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World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (the "Web" or "WWW" for short) is a hypertext system that operates over the Internet. To view the information, one uses a piece of software called a web browser to retrieve pieces of information (called "documents" or "web pages") from web servers (or "web sites") and display them on the user's screen. The user can then follow hyperlinks on the page to other documents or even send information back to the server to interact with it. The act of following hyperlinks is often called "surfing" the web.

Just as one can distinguish between "an internet" and "the Internet", one can refer to "a web" as a collection of sites providing information by the means described here (perhaps on an intranet), and "the Web", which is the single, large, interconnected web available on nearly all public Internet sites.

The Web grew out of a project at CERN, beginning around 1989, where Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau[?] built the prototype system that became the core of what is now the World Wide Web. The original intent of the system was to make it easier to share research papers among colleagues. The original name of the first prototype was Enquire Within Upon Everything.

The core functionality of the Web is based on three standards: The Uniform Resource Locator (URL), which specifies how each page of information is given a unique "address" at which it can be found; Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which specifies how the browser and server send the information to each other, and Hyper Text Markup Language (HTML), a method of encoding the information so it can be displayed on a variety of devices. Berners-Lee now heads the World Wide Web Consortium, which develops and maintains these standards and others that enable computers on the Web to effectively store and communicate all kinds of information.

The initial "www" program at CERN only displayed text, but later browsers such as Pei Wei[?]'s Viola[?] (1992) added the ability to display graphics as well. Marc Andreessen[?] of NCSA released a browser called "Mosaic for X" in 1993 that sparked a tremendous rise in the popularity of the Web among novice users. Andreesen went on to found Mosaic Communications Corporation (now Netscape Communications, a unit of AOL Time Warner). Additional features such as dynamic content, music and animation can be found in modern browsers. Frequently, the technical capability of browsers and servers advances much faster than the standards bodies can keep up with, so it is not uncommon for these newer features to not work properly on all computers, and the web as seen by Netscape is not at all the same as the web seen by Internet Explorer. The ever-improving technical capability of the WWW has enabled the development of real-time web-based services such as webcasts[?], web radio and live web cams.

Another significant advance in the technology was Sun Microsystems' Java programming language, which enabled web servers to embed small programs (called applets) directly into the information being served that would run on the user's computer, allowing faster and richer user interaction.

The similarly named, but actually quite different, JavaScript is a scripting language developed for Web pages. In conjunction with the Document Object Model, JavaScript has become a much more powerful language than its creators originally envisaged.

Sociological Implications

The exponential growth of the Internet was primarily attributed to the emergence of the web browser Mosaic, followed by another, Netscape Navigator during the mid-1990s.

It brought unprecedented attention to the Internet from media, industries, policy makers, and the general public.

Eventually, it led to several visions how our society might change, although some point out that those visions are not unique to the Internet, but repeated with many new technologies (especially information and communications technologies) of various era.

Because the web is global in scale, some suggested that it will nuture mutual understanding in global scale.

The web is available to individuals outside mass media. In order to "publish" a web page, one does not have to go through a publisher or other media institution, and the potential reader is around the globe, some thought. This to some is a oppportunity to enhance democracy by giving voices to alternative and minority views. Some others took it as a path to anarchy and unrestrained freedom of expression. Yet other took it as a sign that hierarchically organized society, mass media being a symptomatic part of it, will be replaced by so-called network society[?].

In addition, the hyper-text seemed to promote non-hierarchical and non-linear way of expression and thinking. Unlike books and documents, hypertext does not have a linear order from the beginning to the end. It is not broken down into the hierarchy of chapters, sections, subsections, etc. This reminded some of the idea of Marshall McLuhan that new media change people's perception of the world, mentality, and way of thinking. While not unique issue to the web, hypertext in this sense is closely related to the notion of "death of author[?]" and intertextuality[?] in structuralist literary theory.

These bold visions are at least not fully realized yet. We can find both supporting and countering aspects of web usage.

First, regarding the increased global unity, it is true that 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 became easier. When one travels to a foreign country or a remote town, s/he might be able to find some information about the place on the web, especially if the place is in one of 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.

At the same time, there are some obvious limitations. The web is so far a very text-centered medium, and those who are illiterate cannot make much use of it. Even among the literate, usage of a computer may or may not be easy enough. It has been known during the late 1990s, though with ample exceptions, that web users are dominantly young male in college or with a college degree. Now the trend has been changing and female and elderly are also using the web, level of education and income are related to the web use, some think (See also: Digital divide). Another significant obstacle is the language. Currently, only a limited number of languages are useable on the web, due to software and standard issues, and none would understand all the available languages. These factors would challenge the notion that the World Wide Web will bring a unity to the world.

Second, the increased oppportunity to individuals are certainly observable in the countless personal pages, as well as other groups such as families, small shops, which are not among those who publish materials. The emergence of free web hosting services are perhaps an important factor in bringing this possibility into the reality. The activities of alternative media expanded into the web as well.

Yet not a small part of those pages seem to be either prematurely abandoned or one-time practice. Very few of those pages, even when they are well-developed, are popular. When it comes to the expression of ideas and provision of information, it seems that the major media organizations and those companies who became major organizations through their online operations are still favored by the dominant majority. In addition, the Web is not necessarily a tool for political self-education and deliberation. The most popular uses of the Web include searching and downloading of pornography, which perhaps have very limited effect in improving democracy. The most intensively accessed web pages include the document detailing the former President Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct with Monica Lewinsky, as well as the lingerie fashon show by Victoria's Secret. In sum, both in terms of writers and readers, the Web is not popularly used for democracy. While this is not enough to categorically reject the possibility of the Web as a tool for democracy, the effect so far seems to be smaller than some of the expectations for a quite simple reason, lack of interest and popularity. Anarchistic freedom of expression may be enjoyed by some, but many web hosting companies have developed their acceptable use policy over time, sometimes prohibiting some sensitive and potentially illegal expressions. And again, those expressions may not reach great many. The web is still largely a hierarchical place, some may argue.

Third, regarding non-linear and non-hierarchical structure of the Web, the effect of those on people's perception and psychology are still largely unknown. Some argue that our culture is changing to that of postmodernity, which is closely related to non-linear and non-hierarchical way of thinking, being, and even social organization. Yet the counter evidences are available as well. Among the most notable would be the existence of portal[?] and search engines. Those sites often provide navigations to most popular sites to the visitors. In addition, it is quite obvious that many web sites are organized according to a simple hierarchy, having the "home page" at the top. At least the present state of the Web and web users seem to suggest the change has not been as great as envisioned by some.

See also

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