Saturday, January 26, 2013

What's happened to the WWW?

I can't help but feel a sense of irony that on the very day I was preparing a web page for an upcoming talk by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, so was I also dismantling one of our few websites designed to let our researchers communicate with their peers.

The WWW was developed at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and home of the Large Hadron Collider for the purpose of allowing CERN researchers to share information about their experiments, facilities and the organisation itself, partly as a way of mitigating the loss of institutional knowledge due to staff turnover. The original proposal is fascinating for its outline of the problems and proposed solution and as Berners-Lee wrote:
"Perhaps a linked information system will allow us to see the real structure of the organisation in which we work."
When the WWW expanded out of CERN it was into other research organisations and the universities and the content was primarily scholarly in nature.

Today the WWW is a very different beast. While there is a massive amount of well researched information available resources online about an almost inconceivable range of subjects (take Wikipedia for example), the real driver appears to be advertising. Not just advertising driven giants like Google, Facebook and media outlets, but all sorts of organisations and individuals attempting to sell a product, service or even an opinion to readers online.

My organisation is not alone in forcing researchers to pass information to "communicators" who rewrite it for general consumption before it is allowed to go on the main organisational websites, even internally. The intended audience is almost never fellow researchers, but stakeholders with money (even if only the public's taxes). The content ceases to become a real information resource and instead becomes advertising.

Thankfully, there are initiatives for sharing organisational scientific information online through publications and data repositories. But for many the WWW is no longer a tool for opening up information for discovery and instead it is for controlling what information is available out in the open.

The whole point of the WWW was the ability to turn text into hyperlinks to more information about a term or resource. If that link pointed to an entirely different website then great, you had expanded the network of accessibility of that information. It's amazing what random paths you could be lead upon and what you could learn from such links. Now authors are often discouraged (apart from Wikipedia) from creating inline links, with what links that exist in a page usually designed to guide the reader along a specified path within the site.

Perhaps some of the responsibility for this change lies with web standards themselves. When it started the formatting options for web pages were very limited - the main point of a page was the content and the hyperlinks elsewhere. Now web development is all about format over content. No longer can anyone simply write up a HTML document for the web, now HTML standards are mindbogglingly complex and websites require the input of graphic designers, accessibility and search engine optimisation experts.

I love great design and the amazing tools now available online from banking and booking to satellite photo maps with incredible overlay options and video editing online. But I do wonder if the need to be visually stunning often prevents us from really communicating. It's like "Keeping up with the Kardashians" replacing a Sir David Attenborough docummentary. I think we've lost something precious in the transition.
Updated on 2013-01-26 with comments about hyperlinks.

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