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Kimberly Blessing

Want to become an expert? Study (web) history

5 min read

Lately I've been spending a lot of time thinking and talking about the past.

I'm at the airport awaiting a flight that will take me to the Line-Mode Browser Hack Days at CERN. CERN, perhaps presently most famous for being the home of the Large Hadron Collider, is also the birthplace of the World Wide Web. More on that in a moment.

Screen shotMy first personal web site, circa 1997

Twenty years ago -- What the hell? Where did the time go? -- I started college. I arrived at Bryn Mawr College a French major, soon to switch to Romance Languages. My Italian professor assigned us reading on a Web page. I was one of the few people in my dorm to have a computer (and modem! and laser printer!). I had email before I got to college, on both AOL and Prodigy. Bryn Mawr had a gopher space, but no web site -- in fact, there were only about 500 web servers up and running at the end of 1993. And yet, that seemingly meaningless introduction changed my life. I took computer science classes. I changed my major to computer science. I started building web sites -- heck, I designed and built the first web page to be hosted at www.brynmawr.edu. For me, that was the start of it all.

And so here we are today. You, reading. Me awaiting my flight to Geneva. To CERN. Holy freaking crap! Understand that, for me, this is akin to visiting Mecca, except I am worshiping ideas, and code, and technology, and the propagation of all those things that has help fuel the evolution of our world into its presently hyper-connected state.

But I must admit that I was surprised, when telling some other web developers about my trip, that they didn't know about CERN's relevance to the web. The popular history of the Internet as an American creation dominates, and it has consumed the WWW creation story for some. So I educate and inform, to set things right, to help those whose careers are based on HTTP and HTML understand their domain's history.

Now, here's where I get preachy, because I run into scenarios like this -- where a web developer will make statements about web-related history that are completely wrong -- frequently. "Oh, IE doesn't support inline-block." Wrong, it has supported inline-block for a long time, but it couldn't just be assigned to any old element. (I've heard this one a lot lately -- perhaps because I'm interviewing and one of the coding problems I give can potentially be solved with inline-block.) "Old browsers don't support the HTML5 doctype," is another popular one. Misunderstanding the origin of CSS3 properties, incorrectly attributing computer accessibility to web accessibility, explaining IE compatibility mode based on one or two simple tests rather than reading the documentation -- even attesting to a lack of JSON support prior to 5 years ago (?!) -- are things I've encountered lately.

I admit that I am quite privileged to have, essentially, grown up with the web. I've been active with it, as a user and a developer, almost as long as it's been around. I do fondly remember using both Lynx and Mosaic to not just surf the web, but also test my own sites. I remember "playing around" with CSS to layer text, and trying to get it to work in both Netscape 4 and IE 3.

But I digress -- this isn't about me. This is about getting other web professionals to better understand our field. To be correct in what they say about the past, when trying to educate others. To not make false statements, based on lack of knowledge or direct experience, which lead to wrong assumptions and misinformed decisions about code and architectures.

I realize I sound like a crotchety old geek, complaining about the young whippersnappers who don't respect their elders. This isn't the case at all. I've had the pleasure of working with many younger people, or just less-experienced people, who have taken the time to learn about the web's history. (Admittedly, some of those people were required to, when they took my course on web app development.) And just knowing facts about history doesn't do much good, without analysis or thought of impact, for today or beyond.

Genuine curiosity and a desire to learn all that one can is ultimately what makes an expert. And, truth be told, any real "expert" will be the first to admit that they're hardly such -- they're still on the quest to become experts, themselves.

So, here I am, about to board my plane, hoping to enrich both my understanding of web history, and yours. Assuming I haven't entirely turned you off, I hope you'll follow my travels on Twitter.

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