The WWW Was Invented 20 years Ago

Some thoughts on hypotheses.com

Table of Contents

  1. The Web Develops
  2. Hypotheses.org

Today I was linked hypotheses.org with the note, that it was "a community where anybody (say, researchers and students) can open up a blog and connect them, so that you have one large academic community." My initial reaction was 'wow, sounds like they just re-invented the Internet.' After a second look at some of the blogs and their about page, which states about the same I was told before, my reaction stays the same.

It is sometimes important to note what the WWW was created for: academic exchange. This can most notably be seen in the history and the basic functions of HTML and the WWW, which is in the end based on it.

The WWW was invented in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee. TimBL was then working as at CERN, where the WWW took it's first steps, too. This was a specifically academic setting, where the Internet and later the WWW (mind, the WWW is only a part of the Internet, yes) were used for academic exchange. Especially coming from an academic context, semantic mark-up was and remains an important aim of the WWW, even if this has become a rather overlooked aspect over time. Semantic mark-up refers to tagging certain parts of a text as fulfilling certain functions.

Examples in HTML are the h1-h6 tags for headlines, the p tag for paragraphs, and the ul/ol tags for unordered and ordered lists respectively. Also much abused tags were meant to have a semantic meaning, the most common example being the table tag.

A special emphasis should be put on hyperlinks: hyperlinks are used to refer to sources on which a text is based, to which the text is an answer, or to other notable information. Replace "hyperlinks" with "sources" or "footnotes" in an academic paper and you have little difference in definition (sources are a bit less, footnotes a bit more, but still the idea remains closely related).

Thus, academic (and other) exchange was meant to become self-describing and maschine-readable, say searchable and automatically abstractable (among others). Assigning certain designs to the code was AN aspect among many others, even if it later became an increasingly important and emphasized one.

Over time, the aim for this enhanced communication continued, as can be seen in the development of many concepts for semantic mark-up inside (e.g. microformats, schema.org, RDFa) or as alternatives of human-readable websites (e.g. RDF)

The Web Develops

Out of this idea originally coming out of an decidedly academic context, there developed a globally influencial network. It now connects billions of people, mostly for non-academic contact and communication.

While it led to the creation of open access as a major new development in the academic world, first of all in natural sciences[1], the most important and influencial developments happened outside of the academic community and without academic aims.

In the 1990s and arguably the early 2000s, there was a major unleash of creativity. People used their own hardware as webservers, played with code, completely ignored the specifications and original purposes. Links were set without any related content to link - just for fun -, table tags were used not to describe tables in websites, but for designing. Today we have lolcats. While these developments may seem like deviations from a great goal and counter-productive, they are nevertheless a sign of a democratization of the publishing landscape. Anybody could publish to everybody and there were little restrictions set. (An interesting talk on this matter is this: Anil Dash on "The Web We Lost").

At the same time, this had major implications for production: people were now enabled much more than ever before to create and adapt things together for little personal benefit besides the gratification of having done something productive they like, having worked on a product they like, and working in a group (A process Axel Bruns named 'produsage'. 'Commons-Based Peer Production', a term coined by Yochai Benkler, Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies at Harvard Law School, is a most related concept). Given this motivation and the ensuing practice, non-professionals became increasingly able to do things formerly or at the same time done by professionals. The borders between professional and amateur are increasingly diffuse and permeable. See the concept of "pro-am".
(See also this great TED Talk with Clay Shirky on what he calls Cognitive Surplus for both the productive potential as well as the potentially weird and seemingly unnecessary forms the creativity unleashed takes)

A second most important development was the move from a decentralized web towards a central web revolving around some key services. Instead of getting to websites via links from other websites, we google (or search) on google.com. Instead of sending a mail, we send messages via Facebook. Instead of using different, not overly centralized IRC servers, we now whatsapp each other.

While these platforms reduce the barriers stopping us from participating in the web, e.g. by giving us a streamlined user interface, by making posting on the web a seamless and easy experience, et cetera, they restrict our ability to present our content in ways we want to present them (e.g. by changing designs or adding not necessary but semantically rich markup) and get to own the content. This change in ownership has two implications: first, obviously, the owners of the platforms can do pretty much anything with our data. Second and arguably even more frightening, we create that content over years and we often do not have a way to export our data. This means that a platform closing often also means a massive lost of user generated data. (A movement to counter this development is the Indieweb. This list of 'dead' social networks is also most instructive. A nice talk on social media and the Indieweb is this. Known is a CMS designed along the Indieweb principles and created for, among others, educational purposes.)

To sum up, a major advantage of the web was the democratization of creative expression and production - while the later centralization of the web is an important but unfortunate and disadvantageous development.

These general observations also apply for the aim of using the web for academic purposes.

Hypotheses.org

Now, let's get back to hypotheses.org. Letting everybody create their own blogs is something already formulated in the basic, original ideas of the web. The process was later made much easier with the developments of CMS like wordpress (which is also used on hypotheses.org). Connecting the different people involved is a process, which was also similarly formulated before: links are just that - and later developments such as contact and comment forms have since enhanced the process[FN1]. Thus far, hypotheses.org is thus re-inventing what is already there.

HTML can be used on any webserver, by anybody. For people who have no capacities or time to learn HTML, installing a CMS can be done on any server with minimal to no required time and effort. Hypotheses.org differs by centralizing everything on servers not owned by the creator of the respective content and putting contents under subdomains. Whereas wordpress, which the blogs at hypotheses.org are running on, allows exporting user-generated data and I assume the terms of service for setting up blogs there to be comparatively nice (I have still to check this), this puts the produser at risk of the service suddenly shutting down without prior notice and the data being lost with little chance of getting it back. Given the idea of putting all of a researcher's field notes there, this is a major downside to consider.

The other main feature of hypotheses.org's self-definition is that it is specifically catering to researchers in the humanities and social sciences. Whereas this is beneficial just for formulating the general lack of the social sciences and humanities in opening up to the benefits of the web, it bears the risk of excluding outsiders. Outsiders here includes pro-ams and other potentially engagable people in their respective fields, who have skills on the level of those within the academic community but are simply not employed in the field.

The one major benefit of the web is thus at risk of being undone. By letting skilled outsiders enter the academic discourse much more research could get done. Social sciences and the humanities would be advanced in the pursuit of knowledge. On the other hand old hierarchical structures would need to be flattened for and by engaging pro-ams in the discourse. If the ideas of a pro-am are to be seen as valid as those of a professor (given they are of the same quality in terms of content), then this means a major loss of power on the side of the professor. As science and education should be a competition of ideas, this flattening of the hierarchies would be beneficial.[FN2]

If science aims for the broadening of ordered, publicly available knowledge, the idea of creating a 'walled network' only for social science/scientists and (people in) the humanities is thus not just not beneficial but indeed a dangerous one.

All this speaks for simply setting up one's own website for researchers or research groups. While social scientists and academics in the humanities should open up to the internet more, they do not need centralized services for this. Indeed, they should be most cautious of the risks of centralized services. And if they are interested in broadening the ordered and publicly available knowledge of humankind as a collective, they should embrace the discourse with pro-ams, which are less likely to join a network catering to any one specific group of researchers.

[FN1]: German courts decided that website owners are responsible for the comments made on the website. In a German setting, you thus need to either moderate any comment or you are likely at risk of getting sued. This is, among others, the reason I have disabled the comments on this website, even if I have implemented commenting in my own CMS.

[FN2]: If science and education are seen as tools of power, the opposite is quite obviously the case: flattening the hierarchies makes the field harder to control. Engaging volunteers and thus rendering money a less influencial aspect of academia decreases corporate and state power in determining the academic discourse.

Added by Joshua Ramon Enslin, in - [On Twitter]

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CMS Author-DateEnslin, Joshua Ramon. 2015. “The Www Was Invented 20 Years Ago”. Jrenslin.de. https://jrenslin.de/post/14.
CMS (Footnotes)Enslin, Joshua Ramon. “The Www Was Invented 20 Years Ago”. Jrenslin.de. https://jrenslin.de/post/14.
APAEnslin, J. R. (2015). The WWW Was Invented 20 years Ago. jrenslin.de. Retrieved from https://jrenslin.de/post/14
HarvardEnslin, J.R., 2015. The WWW Was Invented 20 years Ago. jrenslin.de. Available at: https://jrenslin.de/post/14.