The Web turned 20 in 2011 (the first web page was launched on August 6, 1991). Today, there are 644, 275,754 web pages, according to Netcraft.com, and even that is not the most accurate number, considering the dynamics of the web. No one could have predicted back in August 1991, at the beginnings of the Web, the incredible development and crucial impact the World Wide Web would have on late 20th- and 21st-century society, economy, and culture.
However, in just 20 years, the “soul” of the Web has changed: what began as the ultimate democratic tool, the Web is increasingly turning into a “global village” and a limitless market where the consumer is the commodity.
In this essay we will examine how these changes affect our online and real lives, and whether we can glimpse at the future of staying connected.
The Web: 20 years ago and now
In a BBC documentary series, “The Virtual Revolution,” Dr. Aleks Krotoski analyzes the development of the Web and its all-encompassing impact on our lives. She speaks with the prominent and important online social strata: the founders of Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft, and the inventor of the Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who acknowledges the discrepancy between the intended purpose of the Web and what it represents today.
At its beginnings, the Web was the epitome of democratization: its defiance against authority and tendency to uphold horizontal allegiances, and the fact that it gave voice to everyone and censored no one. Even now these characteristics are closely tied to the definition of the Web; however, we are also witnesses that these democratic hopes are being challenged by the growing influences of giant web companies, such as Google and Amazon, and some governments’ interests at controlling the content their citizens have access to.
It is difficult to state that Google has a monopoly over the Web, because essentially, no one has and no one can have a monopoly over the Web. However, Google’s way of making money, through the so-called Google AdWords, shows what happens when the Web meets the profit-making sector. One of the factors in the efficiency of these AdWords is the consumer profile. Google collects data about us based on the words we look up and it uses it to offer us a “more personalized experience,” i.e. showing us user-profiled ads. It seems that the consumer is becoming the consumed, as Dr. Krotoski observes. Despite this, in the words of Seth Goldstein, we are “perfectly dumb and happy” about the amount of data or “digital fingerprints” we leave behind.
Governments are also very actively involved in using the internet as the “fifth dimension of warfare.” One of Dr. Krotoski’s interviewees said that wherever there was a conflict in the real world, there was a conflict on the Web. In recent years a cyberwar has been going on between China and the U.S. and both countries have been accusing each other of running an “army of hackers.” And increasingly, there are allegations that the Russian government used the Web in its efforts to influence the recent U.S. Presidential election.
Certain conservative governments, such as the Iranian and the Chinese, employ censorship of web content on a daily basis. However, the latest attempts to pass the SOPA and PIPA acts, which have ignited massive protests in the U.S. and Europe, prove that even supposedly “democratic” governments try to cripple the “free-for-all” spirit of the Web.
What has the Web done to us?
The Web has distorted and transformed our notions of privacy. Our online habits are a gold mine for advertisers. They use recommendation engines to learn patterns of our behavior as consumers and shower us with ads for things we did not even know we needed; this process is called behavioral targeting. We are still significantly unaware to what extent and in what way this huge amount of “digital-fingerprint” data could be utilized.
However, we also willingly share some very important information about ourselves with the rest of the world through social networks and blogs, such as Facebook. Many of us give away our real names, dates of birth, locations, personal relationship status, etc., without even realizing the consequences of such openness.
The Web has also changed the way we think. We now tend to think more associatively than linearly, because of the enormous amount of data we are exposed to, which also makes us less attentive and less able to concentrate on one topic for long.
It has also become impossible to lead a political campaign without focusing on online communication between the candidate and their voters. The Arab Spring and the Occupy protests were fueled by group activity and information sharing on the Web.
The fact that 1/4 of the planet today is connected shows that the Web is increasingly penetrating every sphere of our modern lives. We are turning into Homo Interneticus, a name Dr. Krotski used to describe the new wired human, and our prototype can be found in South Korea, the most connected nation in the world. Internet addiction has long been recognized as a problem by the South Korean government; there were even some cases of addicts who neglected themselves – or their children – to the point of death. However, finding the most efficient way of treating internet addiction is still disputed.
To end with the words of Emily Bell, the Guardian News & Media director of digital content, “Forecasting the future of the internet is a horrible business, even in the short term. Those who can do it most successfully are among the richest people on the planet. Being asked what the internet will look like in four years’ time is a stretch. Being asked what it will look like in 40 years is bewildering.”
"Web Users Disapprove of Search Engines Collecting Personal Data for Advertising Purposes." Buzzom. March 19, 2012. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://www.buzzom.com/2012/03/web-users-disapprove-of-search-engines-collecting-personal-data-for-advertising-purposes/.
Bell, Emily. "What Will the Internet Look like 40 Years in the Future?" Tech. October 23, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2009/oct/23/internet-future-websites.
Williamson, Lucy. "South Korean Clinic Treats Web Addicts." BBC News. August 1, 2011. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-14361420#page.
 Lucy Williamson, "South Korean Clinic Treats Web Addicts", BBC News, August 1, 2011. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-14361420#page.
 Emily Bell, "What Will the Internet Look like 40 Years in the Future?", Tech, October 23, 2009. Accessed December 10, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2009/oct/23/internet-future-websites.