As I’ve written previously, the distinction between “internet” and “web” has grown increasingly blurred in recent years. In our contemporary discourse, and in day-to-day interaction, the two terms have become largely conflated. However, as the World Wide Web was first exploding in popularity the difference between the two terms was still more meaningful.
Part of the reason that there was still such a distinction between the two was because the understanding of what the Web actually is was still being negotiated—users, corporations, and the very developers and designers of the web all had different view on what the Web was as well as what role it might play in the future. In her book Dot-Com Design, Megan Sapnar Ankerson traces the history of web design, and details the many factors that gave rise to what the Web eventually became: something that is usable, social, and commercial.
When Tim Berners-Lee was initially describing the potential of hyperlinks and deeply interconnected webpages, he was describing one particular version of what the Web could be. Rather than a traditional database, with rigid hierarchy and clearly defined organization, the Web lacked any such central structure or organization. All pages could be linked to one another, and this interconnection implied that (in theory, at least) all pages were essentially equal to one another. Furthermore, there was a general belief that information and data could be made much more useful and valuable not just through its accessibility, but through its connection(s) to other information. The Web really could be thought of as a spider’s web, with each strand representing a link between two webpages.
Ankerson explains that under this model of interconnectedness and linking, browsing the early Web was largely defined not just by an individual page’s content, but also all the other pages that it was connected to. When someone “surfed” the Web, they weren’t just visiting a specific website. In fact, perhaps there wasn’t even a specific destination in mind as they dialed into their ISPs; instead the Web brought with it the promise of a journey, and exploring a wide range of linked websites.
But in the 2010s and beyond, this original model of the Web does not necessarily apply in quite the same way. While many of the technical underpinnings of the Web remain the same (or at least upgraded versions of the same technologies), the way that individual users actually interact with the Web has changed significantly. Thanks to the increased popularity of Social Networking Services as well as the explosion in smartphone usage, our vision of the Web is incredibly different.
Whereas a decade ago, we might type in a particular URL for a website, and follow link after link to traverse the Web, our online interactions are now largely siloed to just a handful of Web locations. When we tap an app’s icon on our phone screen, we’re still accessing the Web. But instead of getting there through a browser that could theoretically take us anywhere on the Web, we do so via software that is specifically designed to keep us within one place. And even when browsing on a “real” computer (if that term even means anything…), it isn’t really the case that our browsing in much more wide or varied. Personally, I typically spend 80% or more of my time on the Web on just a handful of sites: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Reddit. Perhaps the model of a spider’s web still applies, except now instead of traversing its entire surface, we’re like insects that are trapped within certain areas.
Not to say that this is necessarily a bad thing. If there’s one thing I’ve come to realize about new media (really about all media, in general) is that blanket statements about it being good or bad are generally short-sighted and miss the point. Our new version of what the Web looks like isn’t inherently a positive or negative. However, it is worth considering how this new model might create (or hinder) opportunities for communication, and how these changes might further complicate our understanding of how we relate to our technologies, and how our physical world and the online world are connected.