CCK08 Week 4 History of Social Web

The assigned long “History of the Social Web” essay did not resonate well with me. Maybe I experienced the history of computer networks from 1981 onwards in the wrong way, but most of the emphasis of the paper sounds somewhat alien to me.

“this essay acknowledges the role of grassroots movements and does not solely focus on mainstream culture with all its mergers, acquisitions, sales and markets,”

This does not mean that it represents a typical experience of the majority of users, or the relevant developments that have shaped computer-based communication at that time, but niches and lab environments, and often dated a decade before it became relevant. I think I should at least mention two aspects where my emphasis would have been much different:

  • Proprietary protocols (such as IBM’s Bitnet, or Digital’s Decnet) were much more dominant than the neutral TCP/IP. (And the efforts to avoid them led into other directions, as well, such as to the wannabee computer Esperanto called “OSI” agreed by international standards bodies.) The infrastructure of physical lines and organisational procedures used by these predecessors was so advanced that it had merely to be switched to the other protocol.
  • Similarly, the www competitor gopher was the one that caused the major shift from unconnected ftp resources to interlinked content, at least in the entire German educational landscape, and at least a whole year before www became known.

It is amazing how history forgets so quickly: “While it is unclear how “multimedia” could have been in range for gopher”. This was simply accomplished by a separate window popping up for the GIF pictures. Gopher was not designed for pages with mixed text, image, and links content, but for either link lists or content documents.The mixed pages were, of course, more suitable for shiny commercial content, whereas gopher was already pretty good at connecting texts, concepts, and their authors – people.

My personal position on www displacing gopher was that is was annoying and chaotic. While gopher webs had a very intuitive navigation, since title, header, and anchor text were all the same, this was much more confusing with www (and even today some sites don’t know how to use the title tag, let alone the inline anchors). But don’t be mislead to think that gopher only allowed for hierarchical, tree-like information architectures, like the predecessor ftp sites. Cross-reference links have always been possible. The crucial difference was that they were clearly distinguished from the hierarchical links. And this is, IMO, a quality criterion for usable navigation, and has probably favored the adoption. It would be interesting to ask if native www webs would have gained relevance, at all, unless gopher’s robust underlying content architecture had previously spread. But I am no historian and should better avoid such speculation.

If you are still not tired of biased anecdotal accounts, read on. My first encounter with www was through an anonymous unix account at the history network of the Virtual Library in Kansas, which was accessible over telnet from each gopher client (because nobody had the www client then). It used the arrow keys in a very unintuitive way: for hopping from one inline anchor to a horizontally adjacent one, you had to use the vertical arrow keys, because the horizontal one was for activating the link (which was ergonomically perfect with the gopher navigation where all links were in a vertical list). Helplessly pressing Backspace brought me to a page called “history”. However, it was not what I expected on the history network but rather the link history containing just confusing entries. So I actually wrote a warning for my end users before I sent them to such a peculiar service as www, instead of celebrating it as the famous victor over gopher.

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