Take Back the Net

Everyone was supposed to have a voice on the Internet. Thanks to tools like blogs and wikis, everyone can.

Think back to the earliest days of the World Wide Web. Before Amazon.com and E*Trade. Before CNN.COM and ABC online. Before CRM, ASPs, and B2B marketplaces. In the early nineties, when the Web first rose to prominence, few saw it as a business medium. Few saw it as a fresh outlet for major newspapers, radio stations, and television networks. The Web would be the tool of the masses, not The Man.

Unlike newspapers, radio, and television—media that broadcast the ideas of a select group of people and corporations—the Web would give widespread voice to every one of us. It would let anyone quickly and easily exchange information with anyone else, fostering worldwide collaboration. It would engender "the decentralized, organic growth of ideas, technology, and society," as its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, wrote in his memoir, Weaving the Web.

Such expectations were summarily quashed by the mid-nineties. The Web didnt give everyone a voice. It didnt allow for the widespread exchange of ideas. With a browser, you could easily read Web pages posted by others. But there wasnt a comparably simple and effective way for you to create, post, and update your own pages.

Unless you were a seasoned computer user, building or editing a page with tools like Macromedias Dreamweaver or Microsoft FrontPage was far too difficult and time-consuming. Hosting your own site was a technical nightmare, and paying someone else to host it was expensive.

If you did launch a page, there was no cheap and easy way to publicize it. Even if you could update it on regular basis, there was no effective means of telling people youd done so. Sites are useless unless people know to read them.

You could always post your ideas to online discussion groups, but these werent an ideal platform. Your words, limited to a few lines of text, were often lost among the multitudes of other voices. And you were at the mercy of the group administrator, who could delete your post at any time.

Very quickly, the Web was commandeered by those with the money and expertise to maintain and publicize Web sites: corporations, other businesses, the existing mass media. Tim Berners-Lees creation had inadvertently brought much more power to the establishment than to the people.

Then something beautiful happened. Early this decade, several new communication tools bubbled up from the far reaches of the Internet. These were tools that could at long last fulfill the Webs initial promise, nurturing a free exchange of ideas. With blogs, short for Web logs, anyone can now stream ideas onto a Web page in a matter of seconds. With wikis, named after the Hawaiian word for quick, entire groups can easily post and edit pages, freeing the users from the constraints of discussion groups. With RSS, anyone can easily syndicate material across the Web and alert readers to updated content on his or her site.


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