The World Wide Web as Social Media

The Internet is the most important socio-technological system that exists in the new networked communication environment. As a “network of networks” (Dutton, 1996) the Internet has expanded globally creating the biggest communication system of interconnected personal computers (the PC/Internet grid). Thanks to its open, distributed, and multidirectional architecture (Benkler 2006; Karaganis 2008) and its principle of generativity (Zitrain 2007), the Internet has supported the making and functioning of new communication systems built on its top. As Karaganis (2008) has explained, collective efforts of governments and scientists, developed a network that “supported not only survivability and interoperability but also a very wide scope for future innovation. The lowest-level internet protocols provided a platform for other networks and applications with more specific functionality.” (258) The World Wide Web, peer-to-peer file sharing (torrents), e-mail clients, Usenet, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV), are all platforms and services built on the top of the PC/Internet grid. They can be understood as layers carried by the Internet. Among all of them, the World Wide Web is perhaps the one which popularized the Internet around the world and the one which became more embedded in our everyday sociocultural practices. When we talk about “going online” or “getting on the Internet” we are usually making reference to our use of the Web. Performing a search in Google, communicating on Social Network Sites (SNSs) with friends, discovering and playing music and videos on media-sharing sites, communicating via web-based email (e.g. G-mail, Yahoo, Hotmail), playing in virtual game worlds, and exploring a rich variety of pages and applications, are all activities performed on the World Wide Web.

Released as an open and free communication system in 1993 by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), the Web was designed to be a distributed network of multiple nodes (“hypertext documents”) linked by URLs (uniform resource locators). Using a client–server architecture, this hypermedia system could be accessed with a software application (“browsers”) that would retrieve, display, and travel across the nodes of the network. In their initial project proposal, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau envisioned the evolution of the Web as an “open-ended” global system that would allow the users to add new links and nodes to the network, fostering both universal readership and authorship. (Berners-Lee & Cailliau 1990) Its goal, architecture, and open standards, gave the Web the potential to scale up very fast as more users joined and started to add and distribute content (e.g. web pages) and software (e.g. search engines, web apps). In the course of two decades, the Web went from having ten nodes in 1992 to having 697,089,489 nodes in 2012 (Internet Live Stats 2015).

Although since its origins, the Web was envisioned to be an interactive system that would allow people to connect, communicate, and interact with each other creating readable/writable information spaces, the popularization of its social capabilities, at a global scale, took several years. It was not until the end of the 1990s, with the creation of several Web applications (social software) such as blogs, wikis, SNSs, and the evolution of graphical web browsers, that the potential for universal reading/writing, participation, and sociability started to be embraced by more people and captured the popular imagination making the Web a sort of massive interactive medium (Javascript web language was released in 1995- see timeline) Because these platforms and services were easy to use and did not require any knowledge of coding and hypertext language, more people, including a large youth population, was able to start adding content to the Web, connecting and socializing with their friends in the several spaces that emerged. As Tim Berners-Lee explained in an interview with the BBC in 2005, “every person who used the web had the ability to write something (…) but editing web pages became difficult and complicated for people. What happened with blogs and with wikis, these editable web spaces, was that they became much more simple. When you write a blog, you don’t write complicated hypertext, you just write text.” (BBC News 2015)

As a consequence of lowering the barriers to entry as well as the increase in broadband and computer power, during the first decade of the 2000s, more people was able to participate creating and sharing content on the Web. Moreover, with the growth of participation, especially among youth, the online spaces and communities started to be organized more by friendship and not only by specific topics and interests as it had happened before with newsgroups, mailing lists, and forums (boyd 2007, 2014). Hence, it could be said that since social relationships started to become an important organizing principle for online spaces, the activities on the Web became more social. That is precisely why the term “social media” was adopted by researchers, industry players, and the general public to refer to the Web platforms and services (social software) that were created at this point on the evolution of the Web. As danah boyd has explained, social media refers “to the sites and services that emerged during the early 2000s, including social network sites, video sharing sites, blogging, and microbloging platforms, and related tools that allow participants to create and share their own content.” (2014, 6) Marketers, entrepreneurs, and developers also started to refer to these platforms and services with the buzzy phrase “Web 2.0” and elaborated a business model that leveraged the potential of the Web (and its open standards) for supporting collaboration, participation, and peer production. Further, this model also harnessed the creativity, sociability and collective intelligence of the increasing number of participants on the Web spaces (users) with the purposes of economic profit. As Tim O’reilly, one of the evangelists of this business model, stated, some of the core competencies of Web 2.0 companies were “trusting users as co-developers,” “harnessing collective intelligence,” and “control over unique, hard-to-recreate data sources that get richer as more people use them”(O’Reilly 2005).


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