Happy birthday internet! 25 weird and wonderful things from 25 years of the web

Stuart Rodger

With the world wide web now 25 years old, CommonSpace looks at 25 weird and wonderful things from the first quarter century of the revolutionary technology

The world wide web was officially 25 years old yesterday, with August 23 marking the day in 1991 when the public was first given access to the revolutionary invention.

While the number of internet users around the world has ballooned to 40 per cent of the globe’s population – almost 3.5 billion people – the inventor of the world wide web, English scientist Tim Berners-Lee, does not have household name status.

Berners-Lee first invented the world wide web while working as a physicist at European nuclear-research laboratory CERN in Swtizerland. He invented the program in 1989, before it was made publicly available two years later. At the time, he thought it was “just another program”.

He was a given a knighthood in the 2004 New Years Honours List, but he is a famously modest figure. He now works for the World Wide Web Consortium, in Massachusetts, which aims to develop a decentralised web, and has founded the Web Foundation, which aims to ensure the web “serves humanity.”

Fast forward 25 years, and his invention has come to revolutionise our lives. So here we list 25 ways in 25 years that the world wide web has changed things, and the weird and wonderful new phenomena it has brought us.

1. Email and the end of snail mail

Gone are the days of having to endure the unpleasant taste of letter glue. The rise of email has corresponded with the number of letters distributed by the Royal Mail plunging from 19 billion in 1999 to 16 billion in 2010. Putting on “out-of-office” is the highlight of many a person’s week, but just remember not to “reply all”!

2. Surveillance

The Edward Snowden revelations about the data-monitoring activities of America’s National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK’s GCHQ sent a chill down many people’s spines, and proved that Big Brother is indeed watching you. If Prime Minister Theresa May has her way, the Snooper’s Charter will give the state unprecedented access to citizen’s emails and mobile phone data.

3. Online dating

If you’d said to someone in the early noughties that you were giving online dating a go, you’d be met with mockery at worst and concern at best – with online dating being regarded as the preserve of the desperate or the sad. The rise of Tinder and Grindr, though, have normalised online dating in the modern day.

  1. Online shopping

If you can afford it, you can happily save yourself the chore of a supermarket shop. The hegemonic Amazon, meanwhile, is the king of online department stores. But the low-cost and conveience come at a high price for workers in their gargantuan warehouses.

  1. Shortened attention spans and the rewired brain

Having access to all the information in the world is all very well – if only we had the attention spans to absorb it. Scientists such as Susan Greenfield have argued that the web is rewiring our brains, rendering us unable to process information like we used to.

  1. Trolling

Sadly, with the rise of instant communication, there has been a corresponding rise in abusive messaging online, which has come to be known as trolling. Indeed, the abuse women sometimes receive has been called by some as the ‘civil rights issue of our age’.

  1. The fall of old media the rise of new media

As more and more people find their news online, print newspapers have seen a major dip in sales. But while some newspapers such as The Independent have seen their print versions close entirely, some online media outlets have blossomed – including Buzzfeed, Vice News, and, of course, CommonSpace.

  1. Changing the nature of employment

Any new technology runs the risks of throwing people out of work, and the web is no different. Most controversial in recent years is cab-company Uber, where anyone can sign up as a driver. Critics have said it’s fostering precarious working conditions, and throwing the middleman out of a job.

  1. Changing the face of music and TV

The official UK Top-40 chart is now decided by download figures, rather than CD sales. Meanwhile, music can he heard for free via Spotify. BBC’s iPlayer makes the “unmissable, unmissable” by making the BBC's programmes available online, with many choosing not to bother buying a TV. Alternatively, you can Netflix and chill.

  1. Online gaming

Gaming online allows gamers to play with thousands and even millions of others online – perhaps the most famous example being World of Warcraft, which reached almost 10 million users at its peak. Indeed, the phenomenon has proved extremely addictive, with some reporting ruinous addictions to the game.

  1. Changing the face of politics

Campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter have morphed from being Twitter hashtags to internationally famous mass social movements. Online campaigning platforms like Avaaz and 38 Degrees mobilise thousands behind campaigns chosen by their members. Indeed, Facebook is believed to have been instrumental in formenting the Egyptian revolution in 2011 – an event which marked the beginning of the Arab Spring. Meanwhile, hacktivists such as Anonymous stage orchestrated attacks on establishment websites, from Donald Trump to the US military.

  1. Porn

Some 30 per cent of all internet traffic is from porn. We’re tempted to leave this over to Avenue Q, but the fact remains that the rise of internet porn raies enormous ethical issues around exploitation and objectification.

  1. Online genealogy and family history

TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are have made genealogy fashionable – and online genealogy websites are believed to constitute the second-most visited category of website after porn.

  1. No escaping your past

In days gone by, embarrassing comments and pictures could have disappeared into the abyss of time. These days, though, all it takes for a journalist to trawl through your Twitter or social media accounts to dig up things you’d rather forget. Sorry…

  1. Social media

Twitter and Facebook reign supreme among social media accounts – to such an extent it’s difficult to imagine life without them. When Facebook was launched, it was widely expected that it would been replaced by a new, shinier social media website, but it has somehow managed to retain its popularity despite competition from networks like Twitter.

  1. Wikipedia

The sum total of human knoweldge is now available at our finger tips through this online encyclopedia, but there are always question marks over its reliability. Just remember not to use it as an academic reference. Not cool, students, not cool.

  1. Blogging

These days, journalism is no longer the closed shop it once was. Bloggers have changed the face of political communication, with bloggers such as Guido Fawkes, Wings Over Scotland, Johnny Void, and Another Angry Voice changing the nature of political communnication and sometimes exceeding conventional outlets.

  1. The Dark Web

The ‘Dark Web’ is an encrypted network that sits behind the conventional web. It’s used by many military to conceal their commuications from hackers, but is also used by terrorist organisations like Isis and drug marketplace Silk Road.

  1. Google maps and Google Streetview

Gone are the days of gargantuan road-atlases. Finding directions is now merely a matter of punching in your destination into Google directions. Meanwhile, Google Streetview can zoom down to street-level, but critics think of it as Big Brother-ish.

  1. Memes

Speaks for itself.

  1. Skype

Skype brought an end to sky-high international calls, meaning you can now phone long-distance relatives for free.

  1. Illegal downloads

Illegal downloading and file sharing sites mean commerical music and movie producers are losing money. A Digital Economy Act was passed in the UK in 2010, bringing in harsher penalties for copyright violations. Critics such as the Pirate Party and the Open Rights Group believed it to be counter to the communitarian spirit of the internet.

  1. Bitcoin

This is a digitial currency which can be used online. “Bitcoins” are created through a complex process called mining, which involves computers solving complex mathematical puzzles. Advocates say it can help re-localize economies and break the dominance of central banks.

  1. YouTube

Launched in 2005, it’s hard to imagine the video platform is so comparatively recent. Its most widely watched non-music video is Charlite Bit My Finger – Again. 

  1. “Don’t be evil”

Google remains the hegemonic website online, a one-stop-shop for whatever you’re looking for, to such an extent that its name has become a verb, “to Google”.  Its famous motto – “Don’t be evil” – shows an awareness that such revolutionary technology can be used for good or ill, and that its use should seek to honour Berners-Lee’s desire that the web should “serve humanity”.

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