As Twitter and Facebook continue to fight a variety of skirmishes in the ongoing “platform wars,” with both companies trying to control as much of their networks as they can in order to monetize them as quickly as possible, it’s worth remembering what Sir Tim Berners-Lee did 21 years ago, when he created the first truly open internet-based platform: namely, the World Wide Web. In an early interview about his invention, Berners-Lee confessed there was a time where he considered taking a different route and trying to profit from what he had developed, but he chose a different path. The amount of social and commercial value that has been created as a result is almost impossible to calculate.
This is something that’s worth thinking about as we see the social web becoming a mainstream phenomenon, with all that implies. The choices we make when it comes to the platforms we use, and the choices those platforms make about how they choose to monetize their networks, will have far-reaching implications.
The story of how Berners-Lee created the web is pretty well-known: how we was working as a researcher at the CERN Institute in Switzerland and decided to try to put the theories of earlier thinkers such as Ted Nelson and Vannevar Bush into practice and developed a series of programs and standards that would allow a scientist in one lab to connect his thoughts or research to information that was located on a computer somewhere else. The result was hypertext markup language, or HTML, as well as the hypertext transport protocol, or HTTP — concepts that most of us barely even think about anymore, as they have become such an integral part of our lives.
A critical feature: No centralized control
It’s interesting to note that the initial response to Berners-Lee’s idea was skepticism, primarily because others in the field wanted all hyperlinks to be approved by a central authority, so that no one would click on a link and find nothing (or something unexpected) at the other end. As a Time magazine feature on Berners-Lee from 2001 described it:
“When Berners-Lee attended hypertext exhibits and asked designers whether they could make their systems worldwide, they often said no, citing this need for a clearinghouse. Finally [he said], ‘I realized that this dangling-link thing may be a problem, but you have to accept it.’”
That willingness to give up some form of centralized control may not seem like a big deal, but I think it was a crucial aspect of what Berners-Lee and CERN did in throwing the development of the web open to anyone, provided they abided by certain minimal standards. And it’s directly related to his other decision, which was not to try to commercialize what he had invented — something he left to people like Netscape founder Marc Andreessen, who turned the graphical browser he developed at the University of Illinois into a corporation and launched the initial wave of commercial web companies in the mid-1990s.
As Robert Wright (who did the interview with Berners-Lee for Time magazine in 2001) notes in a recent post at The Atlantic about the anniversary of the web, it would have been fairly easy for Berners-Lee to build on what he had developed and create some kind of commercial entity. In fact, he had a graphical browser/editor before Mosaic or Netscape came along (and the two-way or social web was very much part of Berners-Lee’s initial vision). But he didn’t, and one of the main reasons was that he didn’t want the web to become balkanized, with multiple versions of the browser that wouldn’t be truly interoperable with each other or the open web. As Wright described it in 2001:
“Berners-Lee envisioned competitors springing up, creating incompatible browsers and balkanizing the Web. He thought it better to stay above the fray and try to bring technical harmony.”
What kind of web do we really want?
Reading about Berners-Lee and thinking about the development of the web — and all the ways in which it could have become something very different — made me think about the recent furor over the evolution of Twitter, and to a lesser extent Facebook, and how the nature of those networks is changing as commercial pressures come to the forefront. Twitter in particular is no longer just an open platform for real-time information, with an API that anyone can use to add value to the network. Now it is a commercial media entity with corporate partnerships and advertising relationships that will determine much of its future behavior.
As Hunter Walk of YouTube has pointed out, a big part of the impetus for this change is the massive amount of venture financing Twitter has taken on over the years and its attempts to justify an implied market value of $8 billion or so. Facebook is in a similar situation, since it has gotten billions in venture funding and is now a public company with shareholders and investment bankers to satisfy. Thanks to Berners-Lee, the web has never been a commercial entity, or it probably would have turned into something like AOL or CompuServe.
Even potential competitors to Twitter like App.net, which entrepreneur Dalton Caldwell is trying to develop, are driven by their funding models: Caldwell argues his service would be better because users and developers would pay for it, but others — including blogger-turned-venture-capitalist MG Siegler — maintain that in order to become successful App.net would eventually have to do many of the same things Twitter is doing and that the only real alternative would be a truly open platform (something blogging pioneer and developer Dave Winer has been talking about for some time).
Berners-Lee has also raised a warning flag before about “walled gardens,” such as the Apple ecosystem and Facebook, which he says threaten the open nature of the web. In the end, the debate about what Twitter and others are doing is about more than just competitive concerns or even capitalism vs. nonprofit models. It’s about what kind of internet we want and what we are prepared to do in order to get it.