Sunday August 13, 2006
The Observer Johannes Gutenberg took the idea of printing by moveable type and turned it into a publishing system. In doing so he changed the world. But he did not live to see the extent of the revolution he had brought about. If you’d told him in 1468 – the year he died – that the Bible he had published in 1455 would undermine the authority of the Catholic church, power the Renaissance and the Reformation, enable the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science, create new social classes and even change our concept of childhood, he would have looked at you blankly.But there lives among us today a man who has done something similar, and survived to see the fruits of his work. He is Tim Berners-Lee, and he conceived a system for turning the internet into a publishing medium. Just over 15 years ago – on 6 August 1991, to be precise – he released the code for his invention on to the internet. He called it the World Wide Web, and had the inspired idea that it should be free so that anyone could use it.
And just about everyone did, with the result that the web grew exponentially. Today nobody really knows how big it is. At a recent conference, Yahoo’s head of research and development put the size of the public web at 40 billion pages, but the size of the ‘deep’ web, the area where web pages are assembled on the fly and served up in response to clicked-upon links, is estimated to be between 400 and 750 times greater than the part that is indexed by search engines. Since you started reading this piece, thousands of pages have been added.
By any standards, the web represents a colossal change in our information environment. And the strange thing is that it has come about in just 15 years. Actually, most of it has happened in less than that, because the web only went mainstream in 1993, when the first graphical browsers – the computer programs we use to access the web – were released. So these are early days. We can no more envisage the long-term implications of what has happened than dear old Gutenberg could.
The strangest thing is how casually we have come to take it for granted. We buy books from Amazon, airline tickets from Easyjet and Ryanair, tickets for theatres and cinemas online, as if doing so were the most natural thing in the world. We check the opening times at the Louvre in Paris or the Museum of Modern Art in New York (or browse their collections) online. We check definitions (and spellings) in online dictionaries, look up stuff in Wikipedia, search for apartments to rent on Craigslist or a host of local lookalikes such as Daft.ie in Ireland. You can buy and sell just about anything (excluding body parts) on eBay. Children seeking pictures for school projects search for them on Google Images (and download them without undue concern for intellectual property rights). Holiday snaps escape from their shoeboxes and are published to the world on Flickr. Home movies likewise on YouTube. And of course anyone with doubts about a prospective blind date can do an exploratory check on Google before committing to an evening out with a total stranger.
All this we now take for granted. To get a handle on the scale of what has happened, think back to what the world was like 15 years ago. Amazon was a large river in South America. Ryanair was an Irish airline that flew to places nobody had ever heard of. eBay was a typo. Yahoo was a term from Gulliver’s Travels. A googol was a very large number (one followed by a hundred zeroes). Classified ads were densely printed matter in newspapers.
‘Encyclopedia’ was a synonym for Encyclopedia Britannica. And if you wanted to read what your MP had said in the Commons yesterday you had to queue at the Stationery Office in London to buy Hansard. Oh, and there were quaint little shops in high streets called ‘travel agents’.
To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the web we’ve assembled a list of sites that have become the virtual wallpaper of our lives. What the corresponding list will be like in 15 years’ time is anyone’s guess. As the man said, if you want to know the future, go buy a crystal ball. In the meantime, read on and wonder.
· John Naughton’s history of the internet, A Brief History of the Future, is published by Phoenix at £7.99
Founded: Pierre Omidyar, 1995, US
What is it? Auction and shopping site
You cannot buy fireworks, guns, franking machines, animals or lock-picking devices on eBay, the internet’s premier auction site, but almost everything else is OK: sideburns, houses, used underwear and of course Pez dispensers.
Pez is where it is said to have all begun for eBay’s ponytailed founder Pierre Omidyar when he responded to his fiancee’s worries that she would no longer be able to expand her toy collection when they moved to Silicon Valley. Omidyar developed a car boot sale anyone could use wherever they were, and without the need for getting dressed. The name sprang from Echo Bay Technology Group, Omidyar’s consultancy company, and the first sale was a broken laser pointer.
Things have moved on a little since then. We spend more time on eBay than any other internet site. There are more than 10 million users in the UK.
And eBay is far from just a second-hand stall. New items are sold by global companies; many people have abandoned their jobs to eBay full time, and normally sane people fret about ‘negative feedback’ and being outbid by ‘snipers’. eBay owns PayPal and Skype, making dealing almost effortless.
Founded: Jimmy Wales, 2001, US
Users: 912,000 visits per day
What is it? Online encyclopaedia
As a young boy growing up in Hunstville, Alabama, Jimmy Wales attended a one-room school, sharing his classes with only three other children. Here he spent ‘many hours poring over encyclopaedias’, and faced the familiar
frustrations: their scope was conservative; they were hard to navigate and often out of date.
In January 2001 he created a solution. Wikipedia was a free online encyclopaedia and differed from its predecessors in one fundamental regard:
it was open to everyone to read, and also to edit. If you had something to add – from a pedantic correction to an entire entry on your specialist subject – the Wiki template made this easy. The software enables entries to be updated within minutes of new developments. There is nothing you cannot find – how best to make glass, the use of the nappy in space exploration – and if something isn’t there, you may wish to take matters into your own hands.
Like any fast-moving venture – the site attracts 2,000-plus page requests a second – it has not been slow to attract criticism. Occasionally a libellous article will lie undetected for months, as happened with an entry linking one of Robert Kennedy’s aides with his assassination. But Wales says his creation is abused only rarely, and swiftly corrected by other users. ‘Those who use Wikipedia a lot appreciate its true value and have learnt to trust it,’ he says. ‘Sometimes a prankster will substitute a picture of Hitler for George Bush, and within an hour someone would have changed it back.’
Founded: Shawn Fanning, 1999, US
Users: 500,000 paying subscribers
What is it? File sharing site
Shawn Fanning created Napster in 1999 while studying at Boston’s Northeastern University, as a means of sharing music files with his fellow students. Of course, it was entirely illegal (home taping kills music,
remember) and was quickly attacked by a mainstream music industry already struggling to make profits on its money-guzzling artists. Its popularity reached a peak in 2000 with over 70 million registered users before Fanning’s company was forced to pay millions of dollars in backdated
royalties: a move which bankrupted the original, free-to-use Napster the following year. By then, however, the premature leaking and sharing of hotly anticipated albums by some of the major labels’ most bankable artists had proved to be a stimulant, not a thief, of sales once the CD version was released. The new Napster – effectively a renamed version of a pay-to-download MP3 site owned by the original Napster company’s buyers, the German giant Bertelsmann- has never recaptured its original cool, precisely because it is now legitimate. What it did in its brief period of illegal notoriety was popularise the notion that making music freely available on the internet – through MySpace, one-off downloads or artist-sanctioned ‘leaks’ – does artists no harm at all; indeed, it’s helped to launch the careers of many.
Founded: Chad Hurley, Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, 2005, US
Users: 100m clips watched a day
What is it? Video sharing site
When Chad Hurley and Steve Chen began working out of a garage in San Mateo in late 2004 to figure out an easy way to upload and share funny videos they’d taken at a dinner party, they had no idea just how huge an impact their creation would make. The former PayPal employees launched the user-friendly site in February 2005 and it has since become one of the most popular sites on the net, with YouTube claiming that 100 million clips are watched every day. Through the grassroots power of the internet and good word-of-mouth, the site quickly went from a place where people shared homemade video clips to users posting long-lost TV and film gems such as bloopers from Seventies game shows to ancient music videos. It has also taken off as a place for amateur film-makers to show off their talents – take David Lehre, a teenager whose MySpace: The Movie became such a popular clip he’s already fielded job offers from major movie studios.
Not all television studios immediately embraced the idea of their archived copyrighted footage being shared. ‘We’re not here to steal,’ insists Chen.
‘When [US television network] NBC asked us to take something down, we did.’
In fact, NBC only last week announced plans to work alongside YouTube, airing exclusive clips and trailers and eventually hoping to post episodes of The Office and Saturday Night Live on it. The company has had several offers to be bought out, but the pair swear they will not sell out. They continue to work out of their San Mateo loft, overseeing 27 employees and developing ways to make the site easier to use while whirling lucrative deals with studios.
Founded: Evan Williams, 1999, US
Users: 18.5m unique visitors
What is it? Weblog publishing system
There weren’t too many computers lying around in the cornfields of Nebraska in the 1970s when Evan Williams was growing up. But he was drawn to them when he found them. He was also drawn west, to California in the 1990s.
Williams founded Pyra Labs with two friends. At first it made project-management software for companies. It was not glamorous. Then it made Blogger and changed the world.
‘The funny thing was I actually hesitated before working on Blogger because I didn’t see the commercial applications,’ says Williams. ‘We had started a company and we needed to make money. We didn’t see how this little hobbyist activity was going to make anyone money.’
The little hobbyist activity was blogging, the art of keeping a weblog – of diarising, theorising, satirising, fictionalising your life and observations online. It had already taken off among the tech fraternity in the Nineties, but it required building and maintaining your own website; the luddites were excluded. Williams created a tool that made self-publishing online as user-friendly as word-processing. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this innovation. It didn’t just create a new form of creative expression, it turned the media upside down.
Content was once made by companies for passive consumption by people. After Blogger, people were the content. They wrote about and read about their friends, their opinions, their cats. (There was a lot about cats in the early blogs.) None had a huge audience but collectively they were massive.
‘Now you see TV networks saying: “We’ve gotta get on the web because that’s where the audience is,”‘ says Williams.
There is no accurate count of the number of blogs in existence now. There are millions. One is created every minute. The revolution might have been possible without Blogger but it would have taken everyone a lot longer.
‘Something like it would have existed anyway,’ says Williams. ‘And lots of things like it do exist. It was a combination of helping push an idea as well as just being in the right place at the right time when the idea was right.’
Founded: Steve and Julie Pankhurst, 1999, UK
What is it? School reunion site
In July 2000, as the dreams of the internet boom crumbled around them, a husband-and-wife team were busy launching a rough and ready web phenomenon.
Friends Reunited, which was sold to ITV for £120m last December, was Julie Pankhurst’s brainchild. While pregnant, she became obsessed with finding out what her old friends had been up to since they left school. Her husband Steve, a computer programmer, had been brainstorming with his business partner Jason Porter for an original internet-based idea, and Julie suggested a website to cater for her newfound obsession. It took her some time to convince them. ‘In the end,’ says Steve, ‘I designed Friends Reunited just to shut her up.’
The site took off slowly, getting half a dozen hits per day, but everything changed at the start of 2001 when its lone server collapsed. ‘The Steve Wright show on Radio 2 had made us their website of the day. Tens of thousands of people had tried to access the site at the same time.’ Within a month membership rose from 3,000 to 19,000; the couple were working 18-hour days. Friends Reunited quickly became a household name and membership soared into the millions.
Founded: Matt Drudge, 1994, US
Users: 8-10m page views per day
What is it? News site
What began as a gossipy email newsletter has, since its first post in 1994, developed into one of the most powerful media outlets in American politics.
Today the Drudge Report has evolved into a website, drudgereport.com, and its threadbare, no-frills design belies the scale of its influence. It received an estimated 3.5 billion hits in the last 12 months; visitors regard it as the first port of call for breaking news.
Fedora-wearing founder Matt Drudge monitors TV and the internet for rumours and stories which he posts as headlines on his site. For the most part these are direct links to traditional news sites, though occasionally Drudge writes the stories himself. In 1998 he was the first to break news of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Named this year as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people, the 38-year-old regards himself as a maverick newsman working free from the demands of editors and advertisers. Others, particularly critics from the left, view his reportage as biased towards conservatives, careless, malicious and frequently prone to error.
A report in 1997, alleging that White House assistant Sidney Blumenthal physically abused his wife, generated a $30m lawsuit against Drudge, which was dropped in 2001. In June 2004, Drudge apologised for a February ‘world exclusive’ claiming that John Kerry had had an affair with an intern.
Drudge has been labelled a ‘threat to democracy’ and an ‘idiot with a modem’ as well as ‘the kind of bold, entrepreneurial, free-wheeling, information-oriented outsider we need more of in this country’ (by Camille Paglia); his importance in the US media is undisputed.
Founded: Tom Anderson and Chris DeWolfe, 2003, US
What is it? Social networking site
When business-school alumnus Chris DeWolfe set up the social networking site MySpace with his partner, ex-band member and film studies graduate Tom Anderson, three years ago, there was little indication that the one-stop online friend-making shop would soon boast 100 million members and more page visits in Britain than the BBC. The pair envisaged a site that would bring together all the qualities of existing online communities such as Friendster, Tribe.net and LiveJournal, with added features including classified adverts and events planning.
They got the formula just right: the MySpace-opolis is growing by 240,000 a day, making it the fourth most-visited website in the world. DeWolfe believes that the key to the site’s success is its founders’ rapport with the people who use it. ‘We looked at it from the point of view of how people live their lives,’ he says.
One of those features is the ability to upload and listen to music, which has attracted 2.2 million new bands and artists to the site, some of whom – most famously Lily Allen and Arctic Monkeys – can attribute their chart success to having spread the word through MySpace.
MySpace’s parent company, Intermix, was bought by Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp last year for $580m, causing consternation among some of the music world’s more politicised acts, but no large-scale boycott. The site is simply too valuable and effective – and ubiquitous – to ignore.
Founded: Jeff Bezos, 1994, US
Users: More than 35m customers in over 250 countries
What is it? Online retailer, primarily of books, CDs and DVDs
The earth’s biggest bookstore was originally called Cadabra, but Jeff Bezos thought again after his lawyer misheard it as ‘cadaver’. He chose Amazon as something large and unstoppable and so, with current annual revenues of $8bn, it has proved. It was just a trickle to begin with though: the first office was in a Seattle suburb with desks made out of old doors. But it quickly became the headline act of the dotcom miracle and Bezos was Time magazine’s man of the year in 1999. Amazon’s continued dominance rests on price-slashing that would make Wal-Mart wince, and a reputation for reliability. Though selling books (and now almost everything else) on a vast scale, it has tried never to forget the value of intimacy.
Founded: Rob Malda, 1997, US
Users: 5.5m per month
What is it? Technology news website and internet forum
‘I’m just a geek that likes to poke around with hardware,’ says Rob Malda.
His site, Slashdot.org, hosts news and discussion for techies and is one of the most visited websites in the world. Time magazine included him in its top 100 innovators, stating: ‘Malda has taken the idea of what news can be, hacked it open and rebuilt it for the internet age.’
Most of the site is written by users; posts include a short synopsis paragraph, a link to the original story and a lengthy discussion sometimes running to 10,000 comments a day. Slashdot pioneered this user-driven content, and influenced sites including Google News, Guardian Unlimited and Wikipedia. In 2002 the site leaked the ruling of a court case involving Microsoft before the verdict had even been delivered to Microsoft or the US government. There is also the Slashdot effect, where a site is swamped by heavy traffic from a Slashdot link and its server collapses.
In 1997, 21-year-old Malda started what we would now call a blog, hosted on his user account at university. As the site picked up users he divided his time between college, paid work and the site. ‘It was a blur. There were many nights when I did not sleep.’ Two years later Andover bought Slashdot for $5m, shared between Malda, co-founder Jeff ‘Hemos’ Bates and other partners. They also shared $7m in stock between them. In 2000 VA Linux (now VA Software) bought Andover for $900m. Slashdot now has 10 employees dedicated to maintaining the site, most of them based in California. Malda has remained in Michigan, where he grew up and went to college. He is director of Slashdot. He proposed to his wife Kathleen on the site in 2002.
Founded: David Talbot, 1995, US
Users: Between 2.5 and 3.5m unique visitors per month
What is it? Online magazine and media company Salon grew out of a strike.
When the San Francisco Examiner was shut for a couple of weeks in 1994 a few of its journalists taught themselves HTML and had a go at doing a newspaper with new technology. They found the experience liberating, and David Talbot, the Examiner’s arts editor, subsequently gave up his job and launched the kind of online paper he had always wanted to work for. Salon was originally a forum for discussing books, but the editors quickly realised it had to be more journalistic than that. They aimed at creating a ‘smart tabloid’, not afraid to be mischievous while maintaining a rigour with news. Talbot believes that online journalism came of age with the death of Princess Diana and the Lewinsky scandal. It proved with those events that it could be nimbler and more gossipy, it could update itself continually and, crucially, let readers join in. Salon’s Table Talk forum established a new relationship between a news outfit and its audience, letting readers write themselves into the story.
Salon was not afraid of muck-raking. When Talbot decided to run a story about Henry Hyde, who was to sit in judgment of Bill Clinton after the Starr report, he was roundly criticised not just by the entrenched Washington media but also by some on his own staff. The story concerned Hyde’s extramarital affair of 30 years before, and the more august sections of the American media, not to mention the right-wing impeachers of the President, thought this was beyond the pale. Talbot recalls how Salon ‘got bomb threats, I received death threats… [but] I think if as a new organisation that comes into the world, a new media operation, you don’t take risks with stories that no one else does, then what’s the point?’
For all its journalistic success, Salon has always struggled financially. A couple of times the site has nearly gone under; on one occasion Talbot was forced to fire his wife who ran a women’s page. A subscription system saved it, along with the growth in online advertising. These days Talbot sees Salon’s competitors as the big news organisations, the New York Times and so on, who have strong online presence. Having shown a few of them how it’s done, Salon now faces a daily battle to stay ahead of the game.
Founded: Craig Newmark, 1995, US
Users: 4bn page views per month
What is it? A centralised network of online urban communities, featuring free classified advertisements and forums
Craigslist is one of the most deceptively simple websites on the internet.
It is also one of the most powerful. It is – pretty much – simply a free noticeboard. But its astonishing popularity has given it immense power.
Want to rent an apartment? Sell a car? Find a job? Meet someone to spend the night with? Craiglist will provide the answers. For free. It has revolutionised urban living in America. It has also undercut one of the main reasons for newspapers: classified advertising. As nearly all Craigslist’s content is free, it rarely censors ads and its readers number in the millions, it is far more useful to post an advert on the site than in your local newspaper. Thus a huge decline in newspaper ads and revenue, triggering cost-cutting which will see reporters tossed on to the scrap heap… and the end of a free press and democracy as we know it (if the critics are to be believed).
The website was founded by Craig Newmark, an ubergeek with a hippyish mentality. It started as a simple email that he would send around listing various events going on in San Francisco. From such humble beginnings Craigslist has grown into a multi-million-dollar business. Yet Newmark refuses to sell his company or charge for every ad.
Why should you care? Craigslist is all over the world – and coming to your home town soon.
Founded: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, 1998, US
Users: A billion search requests per day
What is it? Search engine and media corporation
Its name is listed as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary. It commands the largest internet search engine in the world. It is the fastest-growing company in history and its founders are worth almost $13bn each.
The search method devised by Larry Page and Sergey Brin was instrumental to Goggle’s success. Rather than ranking results according to how many times the search term appeared on a page, their system measured the frequency with which a website was referenced by other sites. Another key factor was the site’s stripped-down design, which made it speedier and more accessible than its competitors.
>From such plain foundations a gigantic empire has sprung and is
out into email (with Gmail), news (Google News), price comparison (Froogle), cartography (Google Maps), literature (with the much contested Google Book Search), free telephony (Google Talk), and, most strikingly, Google Earth, an incredibly detailed virtual globe. Google styles itself as a laidback, hippyish organisation but its founding motto, ‘Don’t Be Evil’, is already being tested: the compromise it reached with China over censorship has proved particularly contentious.
Founded: David Filo and JerryYang, 1994, US
What is it? Internet portal and media corporation
It receives an average of 3.4bn page hits a day, making it the single most visited website on the internet, but in recent years Yahoo! has been eclipsed by Google. Both companies were launched on a very small scale by Stanford University graduates and, very soon the portal that Jerry Yang and David Filo had started as a hobby was en route to becoming the most popular search engine on the web. On the back of its early success, Yahoo! (an acronym for ‘Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle’) branched out into email, instant messaging, news, gaming, online shopping and an array of other services.
It also started buying up other companies such as Geocities, eGroups and the web radio company Broadcast.com. Yahoo! survived the internet collapse at the start of the decade and brought former Warner Bros chief exec Terry Semel on board in 2001 to navigate the difficult waters of the post-boom period. Semel began to address the challenge of making money out of the internet without relying on advertising revenue alone. Google notwithstanding, Yahoo! is still very much a contender.
Haji-Ioannou, 1995, UK
Users: 30m passengers last year
What is it?: Budget airline
It’s easy to forget what it was like back in the old days, when we didn’t just pay a tenner, pitch up at Luton and pop over to Rome for the weekend.
We mini-breaked in Bournemouth. Travelling to Scotland was an all-day affair. Airlines issued quaint old-fashioned things such as meals. And tickets. And seats.
And then along came Stelios. That’s Stelios as in Haji-Ioannou, although he now, alongside Delia and Jamie and Sven, belongs in that rare category – the surnameless celebrity. He’s also that other elusive British beast – the celebrity entrepreneur. In 1995, after borrowing £30m from his dad, a shipping magnate, he leased two second-hand Boeings and began selling flights to Scotland for £29 each way.
EasyJet was the first low-cost British airline and, presciently, the first to start taking bookings over the internet, although, as Stelios admits, he wasn’t won over straight away.
‘We started off as something very obscure like 1145678.com. And I said:
“This is never going to fill the planes. It’s just for nerds.” Then some time in 1997 we bought the domain easyjet.com for about £1,000 and put up a proper website. At that time we had the telephone number in big letters on the side of the plane. And we put a different telephone number on the website. Week after week I watched how quickly the numbers were growing and that gave me the confidence in April 1997 to launch a booking site.’
It was, he says, the neatest and simplest way: ‘you outsource the work to the customer’. And it turned him into an internet evangelical. The first company he set up after easyJet was easyInternetcafe and all 15 companies in the easyGroup have some sort of web component.
· Do you have a favourite website? Tell us what it is and why here.