30 today | Happy birthday to the World Wide Web

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From Social Media and Selfie Culture to Cryptocurrencies and Cyber Crime, 30 ways it has changed the world over 30 years

On 12 March 1989, Tim Berners-Lee wrote his proposal for a new information management system connecting documents held across multiple computers at CERN, where he worked as a contractor.

“Vague but exciting,” was the response of his supervisor, scrawled on the cover of the document.

It turned out to be a laconic greeting for an invention which would transform the world’s economy – and its society too.

Whether or not those changes have been for better or worse isn’t really clear, but the scale of the changes have been remarkable.

Here are 30 of the best and worst things about how the web has changed our world

1 – E-commerce

Or: Using the web to buy and sell stuff

The positives of E-commerce are obvious.

Today we can buy pretty much anything we want online, and have it delivered straight to our front doors. From auction sites through to cheap retail outlets, from clothes to pizza, the ability for us to shop online has generated an enormous amount of economic activity and afforded shoppers far more time to enjoy their lives. It means we can get rid of the old and de-clutter or rediscover a forgotten part of your past.

2 – Gaming

Or: Using the web to play online

For some, video games are just a casual hobby.

To others they are a burgeoning art form which is now easily collaborated on by like-minded developers across the world, sold by similarly specialist games labels, and downloaded and played by gamers on an international scale, all thanks to the wonders of the web.

E-sports offer the most committed players the opportunity of celebrity while emotionally-charged independent games such as Papers, Please have been lauded for introducing moral decisions as a powerful feature of the narrative.Neither would have been feasible without the web.

3 – News Websites

Or: Using the web instead of paying for a paper

News websites are very convenient.

There was a time when we had to unfold a small gazebo covering in order to find out what was happening in the world around us. News websites make that process much easier. These sites are almost all free, lowering the bar to access material which is in the public interest. They mean that all of us have quicker access to the big stories which affect our lives. However, the way in which we now consume journalism – through social media for example – means that despite being more informed than ever before, there is now a constant battle against misinformation and “fake news”.

4 – Social Media

Or: Using the web to update friends, share photos and document life’s biggest milestones

There’s nothing quite like social media – there’re nothing we could compare it with from 30 years ago. Internet forums and bulletin boards existed before the web, but social media is a wholly web-owned phenomenon. These are websites where the content which users turn up for is created by the users themselves. Then, those same users’ interactions with that content and each other generates data which the social media platform monetises via targeted advertisements. It has been used for harassment, self-promotion, interfering in democratic elections, crowd-funding medical treatments, beginning relationships and ending careers.

5 – Billionaires

The likes of Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk would never be household names if it weren’t for the web, but the web hasn’t just made new billionaires, it’s also made billionaires new. Sociologists have long postulated about why people seem to gently worship the wealthy. Entire political ideologies have been formed around this relationship between the wealthy and the ordinary. But the wealthiest people in the world are now accessible. The mysteries of their wealth laid bare.

6 – Online Dating

We’re not just talking about apps here, but the ability to interact with thousands of strangers a day who are seeking the same thing you are – all without going through the inefficient process of meeting you in the flesh first. Critics say that online dating has driven a “swipe left” culture in which partners are disposable and meaningful relationships are transitory. Proponents say that online dating has driven a “swipe right” culture in which partners are flexible and meaningful relationships are more likely to be natural, rather than being based on a fondness driven by familiarity. Of course, there are many who think nothing much has changed at all when it comes to human sexuality – except we’ve had to wear it on our sleeves a bit more.

7 – Memes

Memes are the definitive artefact of web culture, even if the word itself has become nothing more than a euphemism for jokes. While it was first proposed to mean a kind of cognitive information which spread from person to person, memes are now viral items of content which drive tagging and expression within a variety of exceptionally creative formats. They are inherently representative of web culture being endlessly reproducible, modifiable, and usually dependent upon some form of intellectual property theft.

8 – Email

Sifting through thousands of emails can be exhausting. And technically, they’re not even part of the web – the protocol they work on, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), is completely different from the protocol used by the web – the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP). But really, we all receive too many of them.

9 – Viral content

This can be anything from an article or a video to a photograph or a GIF that spreads online at a rapid pace. Website links, social media and even messaging apps can put pretty much anything that follows the formula on to our screens. Entertainment value, usefulness, artistic merit and shock value can all contribute to what the web wants to go viral. Early examples include one of YouTube’s most viewed videos – Charlie Bit My Finger.

10 – Smartphones

Most people today now carry the World Wide Web in their pockets -wherever they go – following the advent of the smartphone. They have changed the way we get directions, how we choose to eat, and how we communicate with the world. Apple’s first iPhone changed the market forever, with earlier smartphones offering just email and basic web browsing. The device changed the way phones would look, felt and operated.

11 – Video streaming

Once upon a time, videos had to be downloaded in their entirety before they could be watched. It took a lot of software engineers a lot of work to develop a system that allowed videos to be streamed or watched at the same time as they were downloaded. At a mouse click, we have access to thousands of video tutorials on almost every conceivable subject, and documentaries about the rest. Video streaming has given us memes, rejuvenated the music video and changed the way we think about television.

12 – Pornography

Humans have been producing pornography for as long as they were capable of producing images, that’s an archaeological fact. But it certainly wasn’t until the invention of the web that we realised how much of a consumer market there was for explicit material. The enormous amount of pornographic content available has inevitably exposed children to adult activities, but it has also allowed adults to explore their sexuality in a way previous generation couldn’t. This may be set to change in the UK, where websites which are more than one-third pornographic will be obliged to verify the age of UK visitors under a new law.

13 – Activism & 14 – Slacktivism

Online petitions are not the same thing as political action or protest. Despite this, petitions have become a very prominent and common method of engaging politically, and doing so without having to leave home. In contrast to this “slacktivism” however are a range of political movements which have grown straight out of online protests, most notably including  #MeToo following a news article regarding allegations of sexual assaults by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein – which he denies.

15 – Music business

Revenues for the music industry dropped from $14.6bn (£11.1bn) in 1999 to $6.3bn (£4.8bn) in 2009.  Nowadays, services like Spotify and Apple Music are bringing that figure higher again – although there are plenty of questions about how well artists are getting paid.  The way that artists are listened to as well is also having an impact on the kinds of music they’re recording.

As musicians are paid per listen and getting a song on a playlist is more likely to win a musician more listens, bands are adding acoustic versions of their hit songs to get additional listens on acoustic playlists.

16 – Selfie culture

While many would dispute whether someone taking a picture of themselves is narcissistic, it is probably fair to acknowledge that self-portraits existed before the web. But social media and technological advances in smartphone cameras have made the modern selfie a part of everyday life.

17 – Online support networks

It turns out humans aren’t all completely horrible all of the time, and the online special interest communities which exist to share supporting stories with each other are a prime example of this. While small-print magazines and newsletters offered these communities an outlet in the past, the web has really fulfilled its promise of facilitating multimedia information exchange between different people when it comes to mutual support.

18 – Cryptocurrencies

The web has spawned many virtual and decentralised currencies that can be used to buy goods and services. Ever since Bitcoin’s peak price in 2017, the lack of genuine wealth production in the cryptocurrency arena has been profound. An investigation by Sky News learned that hundreds of crypto-related businesses collapsed in the year following the price peak. Alongside this data, researchers have proposed that cryptocurrencies currently account for more energy use than many large smaller nations. If they have offered their users a more secure and uncensorable form of payment, then they’ve done so at an enormous social cost.

19 – Trolls

Although the web has revolutionised the way people connect with each other it has also changed the way people can receive abuse. Social media has led to the targeting people online for a variety of reasons – whether it be their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or political beliefs. The effect on people in the public sphere – notably politicians – has been profound.

20 – Advertising apocalypse

One of the biggest shake-ups the web has prompted has hit the world of publishing hard, and that change is all about the share of advertising revenues. Just two companies, Google and Facebook, account for 61% of UK media advertising spend, according to analysis produced for Sky News by research firm eMarketer. In 2007, according to the Office for National Statistics, there were 23,000 full-time front-line journalists in the UK.  By 2017, that number had fallen to 17,000.  At a moment when accurate, careful reporting and accounting of power are more important than ever, journalists are moving online but are increasingly precarious and vulnerable. Ads are moving online at an extremely rapid rate too, but the money isn’t going to digital publications. It’s funnelling straight into the pockets of Facebook and Google.

21 – Education

Free courses and encyclopaedias are all over the internet. It has transformed the way we learn about the world – to the point that Google has become more than just a search engine, it’s a verb too. While accreditation offered by official schools isn’t something people can pick up online, they will be able to learn. And learning at schools and universities has seen a dramatic shift, with students and teachers alike gaining access to large amounts of material and revolutionising the way we do research.

22 – Influencers

Influencers are online celebrities who influence the way we want to be seen. These are the TV stars of the social media age. Business-savvy brands have been using the expertise and massive social media reach of these new-age icons to sell a lifestyle and their products. Influencers – who can range from already established celebrities to bloggers and industry experts – have the power to affect how followers spend their hard-earned cash because of their knowledge, authority and relationship with their fans. And it can be financially rewarding too, with model Kylie Jenner reportedly earning up to $1m (£770,000) per sponsored Instagram post.

23 – Kidfluencers

They’re like influencers, but also kids. What would have been child stars in the age-old days of cinema are these days YouTubers, reviewing the latest toys and attracting brands keen to flog products to parents.

24 – Access to politics

The web has opened up the democratic process like never before, with people now able to access Hansard, tune into parliamentary debates on the go and talk directly to MPs on social media. People now have quick access to politicians’ voting records, their musings on Twitter and a plethora of campaign material. The internet has also provided a platform for debate on the country’s most pressing issues, with everyone from all parts of the political spectrum having their say. However, it’s been argued that it’s pushed those in society, yet to grasp the online world, away from democracy.

25 – Cyber crime

The web has also made it easy for criminals to commoditise their proceeds, and for those proceeds to be generated a lot easier. Specialist criminal groups have been online targeting individuals, businesses and large corporate networks, stealing personal information and making a profit. “Organised crime has been quick to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the internet, particularly the growth in e-commerce and online banking,” says the National Crime Agency (NCA).

26 – Cyber war

The classical terms of war – that a state is actually conducting a violent attack – can’t be conducted over the web. Even hacking attacks which might damage a hospital or a power station don’t really occur on the part of the internet that we call the web, but new forms of illegal international action could give rise to an armed response. The UK has said that under its interpretation of international law, an online attempt to interfere in an election that was successful could be a reason to declare war.

27 – YouTubers

TV could be a thing of the past with a whole host of entertainers and content creators taking to the Google-owned video sharing platform YouTube. The likes of PewDiePie, KSI and Zoella have become household names with their millions of subscribers engrossed in everything they upload. YouTube has become more than just cat videos, with many creators bringing high-budget productions to the table and seriously challenging conventional forms of entertainment. From short films and comedy sketches to viral challenges and reaction videos, there is something for everyone.

28 – Emojis

Τhese things have changed the way we communicate forever. They first appeared in Japanese mobile phones in the late 1990s and evolved from the now primitive emoticon, widely used in internet chatrooms 🙂 Only in the past few years have the updated “picture characters” – emojis – become part of everyday use online and on our smartphones. And it looks like they’re here to stay

29 – Video calling

Skype, FaceTime and WhatsApp video calls have enhanced the way we do business, the way we interact with each other and keep relationships alive. Beaming each other for a conversation was once reserved for sci-fi films but it is now something most of us have done. It has helped people in a variety of circumstances – from those using sign language to communicate, to news outlets broadcasting instant reaction to stories through live video conference calls.

30 ?

This one we’re leaving blank, because we really don’t know. Thirty years ago we couldn’t have imagined the web. At best, we’d have said the proposal was vague, but exciting. Twenty years ago video streaming seemed unlikely. Ten years ago, the idea that a foreign state could use social media to intervene in an election – and potentially change the result would have been readily dismissed. Whatever comes next, we probably won’t be expecting it.

Source: Sky UK

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