much happened.

In an earlier draft of this note, I wrote something about seeing the web for the first time in 1994 and knowing that everything had changed. Of course that's not true.

I'm pretty sure that the first website I saw was the home page for the National Center for Supercomputing Applications - and believe me, it didn't make a good first impression. It was little more than a "You Are Here" site with some "Suggested Points for Internet Exploration" in a sea of gray, that then-ubiquitous background color selected by the practical nerds at NCSA to reduce eye strain. [click for an archive image].

So, that's the web, huh?

At first glance, the early web was a real snooze. Even worse, it offered little sense of orientation. Supposedly, I was looking at a "page" of text, as if from a book, delivered from a computer server somewhere, but I could see no correlation between this page and the thousands of others available somewhere else. Eventually, some wag would upload a farcical "last page of the Internet," [link] reflecting the unbounded experience of this strange domain, a place so otherworldly that only William Gibson's literary concept of "cyberspace" could offer some degree of coherence:
"Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts... A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding."
Despite Gibson's literary flight of fancy, the early web was a small collection of scientific and university sites, each a sort of cul-de-sac or Walled Garden of disconnected content. Getting from "here" to "there" was difficult and time consuming, unless you knew where you were going. Without some means of orientation (a map? a directory? an index?) you had to click from link to link, searching for a few bread crumbs scattered by searchers who'd already surveyed the territory.

Early guides to the web allowed for little of the creative randomness that would later appear with keyword search engines. Like the first automobile road guides, which offered a few maps but mainly page after droning page of "turn here, then turn there" directions, the first web directories were organized by category and subcategory, with links listed according to the idiosyncratic schemes of their collectors.

Those first explorers created bookmark lists to induce some shape to the web, following the same altruistic impulse that inspires some folks to leave food and even build shelters for travelers making their way along cross country hiking trails. With these guides, it became easier to find "cool sites of the day" that offered more than some grad student's list of clever light bulb jokes. Easier, that is, but hardly easy.

That was the beginning of the web for me. A dim but dawning awareness that this network of homebrew pages could shatter the formerly intractable divide between mass media producer and consumer. Indeed, I quickly realized that if some of these yahoos could build a webpage and further shape this consensual hallucination, then maybe I could too. I just had to figure out something called HTML...

To be continued...

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