by Sandra Parshall
The World Wide Web turns 21 this year, but we’ve all seen enough “revolutions” in the cyber world to know it’s still in its infancy and will never reach full, static adulthood.
On August 6, 1991, physicist Tim Berners-Lee created the first basic website and published it on the world’s first web server from the CERN facility in the Swiss Alps. The only people who could see it were Berners-Lee and his colleagues, because they were the only ones on Earth who had web browser software. The WWW didn’t become truly worldwide until the Mosaic browser (remember that?) was released in 1993.
But wait, I can hear you say, the internet was around before 1993. Yes, it was, but those of us who would rather pull out our teeth with tweezers than learn anything technical may forget that the internet didn’t begin as a vast collection of websites.
Like all great leaps forward, the concept of high-speed electronic communication and exchange of information existed in the minds of scientists before the technology to support it had been invented. MIT researchers published papers and memos on a “Galactic Network” and “packet-switching theory” in the early 1960s. These ideas drove the development of software and hardware. The first e-mail was sent in 1971 by computer scientist Ray Tomlinson – to himself, as a test. By the 1980s, the internet and e-mail were widely used in scientific and academic circles, and with the advent of small personal computers the cyber world opened up to the rest of us. Websites began to appear in the 1990s.
Although only about one-third of the world's population uses the internet, well over three billion e-mail accounts now exist worldwide. Depending on the source you consult, between 367 million and 555 million websites are up. Millions of sites are added every month. (Sometimes it seems as if most of them belong to writers, all of whom want me to “take a look and tell me what you think.”)
My first computer was an IBM PC, purchased in the early 1980s, but I didn’t have the internet or even an e-mail account for another decade. When I finally ventured online, I used the CompuServe subscription service. Cserve was born as a dial-up financial information service in 1969, and it evolved over the years into the world’s largest consumer information source. By 1990, it was an interactive social/professional network, complete with e-mail service. My first e-mail address consisted of my CompuServe account number. For a few years I spent hours every day on Cserve, where I was an unpaid sysop, or section manager, in the Writers Forum and the Authors Forum. This was the first community of writers I had ever been part of, and it changed my life in a very real way. I “met” the incomparable Diana Gabaldon (who was also a sysop) and many other writers there, and I learned a lot about writing, agents, and the publishing business. I also discovered the internet through Cserve, when it became the first online service to offer internet access to its subscribers at no extra cost.
America Online came along in 1989 for Apple and 1991 for PCs, and that meant trouble for CompuServe. When AOL bought Cserve in 1998, subscribers were promised that nothing would change, but within a year dozens of Cserve’s 400 forums had vanished, and the devastation continued until my cyber home was unrecognizable. I dropped my membership. I felt bereft, adrift, but that didn’t last long. By then the WWW was bursting with free special interest groups for writers. Both AOL and CompuServe still exist, but I don’t know why anybody would pay for either service when most of what they offer is available without charge.
By the time my first novel, The Heat of the Moon, was published in 2006, writers were expected to have websites where readers could learn more about them and their books. I hired Doranna Durgin, who designed a beauty for me, and it was up before the book came out. I was more resistant to blogging, which was fast becoming all the rage among writers. It looked like just another chore I didn’t want to take on, like an extra bathtub that needs scrubbing regularly. I could be heard ranting against the person who started the insidious practice of posting little essays about oneself.
I couldn’t pin the blame on any individual, though, because blogs didn’t spring up overnight in their current form, but rather evolved over several years and didn’t get a name that stuck until the late 1990s. The origin of blogs was being debated as long ago as 2007, when this article, which is still up on the CNET site (nothing on the internet ever goes away, does it?), first appeared. As the article notes, programmer and James Joyce scholar Jorn Borger coined the term “web log” in December of 1997. Before long the two words were compressed into one snappy moniker and blogs were born.
Although I resisted for a while, I was swayed by the refrain coming at me from every side: A writer MUST have a blog these days! Before long, here I was, posting once a week as part of this group we named Poe’s Deadly Daughters. As you can see, I’m still on board after nearly six years. Today the number of blogs on the web is reportedly between 180 and 200 million. I don’t want to guess at how many are writers’ blogs, competing for attention. I’ll settle for knowing that at least a few people will click in here to read this one. While it's true that on the internet nobody knows if you're a dog, I always try through this imperfect medium to be honest with you about who I am.
Those of us who couldn’t have imagined the internet 40 years ago are too wise to make firm predictions about its future. All we know for sure is this: it will change, and change again, endlessly, and as long as we’re alive we’ll change with it.