A Brief History of Websites (part 1)

I sent my first email in about 1988.  In theory, I had an email address via my university before that date but so few people outside computer science departments used email that it was pointless sending an email unless you knew that the recipient was expecting it.   I got my first private email address in 1995 though, again, there were few people to whom I could actually correspond.   From that point on, things moved quickly.  My 1995 modem was a dial-up modem outside the computer though any attachments over a few hundred kilobytes would lead to me fretting over phone bills.   Broadband arrived in about 2002, I think, and from that point on things moved very quickly.

Our generations have lived through the greatest paradigm shift in communication since Gutenberg invented the printing press yet broadband internet has become so much part of our lives over the past decade that we are in danger of forgetting just how young the internet is.  I don’t mean the technology per se, but the human systems that contribute and manage the content.

We know about Google and Facebook, and recognise that these companies make their money not directly from us, but from selling information about us to advertisers.   We respect Wikipedia’s philosophy, but have all seen their frequent pleas for donations to support their advert-free pages.   It takes real time to manage a good website and, however much we like “open access” as a philosophy, there are unanswered questions about how the very real costs of contributing content and maintaining sites will be met in the long term.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in London to discuss a possible online diatom Flora for Britain and Ireland.   This is not the first project of this nature that I have been involved with.  I helped to develop a CD-ROM based Flora for the Environment Agency a few years ago.  We had started with grand ideas about the output not being static in the way that traditional printed Floras were, but would be constantly updated.  However, funding priorities changed within the Environment Agency and the CD-ROM never was upgraded.   It quickly fell behind the pace for both the software and computer operating systems and, at the end of last year, was quietly deleted from the Environment Agency’s publication catalogue.   Fortunately, all information except the keys is available at craticula.ncl.ac.uk/EADiatomKey/html/index.html but, to me, this was an opportunity wasted.

The big lesson that I learned from this exercise was that long-term success of web-based projects depends less on the technology than on the people and institutions responsible for managing and maintaining the sites.  You can have the best-written webpages and the most authoritative content but if the institution that hosts the site changes priorities, then all this effort could be lost or, at best, fossilised, very quickly.  In a fast-moving field, “fossilised” is little better than “lost”.

Why am I saying all this?  I am trying to keep all my posts to under 500 words so you’ll have to wait until next time to find out…

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