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World Wide Web

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The World Wide Web ("WWW" or simply "the Web") is a global collection of information presented in the form of documents hosted on networked computers and available to the public. The information includes text files, images, videos, sound files and many other types of information. The documents containing information are delivered to individuals over a global computer network called the Internet and using a communications protocol called HTTP. After connecting to the Internet, people can browse the Web by running a web browser on their local computer and using the web browser to surf (move around at will) through the vast array of available web documents. Connecting to the Internet also enables people to use many other services which are not necessarily considered to be part of the World Wide Web, such as e-mail, instant messaging or digital telephony.

Web technical specifications

The World Wide Web is implemented by software which adheres at least to the following three standards:

  • the Uniform Resource Identifier (URI)[1], which is a universal system for referencing resources (i.e., pages or files) on the Web
  • the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP)[2], which specifies how the browser and server communicate with each other
  • the HyperText Markup Language (HTML)[3], used to define the structure and content of hypertext documents.

Origins

By 1990, an entire economy had already grown around the demand for Internet access, but much functionality on the Internet was not available to non-technical users. The primary author, and the person who first implemented (or organized the implementation of) the above RFC's was Tim Berners-Lee of CERN, although several other people were also marginally involved. The Internet had existed in some form for perhaps twenty years before this--and it had grown--but the means of sharing information over the Internet were neither available to large numbers of people, nor friendly enough to accommodate non-technical users. Berners-Lee's proposals allowed information to be shared easily to a non-technical audience.

Berners-Lee devised the first web browser to fetch and display documents containing hyperlinks, which when clicked brought down additional documents over the Internet. His version of hypertext, which was an area of active research at many institutions during the 1980's, was combined with an elegant and simple protocol (HTTP) for using the existing Internet as transport, and the ideas took off very quickly. The availability of HTML documents and free web browsers accelerated the growth of the Internet even more.

Equally important with his technical expertise was Berners-Lee's vision that the Internet should remain a free service available to anyone. The Web made its debut as a publicly available service on August 6, 1991.[4] On April 30, 1993, CERN announced that the World Wide Web would be free to anyone.[5] This came two months after the announcement that Gopher, the older distributed document protocol, was no longer free to use.[6] In the intervening years, the World Wide Web has managed to survived in a low-cost form available to large numbers of people, but not without considerable social struggle to keep it so. Multiple attempts have been made (and likely will be made again) to tax commerce performed through the Web, or to censor its content (in fact, some countries do attempt to censor information flow from the Web, with varied degrees of success).

The World Wide Web began an astronomical growth in popularity after the 1993 release of the graphical Mosaic web browser by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) developed by Marc Andreessen. Prior to the release of Mosaic, graphics were not commonly mixed with text in web pages and its popularity was less than older protocols in use over the Internet, such as Gopher protocol and Wide Area Information Server. Mosaic's graphical user interface allowed the Web to become by far the most popular Internet application.

A disruptive technology

The fact that individuals outside mass media can easily publish on the Web has made the World Wide Web a disruptive[7] influence on journalism. In order to "publish" a web page, one does not have to go through a publisher or other media institution, and potential readers could be found in all corners of the globe. The increased opportunity to publish materials is certainly observable in the countless personal pages, as well as pages by families, small shops, etc., facilitated by the emergence of free web hosting services. It's free to post some smaller web pages, and even larger sites are inexpensive in comparison to traditional media.

Unlike books and documents, hypertext does not have a linear order from beginning to end. It is not broken down into the hierarchy of chapters, sections, subsections, etc. This allows readers to easily find more on a topic, move to other related topics, or skip sections they're uninterested in.

Many different kinds of information are now available on the Web, and for those who wish to know other societies, their cultures and peoples, it has become easier. When traveling in a foreign country or a remote town, one might be able to find some information about the place on the Web, especially if the place is in one of the developed countries. Local newspapers, government publications, and other materials are easier to access, and therefore the variety of information obtainable with the same effort may be said to have increased, for the users of the Internet.

Although some websites are available in multiple languages, many are in the local language only. Also, not all software supports all special characters, and RTL languages. These factors would challenge the notion that the World Wide Web will bring a unity to the world.

Sociological implications

The World Wide Web has allowed global interpersonal exchange on a scale unprecedented in human history. People separated by vast distances, or even large amounts of time, can use the Web to exchange — or even mutually develop — their most intimate and extensive thoughts, or alternately their most casual attitudes and spirits. Emotional experiences, political ideas, cultural customs, musical idioms, business advice, artwork, photographs, literature, can all be shared and disseminated digitally with less individual investment than ever before in human history. Although the existence and use of the Web relies upon material technology, which comes with its own disadvantages, its information does not use physical resources in the way that libraries or the printing press have. Therefore, propagation of information via the Web (via the Internet, in turn) is not constrained by movement of physical volumes, or by manual or material copying of information. And by virtue of being digital, the information of the Web can be searched more easily and efficiently than any library or physical volume, and vastly more quickly than a person could retrieve information about the world by way of physical travel or by way of mail, telephone, telegraph, or any other communicative medium.

The Web is the most far-reaching and extensive medium of personal exchange to appear on Earth. It has probably allowed many of its users to interact with many more groups of people, dispersed around the planet in time and space, than is possible when limited by physical contact or even when limited by every other existing medium of communication combined.

Because the Web is global in scale, some have suggested that it will nurture mutual understanding on a global scale. By definition or by necessity, the Web has such a massive potential for social exchange, it has the potential to nurture empathy and symbiosis, but it also has the potential to incite belligerence on a global scale, or even to empower demagogues and repressive regimes in ways that were historically impossible to achieve.

Web 2.0

Since around 2000, all major web browsers have moved quickly to support additional standards, including CSS, XHTML (and its Document Object Model, or DOM), and Javascript. Use of these standards in devising web pages has led to a better usability experience for users, in which parts of web pages are updated by background programs that talk to the web server without the user having to browse further to an additional web page. These new technologies are often called Ajax as a comglomerate.

Further advances in website design include user-generated content, social networking aspects such as user ratings or page customization, so-called "mashups" which allow data to be visualized more easily, and new ways of generating revenue such as use of a small-face, discreet, text-only advertizing column a la Google. Such trends are frequently referred to under the all-encompassing term "Web 2.0", meaning the second version of how web pages can be created for a richer user experience. For developers, creating "Web 2.0" pages is more complex, and the technology is still costly enough in terms of human effort that many websites cannot yet afford the implementation overhead. But tools support for Web 2.0 design approaches continues to evolve rapidly as of 2008, and this has resulted in higher expectations for web page friendliness among users.

Websites which heavily employ so-called "Web 2.0" technology are also sometimes referred to as Rich Internet Applications, or simply RIA's.

References

  1. Request for Comments: 3986, Uniform Resource Identifier (URI): Generic Syntax. IETF Network Working Group (January 2005). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
  2. Request for Comments: 1945, Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.0. IETF Network Working Group (May 1996). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
  3. HTML 3.2 Reference Specification. World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) (14-Jan-1997). Retrieved on 2007-04-02.
  4. Template:Cite newsgroup
    A first release of the code followed two weeks later.
  5. CERN (1993-04-30). Statement concerning CERN W3 software release into public domain. Press release. Retrieved on 2007-01-19.
  6. Template:Cite newsgroup
  7. A disruptive technology is one which shakes up the status quo by invoking rapid, sometimes painful, change.