12 March 2014 marked the 25th birthday of the web. As you would expect, there was a great deal of coverage online, both in relatively formal reporting contexts (e.g. newspaper interviews with Sir Tim Berners-Lee) and in social media. The approach taken by Nominet (one of the major internet registry companies) was among the most interesting. It published a brief report (The Story of the Web: Celebrating 25 Years of the World Wide Web) and a rather nice timeline of the web’s defining moments. The report, written by Jack Schofield, reminds us that Yahoo! (with that exclamation mark) ‘became the first web giant’ (p. 5); that Netscape Navigator dominated web browsing in the early years, and indeed ‘almost became synonymous with the web’ (p. 5); and that Google has only been part of our lives since 1997, Wikipedia since 2001 (pp. 6, 7). It concludes that ‘The web is now so deeply engrained in modern life that the issue isn’t whether people will leave, but how long it will take for the next two billion to join us’.
All of this is not just nostalgia – it will be impossible for historians to understand life in the late 20th and early 21st century without studying how the internet and the web have shaped our lives, for better and worse. This analysis requires that the web – ephemeral by its very nature – be archived. We have already lost some of our web history. The web is 25 years old, but the Internet Archive only began to collect website snapshots in 1996, that is, 18 years ago. The Institute of Historical Research launched its first website (then described as a hypertext internet server) in August 1993, but it was first captured by the Wayback Machine only in December 1996. At the time of writing, it has been saved 192 times, with the last capture occurring on 30 October 2013. Without the work of the Internet Archive, and now national institutions such as the National Archives and the British Library in the UK, we would not have any of this data. Researchers and web archivists can work together to ensure that in 2039, we will have 50 years’ worth of primary source materials to work with.