The world wide web at 30: how the portal changed our world

Image credit: Future Publishing

Today marks 30 years since Tim Berners-Lee published a proposal (which can still be read online) to convince CERN’s management to adopt a global hypertext system, initially titled “Mesh” and later referred to as the “World Wide Web”.

Berners-Lee’s proposal laid the foundations for the web as we know it, which 30 years later is such an integral part of our lives that it can be all too easy to take it for granted, and too difficult to think of how we ever coped without it.

While Berners-Lee’s proposal in March 1989 is considered by many as the birth of the what many call the internet (although the web is really only a way of using it), it wasn’t until later that people could actually get online properly. 

In 1990 Berners-Lee created the first ever web browser – called the WorldWideWeb (which was later renamed Nexus, as Berners-Lee isn’t renowned for sticking with one name for too long).

The WorldWideWeb browser is quite different from the modern web browser you’re using to read this (such as Firefox, Chrome or – for some strange reason – Internet Explorer. If you’re still using Internet Explorer, please stop).

However, it’s also remarkable that there are a number of similarities between the first browser and what you're using to consume today’s web. Links connecting you to other pages are present and correct, though there is a noticeable absence of cat pictures (or any images).

The first ever web browser (Image credit: CERN)

The first ever web browser (Image credit: CERN)

If you’d like to experience what it was like to browse the internet 30 years ago with the WorldWideWeb browser, then CERN has a working emulation you can try

It’s fiddly and a bit bland, but there’s a simplicity and innocence to it as well. There are also no annoying pop up windows.

Since then, the internet has evolved beyond anything its creator could have imagined, bringing some of the best – and worst – additions to our daily lives. To celebrate, let’s look back at how the internet changed our world, warts and all.

Social media isn't for everyone (Image credit: Future Publishing)

Social media isn't for everyone (Image credit: Future Publishing) (Image credit: Future Publishing)

Bringing people together

There’s also growing unease over the spread of fake and sensationalist news on social media websites. With many people getting their news from social media, rather than traditional sources, the internet has changed the way people learn about the world around them.

Perhaps the internet’s biggest achievement (or failing, if you’re feeling particularly antisocial after being subjected to yet another Facebook rant from a not distant-enough relative) has been its ability to bring people together from across the world.

Berners-Lee’s original proposal concerned itself with providing a linked information system for people to exchange data remotely. The internet then evolved to allow companies – and then individuals – to create their own websites and publish their thoughts, opinions and cat pictures for the rest of the world to see.

By 1993 the number of websites reached 600, with around 2 million computers connected to the web. However, the platform had to wait until 2008 for the most important website ever to arrive: TechRadar. 

(We joke, of course. The most important website is the Space Jam website.)

In its 30th year, the internet is now home to over 1.6 billion websites. Only around 200 million of those websites are active, and even less than that are worth visiting. Quite a few of them have photos of naked people (or so we’ve been told).

However, while many people used their personal websites to shout their opinions into the voice, the beauty of the internet is that it allowed people to communicate back and forth. 

From early news groups that allowed people to discuss all kinds of topics, to message boards, chat rooms and instant messaging apps like ICQ and MSN Messenger, the history of the internet is a history of people from all around the world chatting to each other.

Online discourse can often devolve into fights. (Image credit: Future Publishing)

Online discourse can often devolve into fights. (Image credit: Future Publishing) (Image credit: Future Publishing)

The conversations (and arguments) may not always be civil, but it’s a remarkable achievement to bring people together no matter where they are in the world, even if we mainly use it to complain about TV shows.

The 2000s also saw the rise in social media networks with Friends Reunited and MySpace, which then made way for Facebook and Twitter.

Facebook in particular, with an incredible 2.32 billion monthly active users, has made a huge impact on most of our lives. For the most part this has been popular, as it has allowed us to keep in contact with friends and family around the world.

However, concerns over the amount of data we provide Facebook (and other social networks) and what they do with it, have been growing in recent years, with a number of high profile scandals tarnishing Facebook’s reputation.

There is a limitless amount of free content online (Image credit: Future Publishing) 

There is a limitless amount of free content online (Image credit: Future Publishing)  (Image credit: Future Publishing)

24 hours of entertainment

In many ways you could argue that the internet has banished boredom. With pretty much an unlimited amount of content pouring off our screens and into our eyes, it’s no wonder that many of us remain glued to our internet-connected devices.

From text and images, to movies, music and games, the internet has transformed how we consume media and entertainment.

In 2005 a video sharing website known as YouTube was launched, and it has since become one of the most popular websites in the world. Around 5 billion videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute, which means you’ll never run out of things to watch.

YouTube, and sites like it, have meant that you don’t need to be a professional to make a video and gain an audience. Anyone with a camera and a YouTube account can broadcast themselves to the world. 

While this has brought fame to talented and entertaining people who might never had a chance in traditional TV, it’s come at a cost, with YouTube awash with poorly made, strange and sometimes damaging material.

The company is constantly looking at ways to improve its moderation and how its algorithms suggest content to its audience, but if your children are hooked on YouTube (and it’s likely these day they are), make sure you know what they are watching.

Paid-for on demand media services such as Netflix and Spotify have also changed the way we consume media. 

No longer do family crowd around a single TV and fight over the remote control, now each member has their own screen and their own account to do with as they wish.

Sure, it’s stopped a lot of arguments over what to watch, but it does feel like we’re losing something in the process.

The internet has changed the way we shop (Image credit: Future Publishing)

The internet has changed the way we shop (Image credit: Future Publishing) (Image credit: Future Publishing)

More ways to buy – and more ways to sell us things

One of the biggest ways the web has changed our lives is how we shop – and how companies advertise to us. If you walk down a high street these days, you may see a number of closed shops, and many people blame the internet.

Buying online is quick, easy and convenient. You don’t need to drive to a shop to have a look around. With many online stores not having to pay for physical shops, it also means they can offer products at a cheaper price than traditional bricks and mortar stores.

The rise of online shopping culminated with the launch of Amazon in 1995, when Jeff Bezos sold his first book out of his garage. 

Since then, Amazon has grown from an online book store to selling almost any item you can think of (including groceries), and Bezos has become the world’s richest person.

Amazon’s wide selection of products and cheap prices have been great for consumers, but there have been controversies as well. As well as many people attributing the death of the high street to Amazon, other people have argued that its working conditions need to be improved

The rest of the online retail world has woken up to the possibilities too, with Black Friday becoming an online phenomenon that almost every large brand has to have a presence in, and it's eroding the Christmas shopping spree in many regions as a result of the online power the web has created.

Today’s web is also noticeable for the sheer number of adverts it shows you. Companies are eager to flog their goods to internet denizens, and they have got increasingly smart in how they target you. 

If you’ve ever searched for a product, or visited a particular site, you may notice that the adverts certain websites show you change depending on what you’re after.

While this can be useful – after all, it’s great seeing an advert for something you’re looking for – it again raises privacy concerns about what kind of data these companies are storing (and sharing) about you.

Our homes are getting smarter thanks to the rise of the world wide web (Image credit: Shutterstock )

Our homes are getting smarter thanks to the rise of the world wide web (Image credit: Shutterstock )

The internet of things and rise of the smart home

When Tim Berners-Lee designed the World Wide Web at CERN on his NeXTcube PC 30 years ago, he couldn’t possibly imagine the sheer breadth of devices his creation would be available on in 2019.

Although the web was designed for computers (and some weird TVs too), the concept of being able to connect to this information moved the idea to phones, which gave birth to 'always with you' connectivity. Now, the connections are everywhere in our lives, thanks to the ideas put forth by the World Wide Web.

From smart TVs that can pull from the almost infinite collection of online videos, to smart fridges that let you know when you’re running low on certain foods, our homes are getting ever smarter.

On the whole this is another positive impact of the web. Smart thermostats like the Nest Learning Thermostat let us tweak the temperatures of our home while we’re away, so it’s nice and cosy when we get in, or saving energy while we’re away.

The combination of Philips Hue smart lights and an Amazon Echo can let us turn on the lights in our homes with a simple spoken voice command.

This amazing world of smart devices has made our lives both easier – and more complicated. It’s led to some of us forgetting how to use a normal light switch

And, if you ever have trouble with your internet connection, you may find yourself stuck in a nightmarish scenario where your oven refuses to cook, while Alexa laughs to herself manically in the corner.

Actual footage of an idiot trying to use a light switch (Image credit: TechRadar)

Actual footage of an idiot trying to use a light switch (Image credit: TechRadar)

So, 30 years on from Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the World Wide Web, the internet has evolved beyond what anyone could have imagined. 

As Berners-Lee’s proposal stated: “The hope would be to allow a pool of information to develop which could grow and evolve with the organisation and the projects it describes.”

Now, three decades later, it’s safe to say that the web has grown and evolved, and it continues to change our lives every day, for the better – and the worse. We can only imagine what the next 30 years will bring. It will probably still involve cats though... just maybe holographic ones instead.

Matt Hanson
Managing Editor, Core Tech

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Core Tech, looking after computing and mobile technology. Having written for a number of publications such as PC Plus, PC Format, T3 and Linux Format, there's no aspect of technology that Matt isn't passionate about, especially computing and PC gaming. He’s personally reviewed and used most of the laptops in our best laptops guide - and since joining TechRadar in 2014, he's reviewed over 250 laptops and computing accessories personally.