It's Been 25 Years Since World Wide Web Debuted

Since then it's transformed daily life. To look back at how far the web has evolved and where it may be headed in the next 25 years, Renee Montagne talks to Kevin Kelly, a founder of Wired magazine.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here is a sound that will take you back.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL-UP MODEM)

MONTAGNE: The dial-up modem, the sound of progress 25 years ago. It signaled something really new, the World Wide Web.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

1989 saw many dramatic changes, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the beginning of the breakup of the Soviet Union...

MONTAGNE: And the beginning of the end of the Cold War. Nelson Mandela prepared to leave prison.

GREENE: Michael Jordan scored his 10,000th point in the NBA...

MONTAGNE: And we all were about to be launched from the real world into a vast virtual world.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "KIDS GUIDE TO THE INTERNET")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Once you've learned how to get online yourself, you'll start seeing Web pages everywhere. TV shows have them, schools, Disney World, even the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: What's a Web page, something ducks flock on?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ha-ha, very funny.

MONTAGNE: Ha-ha, David. That's from an instructional video called "Kids Guide To The Internet" from the mid-1990s. Today, find a kid needing a guide to the Internet. From birth, it seems, it's now an integral part of our lives, and to explore how the Web has evolved over these 25 years, we reached Kevin Kelly. He's one of the founders of Wired magazine. Good morning.

KEVIN KELLY: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Take us back to 1989. What did you think of the Web?

KELLY: I have to say, my very first exposure to the Web and seeing the first Web pages was, oh, that's good. I have to say there was not a revelation saying, oh my gosh, the world will never be the same. It just seemed a kind of a natural step. But within the next year or so as the speed and acceleration of people bringing stuff on, when I saw how fast that was happening, that's when we realized, oh my gosh, this is going to change everything.

MONTAGNE: So I'm kind of wondering what the very early uses were for the Web.

KELLY: Well, it was geeky. And, you know, in the very beginning, nobody knew whether this was permanent. It seemed to almost be kind of more archive-ish, where people had a bunch of documents that they wanted to share with the world and oftentimes there's a tendency to want to go there and kind of copy them. We had to be educated to the idea that it was like a library, this was our memory, and that we could kind of go back to that site anytime and it'll still be there.

MONTAGNE: Do you remember something that was thought that it would happen that just never did or never took off?

KELLY: There was lots of surprises and we got lots of things wrong about what we thought the Web would become. In the very beginning, we actually know from some surveys that were done about what people expected the Web to do or what they were going to use it for. They listed a kind of a list of very noble things and they kind of, you know, started off very high-minded and descended down.

So they were going to use it for educational purposes, for research, going to be electronic voting, there would be, you know, health information, and it would go all the way down. And at the very bottom would be kind of games and gossip and video. Well, 20 years later or 25 years later, that list is completely inverted. And the second thing that we got wrong in a big way, including Wired magazine, where I was editing, was we all kind of expected this to be like television, but better, like TV 2.0.

And we were imagining five million channels of specialty information that was all going to be kind of produced by experts and TV channels and Time Warner and AOL and all the big media companies, and maybe lots of small media companies who were producing the Saltwater Aquarium Channel and et cetera. And we missed all the stuff that was going to be produced by the audience, by the users, by a gazillion small time people producing YouTube videos or blogs or twittering, that the entire content of it would be made by the pro-sumer, by the person who was producing it and watching it at the same time.

That was the big thing that we missed in our expectations.

MONTAGNE: That is such a big idea. It's actually, in a way, not surprising that it wasn't predicted. But you yourself, back in the mid '80s, you were involved with a community called The Well. Tell us a little bit about The Well.

KELLY: The Well started off with what they called at that time an online bulletin board, which meant that you dialed in a specific number and you were typing text and every week you could read other people's text and you could send email to someone else who was on that service. So all the services in the early '80s were the AOL and the Prodigy and the CompuServe were little closed gardens.

And The Well allowed the users great freedom to start their own topics, to write whatever they wanted to write and had a lot of interesting people, and so it become sort of an online salon or virtual community very, very quickly because we kind of, again, let the users direct everything. And from that experience very early I saw that this was, one thing, a sharing economy. People were just going overboard to help each other in a way that we hadn't seen in a long time.

And the second thing is, is that almost immediately the virtual citizens demanded to meet face to face. We did monthly Well meetings. This was technology that wasn't kind of like industrial or steam engine-like and mechanical and alien. This was more organic. This was more human-like. This was more like an Amish barn raising, and that was a big thing for us in shifting our idea of what technology could be itself.

MONTAGNE: Although I wonder what you think now of people's massive use of social networks, where it does seem like the face to face is not often in the equation.

KELLY: Yes. Right now I think it's a little bit of a phase, like an adolescent phase. I think young people tend to do things with obsessions and I think we're kind of - the Internet was in its teenage adolescent phase and we became obsessed with some of this and I think as this generation gets older, I think they'll be less obsessed with this and they'll even out and round out and have actually more face to face interaction than they are right now.

MONTAGNE: Well, that's interesting. Probably be encouraging to a lot of people, the idea that living our lives in a virtual reality is just a moment or that few years in time.

KELLY: Yeah. So we're still very early in this. We, you know, okay, we're celebrating the 25th year of the Web. Right now, in the history of the world, nothing has happened on the Internet yet. I mean, we're at the beginning of the beginning. Twenty years from now we'll look back and we'll say, oh, nothing had happened by 2014. It all happened afterwards.

And so the changes that we have seen in the last 25 years are going to pale compared to what's going to happen in the next 25 years.

MONTAGNE: Kevin Kelly is senior maverick at Wired magazine, which he co-founded. He joined us to talk about the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. Thank you for joining us.

KELLY: It was a real pleasure to be here.

MONTAGNE: And in case you haven't heard, we're on the World Wide Web. Check us out at NPR.org.

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