Think of the Web as an enormous, slow hard disk. Shared by the entire world, this disk holds a record of radical media experimentation, the history of a form that sprang up less than a decade ago to infect popular consciousness and transform the way we use information. Yet despite a few archival projects, no one is backing up our collective disk.
That’s not what you’d conclude from a casual glance at leading Web sites. Almost every major Web magazine has an “archive” which holds old content. These are not real archives, however, any more than home pages are real homes, or real pages. They do not preserve early versions of the site-they only keep the most popular old content online and accessible, for the sake of additional banner-ad revenue. The archive of HotWired is typical in leaving out some early content: A serialized novel and an advice column, early Web-based experiments in these forms, are omitted. The old content that remains online is seldom in its original format, even though form is of clear importance to the Web’s development.
Those who forget the past are condemned to reload it. The Web’s advance has been rapid, but that’s all the more reason to study it with care. In all the confusion, it’s easy to lose track of what publications and business models have already been tried, and with what results. For students of new media, understanding the sometimes arcane structure of Web sites is even more difficult without knowing about what has come before. Even important political phenomena such as the groundswell of opposition to the Communications Decency Act cannot be accurately considered without looking at the essential, primary source: the blackened Web pages of 1996. From a business, media-studies and historical perspective, the Web’s past is worth remembering.
The Web began as an all-text system at the end of 1990, used by an international community of physicists. In early 1993, it had fewer than 100 servers providing scientific and technological information. The turning point came in November 1993, with the release of the Mosaic browser, well-designed software that could load and display graphics. Mosaic, which came from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), was not the first graphical browser. It was, however, simple, effective and compatible with different operating systems. Mosaic led to incredible innovation in the following years. By the end of 1994 the Web’s 2500 servers hosted cultural magazines, banner advertising and unique efforts such as the Internet Movie Database. That project, a collaborative attempt to create a comprehensive filmography of the world’s movies, would have been impossible without a far-reaching data repository like the Web.