From trends to principles: What we can learn from the evolution of the web


10 Feb 2022

Image: © ST.art/Stock.adobe.com

Fathom’s Gareth Dunlop reflects on the history of the web over the past three decades and where things could be heading next.

It has been more than 10,000 days since the greatest invention of our lifetime, the world wide web, emerged from the labs of CERN and into the mainstream.

This provides us with an opportunity to pause and reflect, and consider if there is anything about the last 10,000 days which might help us understand the next 10,000.

Future Human

The life of the world wide web has evolved through four distinguishable phases.

Web 0.0 – 1989 to 1994

In 1989, while working for CERN, Tim Berners-Lee developed a mark-up language and later published the world’s first web page. This sparked a surge of innovation, leading to the building of the first web servers and the development of early browsers.

The era was one of great excitement, as those closest to the project recognised the ability of the web to organise and manage huge amounts of information. No clear commercial opportunity had yet emerged. However, even from an academic perspective, it was clear that the protocol developed by Berners-Lee made the world’s information much easier to understand, structure and navigate.

Web 1.0 – 1995 to 2004

The read-only web was born and early web pages were designed and built. The early years encompassed a range of attributes:

  • Excitement – a sense that this invention will have a big impact on the world
  • Blissful ignorance – no awareness from the design or tech industry how to use it or design for it
  • Scepticism – as this article from Newsweek and this quote from Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman illustrate
  • Indulgence – some of the worst ego-driven business cases were built to justify digital businesses that were never going to make it, the poster child of which was Boo.com
  • Winners – in particular, Google and Amazon managed to navigate their way through this period to become two of the most valuable brands on the planet

While some of these characteristics appear to contradict, that in itself is indicative of the novelty of the medium and society’s varied response.

Web 2.0 – 2004 to present day

The web evolved from a predominantly read-only medium to become a read-write, two-way medium.

While Berners-Lee invented Web 1.0, no one invented Web 2.0. Rather, the term refers to how the web evolved in the noughties as the second wave of applications became mainstream.

During this period, the web democratised with increasing numbers of platforms developed where the value in the platform lay not with its leadership or technology, but rather with its community.

Early adopters such as Wikipedia, Flickr, Bebo, Craigslist, MySpace and Skype gained their market share by putting their users in charge of the platform. Users around that time were given genuine agency, influencing the internet and contributing to its content as well as benefitting from content provided by others.

These platforms set the foundation for the behemoths that were to follow in the form of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.

It is difficult to imagine in an era of misinformation, online bullying and fake news, but the early years of Web 2.0 were a time of great optimism. There was hope that this evolution of the web would amplify the voice of each individual, contribute to big societal discussions, and ultimately positively impact democracy and equality.

Web 3.0 – Now and into the future

Recent and current developments on the internet have focused on the semantic web and the search for meaning. By using contextual and environmental data, the web seeks to provide personalised and relevant information.

Some of the ways the internet tries to apply meaning by exploring context include:

  • Intent not words – if you search for the ‘best’ hotel, search engines will provide you with results of the hotel that it believes will best meet your needs, not the hotel with the word ‘best’ in its title
  • Location relevance – if you search for ‘London Tube’ on a mobile device in London, your search results will point you to your nearest station, not the generic website for Transport for London
  • Context – if you ask the web for the time in New York and get the results, you can simply ask ‘What about San Fran?’ and the web will know you’re still wanting to know the time based on your previous search

The big trends in Web 3.0 are around bringing meaning to content using personal, contextual and geographical clues.

Moving from trends to principles

Other longer-established design disciplines are highly effective at discerning principles from trends, for example architecture.

Even though the style of buildings has varied across the ages, architects always design them with a careful interest in their relationship with light, their environment and the flow of interactions in the space that humans will use the building for. The style of architecture is fluid but its principles are immovable.

When we explore more than 10,000 days of the world wide web, and move beyond the year-on-year trends to the decade-on-decade evolution, there are three constant trends that winners in the digital experience economy have embraced:

  • Utility – humans will only use products when they are useful and usable; products that are most useful and most usable are most used
  • Power – the web has empowered the transformed customer; winners in the experience economy focus on better serving that customer, giving attention and not seeking to get attention
  • Convenience – long before they get interested in the prettiness of your design, users want to navigate and flow; products that make users feel confident and in control are products that convert

The winners in the next 10,000 days will embrace the principles of the ages as well as the trends of the day.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth Dunlop runs Fathom, a UX consultancy that helps organisations get the most from their digital products. Specialist areas include UX strategy, usability testing, customer journey planning and accessibility. Clients include BBC, Kingspan, AIB and Tesco Mobile. 

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