And the second goal?
The other goal is to maintain the
Web’s essential qualities: its neutrality, its confidentiality, its openness, its
universality in the sense that it can be
used by anybody for anything without
discrimination. When we started, there
was no one else really thinking about
communication as a right; now, more
organizations have gotten involved, and
there’s quite a network of us collaborating and pushing for a better Web.
Neutrality and access are no longer the
only challenges faced by the Web.
We’d imagined that if we keep the
Web neutral, get everybody equal access, and keep it non-discriminatory,
then surely humanity will do the right
thing. Last year, we realized that we
can’t just assume people will make the
right choices to provide justice or truth
or democracy. So now the Web Foundation and other organizations are making
a conscious, strategic decision to think
about the next layer.
Sounds like there’s some overlap with
your work with the Web Science Trust,
an organization you founded in 2006 to
formalize the study of how people behave on the Web.
We started the Web Science Trust
because we realized that in order
to really understand the way political and emotional ideas propagate
across a network of people connected
by technology, we need a very multidisciplinary mix of people—
psychologists and economists, as well as computer scientists and mathematicians and
physicists and so on.
2016 gives an important charge to any-
one who calls themselves a Web scien-
Yes. To say, “Use your skills of analysis to understand what goes on, understand really to what extent these things
support truth and democracy.” And then
you need to use your skills as an engineer to build things that are better. Just
looking at the existing social networks
and sighing about what happens isn’t
going to do anything. We have to start
building stuff that’s better.
Leah Hoffmann is a technology writer based in Piermont, NY.
© 2017 ACM 0001-0782/17/06 $15.00
web of interconnected humanity, which
felt very decentralized.
In the nationless environment of the
Web, people imagined we would break
down barriers and live in peace and love.
But looking back, in a way, that
lapsed goal isn’t such an unreasonable
thing to aim for. Even though we don’t
have it now, I think, for a lot of people,
the Web feels very centralized. With social networks, it feels as though they’re
still logging onto this big mainframe
Of course, social networks have co-opt-
ed some of the early Web’s Utopian lan-
Each one of them tries to do everything that the open Web is able to do,
but within a closed, controlled environment. Walled gardens can be very
successful—AOL got a huge number of
people online to connect and communicate. But the walled garden can never
compete with the crazy diversity of the
jungle outside the gates.
Let’s talk about your work with the
World Wide Web Foundation.
Initially, the Web Foundation was
founded with two goals. One was access.
When we started, 20% of the world’s
population was using the Web, which is
actually a huge number. But then suddenly, because it’s comparable with the
number of people on the planet, it becomes a small number, because it begs
the question of, ‘What about the other
people?” So the Web Foundation is partly focused on what we can do to get people who are not using the Web on board
as quickly as possible.
the physics experiments, but he found
an excuse to do it as a way of kicking the
tires on a new computer, the NeXT machine, which Steve Jobs had made when
he left Apple.
The comment Mike appended to your
proposal was “vague but exciting.”
That particular document didn’t
come to light until he passed away, and
his wife, Peggy, found it. So you could see
that a lot of credit is due to him for going
with “exciting” rather than “vague.”
You initial mission for the Web was
quite collaborative: the first browser
also functioned as an editor.
The idea was that the Web should be
a read/write space, so if there’s an idea
that isn’t there as I’m browsing on the
Web, I could just put it on, and other
people could immediately link in their
own ideas. The intention was to capture
both the text of a new idea, but also the
realization that it linked to another idea,
which would be a brilliant environment
in which to develop, for example, the
real-time software that CERN needed to
run experiments in the accelerators.
But in fact, the original browser only
ran on the NeXT, and the NeXT did not
take over the planet. So more and more
people saw the Web as a read-only medium. And then HTML got more complicated, so the job of building browsers
became more difficult.
It was around this time that you came to
I was working at CERN, and people
from the tech industry came to me and
said, “We need to form a consortium. If
you were to go to MIT and start a consortium for the Web, we would join.” So I
went to MIT in 1994, and it was none too
early, because Microsoft and Netscape
were fiercely battling over HTML tags.
The Web’s original read/write aspira-
tions were revived, to some extent, when
blogs came into being.
Hypertext Web is a very flexible medium, and obviously people have done all
kinds of things with it. Blogs were an early one, and if you rewind to the culture
at that time, there was a strong utopian
flavor to it. People would link to you and
you could link to other people, and you
and your computer were part of this big
[CONTINUED FROM P. 104]
“Walled gardens can
be very successful ...
but the walled garden
can never compete
with the crazy
diversity of the jungle
outside the gates.”