Understanding the World Wide Web: A Brief Primer

Understanding the World Wide Web: A Brief Primer

Even though we all use the World Wide Web regularly for both work and pleasure, most of us would be hard pressed to define exactly what it is, describe much about its history, and/or articulate details of its impact. This primer offers a quick introduction to all those things.


Even though we all use the World Wide Web every single day for both work and pleasure, most of us would be hard pressed to define exactly what it is, describe much about its history, and/or articulate details of its impact. This primer offers a quick introduction to all those things.

Distinguishing the Web from the Internet

We tend to use the terms Web and Internet interchangeably and think of them as being the same thing, but they’re not. As Webopedia describes them:

The Internet is a massive network of networks, a networking infrastructure. It connects millions of computers together globally, forming a network in which any computer can communicate with any other computer as long as they are both connected to the Internet.

The World Wide Web, or simply Web, is a way of accessing information over the medium of the Internet. It is an information-sharing model that is built on top of the Internet … The Web is just one of the ways that information can be disseminated over the Internet. The Internet, not the Web, is also used for e-mail…, Usenet news groups, instant messaging and FTP.

In “information superhighway” terms, we can think of the Internet as the infrastructure of roads and routes, and the Web as the way to create and promote destinations and provide the slickest and most sophisticated way get from point A to point B.

Who Invented the Web? When? And What Makes the Web the Web?

In case you don’t recall (or didn’t know), Sir Tim Berners-Lee is the inventor of the World Wide Web. It was created over twenty years after the Internet began in 1969 with the establishment of ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network).

The idea of the Web was conceived in March 1989, when Berners-Lee published Information Management: A Proposal, “an attempt to persuade CERN management that a global hypertext system was in CERN’s interests.” Just over two years later, in August of 1991, he published the first website.

Without getting too technical, the components of the Web that generally differentiate it from other Internet protocols are (all definitions from Webopedia):

  • Hyperlinks: elements in an electronic document that link to another place in the same document or to an entirely different document.
  • HTML (Hypertext Markup Language): the authoring language used to create documents on the Web; it covers how Web pages are formatted and displayed.
  • Browser: a software application used to locate, retrieve and also display content on the Web, including Web pages, images, video and other files
  • URL (Uniform Resource Locator): a specific character string that constitutes a reference to the global address of documents and other resources on the Web.
  • HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol): defines how messages are formatted and transmitted, and what actions Web servers and browsers should take in response to various commands.

On the Shoulders of Giants

As instrumental as Tim Berners-Lee has been – and continues to be – to the evolution of the Web, he is certainly influenced and inspired by both collaborators and predecessors, who were in turn influenced and inspired by those who came before them. In some respects we can trace those influences to Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century, or even to cave paintings and other ways in which our ancient ancestors communicated with each other. But if we limit ourselves to more recent history, and the rise of information and digital technology in particular, here are some of the other folks we have to thank for the ideas and inventions that led to the birth of the Web:

  • 1945: Vannevar Bush writes an essay in Atlantic Monthly entitled As We May Think, which describes the memex, a device he envisions that would enable individuals to compress and store all of their books, records, and communications.
  • 1963: Ted Nelson coins the words hypertext and hypermedia and then works on the development of the underlying technology.
  • 1968: Douglas Engelbart gives the The Mother of All Demos to demonstrate the capabilities of an “oNLine System” (NLS), which includes hypertext, networked computers, and precursors to graphical user interfaces. He also invents the computer mouse, which enables navigation by clicking on hyperlinks. Watch the video – you’ll be gobsmacked.

Enabling the Web Enables Us All

I think of the Web as the “great enabler,” not just because of its underlying technologies, but also because of the spirit and philosophies of the people and organizations that develop and promote the widespread dissemination of those technologies (see, for example, the World Wide Web Consortium’s mission).  CERN’s decision in early 1993 to relinquish its intellectual property rights and put the components of web software in the Public Domain was pivotal in this regard. Doing so not only enabled “anyone to use, duplicate, modify and distribute it,” it also contributed to the then-nascent open source movement, which in turn led to countless innovations and the growth of both businesses and industries (click here to learn more).

The Web has created tremendous opportunities for expression, empowerment and enrichment for everyone, not just techies. Even in the earliest days, anyone with Internet access could create a website, thereby becoming active participants as content creators, disseminators and contributors, rather than just passive consumers. That equality of access, along with openness and egalitarian ideals, created a much more level playing field for individuals and organizations, creating seemingly limitless opportunities to pursue – from the profane to the mundane to the sublime.

Without the Web there would be no… Wikipedia, Amazon, Google, Facebook, YouTube, Netflix, online news sites, blogs, Groupon, Grubhub, Expedia, Motley Fool, Fandango, Gangam Style, Candy Crush, Grumpy Cat, Where The Hell Is Matt? videos, Kickstarter, live wildlife webcams…

You get the idea.

1994: It was a Very Big Year

1994 was a year of many beginnings that created a tipping point for the exponential growth of the Web and its integration into the social, political and economic fabric of the lives of people around the world. Here are some of the key events that happened twenty years ago (click here to view even more):

The Web Transforms Life as We Know It – for Better… and for Worse?

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Web has changed our personal and professional lives, often in dramatic ways. Think, for example, about how you spent the last 24 hours, and how integral the Web and its underlying technologies were to your interactions and activities. Did you for example:

  • Read a news article or blog post online (you know, like this one)?
  • Buy something from Amazon or iTunes or another web-based store?
  • Access and/or engage on a social media site like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Instagram, Pinterest, or SnapChat?
  • Watch streaming video from Netflix or Hulu or another service?
  • Search for love using a matchmaking site or app?
  • Participate on a social intranet or social business platform at work?
  • Listen in on a webinar or use some kind of screen sharing service?

Even if you didn’t surf the Web, your electronic communication was probably still influenced by the Web in some way. Web-enabled technologies have been infiltrating other Internet protocols like email and SMS text messaging, making them less and less distinguishable from one another.

And unless you were in a remote corner of the world, even if you were offline you undoubtedly encountered multiple signs of the Web – a URL, a QR code, a hashtag – no matter where you looked.

It’s virtually inescapable.

Reflecting on the Web and Its Impact

In recognition of 1994 as a tipping point, The Denovati Group is publishing a book titled The World Wide Web: Reflections on Its Past, Present and Future. In it, Digital Era thought leaders and other netizens share their perspectives on the Web’s impact on individuals, organizations, economies, and societies – not just today, but also over the past twenty years and into the near and far future. The book is targeted to professionals and leaders in all disciplines, in organizations of all types, in all sectors throughout the world. The book is intended to be a source of information and insight valuable to digital immigrants as well as the Web’s discoverers, explorers, pathfinders, and early settlers.

We’re thrilled that many thought and action leaders, like Sandy Carter of IBM, Luis Suarez (of #noemail and #lawwe fame), and Marcia Conner have enthusiastically contributed to the book. And we’re equally excited about the contributions from less-famous folks whose thoughts and stories are just as compelling and insightful. You can learn more about the book here.

Get Your Geek On!

Want to learn more about the World Wide Web? Here are some great resources:


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