historical stuff by Gareth Millward
4 September 1998 – Menlo Park
Hoover, Xerox and Coke have come to mean vacuum cleaner, photocopier and cola in colloquial English. Such was the success of those brands, either as inventors or popularisers of day-to-day products that we use their trademarks more than the more generic terms; even when Vax, Epson and Pepsi are available.
Google is another of those brands. It is the world’s most used search engine, accounting for 88% of the planet’s searches.1 Yet that isn’t primarily what Google does any more. It offers a range of services and collects mind-blowing amounts of data, leading many to criticise its dominant position on the internet and World Wide Web.
The Web is full of information, but it’s relatively useless if you can’t find anything. There are a number of ways you can find stuff, but it generally boils down to access to one of three things:
In the late nineties, search wasn’t particularly sophisticated. The main providers would maintain large databases of websites, and then would provide the user with results based on how often a search term appeared. (To very crudely summarise the technology.) Students at Stanford, however, wondered whether an algorithm could deduce relevance, but monitoring how often authoritative websites linked to each other on a specific topic. Using these and other metrics, they developed a search engine that eventually became Google. It launched in 1997, and the company was incorporated in September 1998.2
My family got the internet in 2000. Google has been practically a constant in my experience of the web since then, as it has been for many others. But there was a Web before Google. And there was an internet before the Web. So the question is – how did we ever find anything?
One form of “discovery” came through directories. The example above was on the Yahoo front page in late 1996. Google also maintained a directory in its early years, before neglecting it in favour of other services. While these were helpful, they were also at the mercy of those maintaining them. Humans simply could not read and categorise every single page on the Web.
Another way of maintaining links for like-minded people, then, was to gather in one place. These sorts of internet communities have existed for many years, even before the invention of the Web. At the recent RESAW conference in Aarhus, Kevin Driscoll spoke about the history of Bulletin Board Systems. Much like the modern “internet forum”, people could exchange messages on the internet equivalent of the community bulletin board in the local parish church or community centre. Access came through dialling up BBS providers using a modem and transferring data over the phone line. This is essentially how modern Internet Service Providers work, but in the days before the Web as we know it. Indeed, a number of BBS providers went on to become ISPs.3
These boards provided information not just on the “real” world goings on in the cities in which they were based. They also gave people recommendations for other places on the internet to visit.
Other messaging systems such as Usenet provided similar information amongst the core service of facilitating conversations on a particular topic. This was brought out in William McCarthy’s paper on the history of troll communities.4
Some users took the geographical analogy and ran with it, contributing to the rise of GeoCities in the late 1990s. Ian Milligan‘s research showed that the owners of GeoCities pages tended to keep themselves in the city which most reflected their interests. In doing so, they were able to join communities of like-minded people, share information, and then “go” to other cities to learn about other topics. This was a web constructed by amateurs rather than professional content generating sites, but it allowed people to discover and – crucially – be discovered by their fellow Web consumers.5
Google has become a valuable tool for web “discovery”. Alongside the rise in social media, we have been able to share our own content and that of others in ways that would have been difficult or impossible in the 1980s and 1990s. Finding people, places and things has never been easier.
Aside from the political concerns and debates over the “right to forget“, it has also made things tricky for documentary researchers. The intricate details of that are probably worth explaining elsewhere (such as in this paper I gave with Richard Deswarte and Peter Webster last year). Suffice to say, the sheer volume of data available through Google is overwhelming. So too is the gnawing suspicion that it is almost too easy, leading us to do research on the sorts of topics that serve only to confirm our own prejudices of the world and ignoring wider and important outside context.
In any case, Google looks like it’s here to stay. Given the way it has revolutionised the Web, which has in turn revolutionised the twenty-first century, the company had to go into my 30-for-30.