Computer Age: The World Wide Web, The Browser, Early Communities (The Well, BBSes, Usenet) — intro lecture 10

Where Interaction Design History and my personal history as a designer begin to overlap

Once folks start having computers in their homes, they want to do more than just create files. They want to connect with and talk with other people. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s software called Bulletin Board systems started appearing. There were BBSs for every topic you could imagine as well as a message board system called Usenet which were available on BBSs as well as through TelNet which was a direct login to the internet. There was no GUI, only text commands so BBSs were popular because at least you could navigate to content via your mouse and cursor.

Watch the short video of Jason Scott from the Internet Archive talking about running a BBS back in the early 90’s.

The ARPANET and later the more public internet lacked any kind of visual interface for all the documents in the 70’s, 80’s and early 1990’s.

An image from the first page of Tim Berners-Lee’s proposal for the World Wide Web in March 1989

In 1989 Tim Berners Lee developed the pieces that eventually became the world wide web — he recognized that Hypertext would be useful to help connect all the documents being created on the internet. The parts include:

  • HTML: HyperText Markup Language. The markup (formatting) language for the web.
  • URI: Uniform Resource Identifier. A kind of “address” that is unique and used to identify to each resource on the web. It is also commonly called a URL.
  • HTTP: Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Allows for the retrieval of linked resources from across the web.

In 1993, the pieces making up the web moved out of university and government spaces into the open source community and the W3C was created and continues to manage the evolution of the technology.

When he developed these parts, he also created a rudimentary browser.

The web in the early 1990s was mostly text. People were posting images, photos, and audio or video clips on web pages. But these pieces of “multimedia” were hidden behind links. If you wanted to look at a picture, you had to click on a link, and the picture would open in a new window.

In 1993 — A team of students at the University of Illinois’ National Center for Supercomputing Applications, or NCSA, decided the web needed an experience more stimulating and user-friendly than that, so they set to work to build a better browser. Borrowing design and user interface cues from some other early prototype browsers, they went through a handful of iterations before arriving at the final 1.0 release April 22, 1993. — it was the first browser to achieve popularity and laid the groundwork for the consumer company, Netscape, and ushered in the Web 1.0 era.

Mosaic — the first graphical browser. UI designed by Colleen Bushnell.

Marc Andreessen, the Mosaic-browser project leader, left NCSA in 1993 and founded Mosaic Communications with Jim Clark, the co-founder of Silicon Graphics, Inc., or SGI. Under their new corporate banner, they continued to develop their browser, licensing its page-rendering technology to other companies. Andreessen and Clark renamed the company Netscape Communications in 1994 and released the flagship Netscape Navigator browser.

BBS screens

While people were connecting in BBSs and exploring the early web, they were also creating private communities. One of the first and oldest was called the Well. Created by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant in 1985, the well continued the ethos of the Whole Earth Catalog from the 1970s as it’s electronic presence and perpetuated the California utopian community dream as well as provided the space where grateful dead fans met online.

eWorld — an early dialup community from Apple. Post BBS — same era as early AOL.

My students read about Colleen Bushell, the UI designer for Mosaic and then read the short history of online communities from my book Designing Social Interfaces and about how counter culture has influenced the internet as well a little about the Well. Check out the videos about the internet, BBSs and designing with computers early on as related by Gillian Crampton-Smith.

Before the Internet: Bulletin Board Systems (YouTube)
Who Invented the Internet (YouTube)
History of the Web Browser (YouTube)
Computer-Related Design (Vimeo)

Readings included:
The Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design from Ben Schneiderman
Colleen Bushell from New Media Futures: The Rise of Women in the Digital Arts
A chapter about the Well from Counterculture to Cyberculture

Note: All these lectures were delivered via video with related slide decks of images. Following the intro, students had a series of readings and videos to watch related to the topics covered in the lecture or the overall time frame. They were then given a set of prompts to stimulate their thinking and writings which ended up in a class blog.

Computer Age
Computer Age: Early personal computers & games – intro lecture 9
Computer Age: Christopher Alexander, Muriel Cooper and Architecting Space, intro lecture 8

Silicon Age
Silicon Age: Visioning the Future, intro lecture 7
Silicon Age: The Mother of All Demos, intro lecture 6

Industrial Age
Industrial Age: Mid-Century Designers, Designing For People, intro lecture 5
Industrial Age: Between the Wars, intro lecture 4
Industrial Revolution & Manifestos, intro lecture3

In the Beginning
Read intro lecture 2 — In the Beginning Part 2
Read intro lecture 1 — In the Beginning Part 1

Setting the Stage
See the visual syllabus and how I approached putting this class together