Evolution of the World Wide Web

Brian Alexander’s recent articles (2006, 2008) discussing the emergence of Web 2.0 and its applications, or even consequences, for literacy, teaching and learning provide a lens through which to view the evolution of the World Wide Web.  In this commentary, I wish to explore this evolution as it has occurred in the past and surmise on where it may develop in the future.

From the beginning, Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau (1990) intended the web to be an internet service for the distribution of information, specifically documents, from one user to be read at will by another and enhanced by the inclusion of hypertext.  The form of the information here, as static documents or complete information sets of text and later images, is significant as it is the starting point for later innovation and remediation.  Similarly, it is important to identify human users as the target audience and consumer of the information shared on the web.  For approximately the next ten years, the web did not see significant change in its purpose.  Though the scale of the internet substructure and volume of information being shared increased exponentially (Cisco, 2012), the form of what was shared did not fundamentally change.  Information was still being shared in a complete form and being read by humans.

Near the turn of the century, the way in which information was being created and distributed began to see a noticeable change.  No longer were documents static, completed objects for consumption; they were being remediated by new technology both in the figurative sense described by Bolter and Grusin (1999, 2011) in which “new media technologies improve upon or remedy prior technologies,” and the literal sense in which the documents themselves begin to become dynamic entities, continually editable and constantly in-progress, as was evident in the rise in popularity of weblogs and wikis.

The shift in the form of documents being shared on the web, from static to dynamic, also brought about a shift in the purpose of sharing.  The combinations of these shifts have come to be known as Web 2.0, and are where Alexander begins his description and analysis.  Alexander’s approach is to describe Web 2.0, or Web 2.0 projects and practices, as having a somewhat ephemeral definition, but typically “[abiding] by a fairly coherent set of digital strategies” which he describes as “social networking” and “microcontent” (2008) and are paralleled by in my description of shifts in purpose and form of document sharing on the web.

Microcontent refers to the contribution of small pieces of information to Web 2.0 projects by users.  Contrasted with earlier web publications where authors needed not only to provide content to be published, but also have the knowledge and skills required to publish online, microcontent greatly increases the immediacy and accessibility of publishing for Web 2.0 authors.  In this form, online publishing becomes something no longer reserved for technological experts, but a practice that most people with the requisite hardware can partake in.  The application of Web 2.0 microcontent then is largely within the umbrella of social media.

Social media takes many forms, but inherent in most or all of them is the idea of interactivity.  These sites do not exist to be repositories of information in the way that earlier sites did, they are constantly being altered, added to and interacting in some way with users.  Users inform these sites as much as they inform the users.  It is interesting to note that Alexander largely focuses on the latter direction of information transfer rather than the former.  Much of his discussion surrounds sites and tools that look to scrape, mine, glean or otherwise collect microcontent from social media.  However, it might be seen that the major driver of the rise of social media is from a desire of the general public to produce rather than consume.  This can be seen in the endless tweets about what was eaten for breakfast, and YouTube videos of kittens.  While the inherent significance of such productions is questionable, the social significance is undeniable: people want a voice online and take it when the opportunity arises, however trivial.

Where Alexander seems to miss an opportunity in his microcontent-centric discussion of Web 2.0, and in particular its application toward education, is the potential to delve deeply into discussion that synthesizes the social interactivity of Web 2.0 projects with emergent theory of education, such as social constructivist theory, activity theory and situated cognition.  Within the framework of these theories, the value of content is de-emphasized, and process and connections are stressed.  It seems that Alexander’s stress on the searching, collecting and management of microcontent is more applicable to an economic approach for future innovation in online business than to teaching and learning.

Regardless of the relevance of Alexander’s analysis of Web 2.0 projects to teaching and learning, the microcontent on which focuses may be where the next remediation of the web occurs, bringing about one version of what might be seen as Web 3.0, and is what Berners-Lee proposes is the next step in web development: the semantic web (Shannon, 2006).  In such a model, web sites of various sorts would not only explicitly offer documents for users to read, but data that is published in such a way that it is easily understood by automated systems, and processed for specific, and often economically motivated, purposes.

Other visions of Web 3.0 also exist, including what futurist John Smart (2010) describes as the “Metaverse.” Conceptually, the Metaverse is a combination of the physical and virtual worlds and incorporates the idea of TV, 3D environments, augmented reality and geosocial data produced, consumed, remixed and shared using an open-source model.  Interestingly, Smart predicts the semantic web to evolve as Web 4.0.  Whatever the future of the World Wide Web holds, it is sure add a layer of complexity that remediates the production and consumption of information and data for social and economic purposes.

 

References:

Alexander, B. (2006). Web 2.0: A new wave of innovation for teaching and learning. Educase, March/April, 33-44.

Alexander, B. (2008). Web 2.0 and emergent multiliteracies.  Theory Into Practise, 47, 150-160.

Berners-Lee, T., and Cailiau, R., (1990). WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a hypertext project.  Retrieved from: http://www.w3.org/proposal.html

Bolter, J. (2011). Writing space: Computers, hypertext and the remediation of print (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Bolter, J. and Grusin, R. (2000). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cisco, (2012). The zettabyte era. Retrieved from: http://www.cisco.com/en/US/solutions/collateral/ns341/ns525/ns537/ns705/ns827/VNI_Hyperconnectivity_WP.html

Shannon, V., (2006, May 23). A ‘more revolutionary’ web. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com

Smart, J. (2010). How the television will be revolutionized. Accelerated Studies Foundation. Retrieved from: http://www.accelerating.org/articles/televisionwillberevolutionized.html

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