Way back in 1999, the man who invented the World Wide Web, Al Gore Tim Berners-Lee, wrote a book about how he created the Web, called “Weaving the Web: The Ulitmate Destiny of the World Wide Web by its Inventor“. I have the original, hard cover edition of this book. I’m not sure if it’s been updated in the newer editions or not. Here’s the most striking quote from the whole thing:

The Web is more a social creation than a technical one. I designed it for a social effect – to help people work together – and not as a technical toy. The ultimate goal of the Web is to support and improve our weblike existence in the world. We clump into families, associations, and companies. We develop trust across the miles and distrust around the corner. What we believe, endorse, agree with, and depend on is representable and, increasingly represented on the Web. We all have to ensure that the society we build with the Web is of the sort we intend.

— Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web


Berners-Lee wrote this in ’99, and if you read the book, it turns out he’s been thinking about this concept of a worldwide social web since sometime in the 1970’s.

1999. It was the infancy of Google. It was pre-Wordpress blogs. Definitely pre-Twitter, podcasting, Digg, Delicious, and StumbleUpon, and any of the other many tools that we use in this space we call “social media”. Back in a time when a web page was not much more than plain text on a screen and even before that, Berners-Lee had incredible foresight. It’s a common misconception that Berners-Lee invented the Web for computer programmers and scientists. In fact, he invented it for everyone.

He actually had to jump through a lot of hoops at CERN where he worked. He snuck around, trying out his project on people, all while making it “look” like he was building something that only physicists could make use of. All the while, he was building a tool that would allow for sharing, communication and collaboration by everyone, anywhere in the world.

Skip forward to 2008 and we now have what many consider a real innovation called “social media”.  Well, I’ve got news for you. Social media is not an innovation. It’s the raison d’etre for the Web. Social media is merely the buzzword we’ve decided to attach to what was the original point of Berners-Lee’s invention. It’s the evolution of what he described as the ultimate goal, “to support and improve our weblike existence in the world”.

Case in point: Imagine if suddenly, Twitter was gone. Vanished. A permanent Fail Whale sort of gone. Imagine if suddenly, your blog disappeared, or the blog of your favourite blogger ceased to exist. Imagine a world with no Stumbleupon, or Digg, or YouTube, or Delicious. Whatever would we do?

I know what we’d do. We’d find another way to connect. Someone would build another tool, and we’d all head over there. Or maybe we’d actually meet in person where feasible, and connect that way. What I do know is, resourceful as we are, we’d find a way to still carry on the conversation that we’ve started here. We’d still have our weblike existence, because that’s how the Web is set up.

In the end, whether something is labeled as “social media” or not might be a moot point. This has become more and more apparent to me in recent weeks. There’s a shift happening. Maybe you’ve felt it too, depending on how involved you are in your networks and what you’ve been reading. The focus is starting to move away from the latest new tools, gadgets and technical creations, and more towards what Berners-Lee envisioned as a “social creation”.

More and more of the conversations I’m reading and having are about the social marvel that is the Web itself …not the marvel that is “social media”. This is a really, really good thing. It means that we are starting to move beyond the latest craze/gadget/guru phase. The environment is maturing. Communication, collaboration and communities are starting to become the mainstream ways in which people are using the Web. The social Web is no longer just for the “social media crowd”. I suspect, over the next 6 months, that this is going to become even more prevalent. I also suspect, that over the next little while, our label of “social media” is going to, if not go away, at least change.

10 years ago, people saw the Web was a place to get information. Today, more and more people are seeing it as a place to connect. Therein lies the difference. The shift to this thinking in the mainstream is going to be the next big revolution on the Web. It’s going to be the realization of Berners-Lees’  incredible vision. As he says, the “Web society” is forming before our eyes. We are ultimately all responsible for how this new society takes shape.

How do you think things will shape up?

10 Responses

  1. What a fantastic way to start a Monday, Suze – obviously that shiny new Alltop badge has inspired you! 😉

    I’m going to have to buy that book, that’s a few times you’ve mentioned your hero and each time he seems to interest me more.

    Fantastic insights and yes, I’m sure we’d all figure a new way out somehow – but just in case, I’m backing up my blog to an external hard drive! 😉

  2. I started to respond but realized it’s too long so will blog about it instead! But you are totally, totally right and I can personally attest to that fact because I’ve been there and exerienced exactly what you describe: when social networks crumble, we find a way to re-create and re-assemble. I’ve been using social media for almost 12 years now and have had to do just that a number of times–in my case, with a group of moms I “met” online in 1997 and have stayed in almost daily contact with since then. We could write the book about picking up the pieces when your social network vanishes!

    Anyway, I’ll write a post about the details…all I know is that the social web has been a daily part of my life for over 11 years and I don’t know what I’d do without it!

  3. Amazing how long it has taken to finally get here. We are finally using the web the way it was intended and yet, it feels like we’re at the tip of the iceberg.

    The trick will now be to figure out how to actually improve the planet we live on through the web. Solve big problems. That is what I’m really excited about.

  4. Sue,
    great points. Brings back two (good) memories.

    During the boom, on Sept 29, 2000 at a big Nortel “What do you want the internet to be” event I was touched by the presentation from Dr. Sylvia Earle ( an Explorer-in-Residence at National Geographic).

    Her key message: “With knowing comes caring” (her passion is the oceans … “and with caring there is hope that an ocean ethic will arise that will secure a sustainable future for ourselves and for the seas.”)

    Every day I hope that this heightened awareness will lead to us all caring more and making better decisions.

    The other memory is from back in the early days of long haul fiber equipment development, where some of the evangelists spearheading the project talked about the “death of distance”. Sounded kinda weird back then but it’s certainly become true in many, many ways.

    Social Media seems to be to be the blossoming of these aspirations. I sure hope so!


  5. Absolutely right, Suze! And this is why I enjoy the Web now. I remember when it was new, simply browsing around, lookin’ for somethin’, anything interesting.

    Now, I can’t wait to hear from the people I’ve come to know through those connections we’ve created. You’re right; it’s all about the connections with folks that give the Web the zip it needed!

  6. Great post again! And I share paisley’s comment about the fact that these new so called “social media” tools are just refinements of existing ones such as IRC, instant messaging, news groups, and other boards. They are just easier to use, faster and more pervasive. Just not yet enough for my parents to use them 😉

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