Book Review: Weaving the Web

Although it came out in the year 2000, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web is as relevant today as it was when it was published. Weaving the Web is a memoir by Tim Berners-Lee about the creation and early growth of the Web. Most of the book concentrates on the ideas, insights, software, and previous attempts that led to the Web—as well as the decisions and evangelism that allowed it flourish in the ’90s. The last quarter of the book deals with Berners-Lee’s ideas about how the Web should evolve. Some of the philosophy behind the Web explained in Weaving is very relevant to current debates around censorship, centralized control of content, and privacy.

We cannot fully understand something if we do not understand its origin story. Weaving the Web fills in many blanks for the curious reader. Like any great creation, the Web did not form in a vacuum. It was the result of over a decade of experimenting by its creator. In the early chapters of Weaving the Web you feel like you are there with Berners-Lee and his colleague Robert Cailliau as they pushed the Web forward. Like Jony Ive has said—ideas are fragile when they’re first created. You get a strong sense of how Berners-Lee nurtured his idea.

Perhaps even more interesting than the origin story, is the philosophy and core ideas that Berners-Lee imbued the Web with. Some of his outlook is surprising and insightful. For example, he does not credit HTTP or HTML as the most important innovation, but instead the URI. “It is the most fundamental innovation of the Web, because it is the one specification that every Web program, client or server, anywhere uses when any link is followed.” (page 39)

Throughout the book, Berners-Lee advocates for decentralization and for empowering individuals as creators. It’s important to note that the book came out at the height of the Web 1.0 era, before the onslaught of social media and YouTube-like content sharing sites. A time when the Web was very static. Yet, he didn’t intend it that way. “I never intended HTML source code (the stuff with the angle brackets) to be seen by users. A browser/editor would let a user simply view or edit the language of a page of hypertext, as if he were using a word processor.” (page 42)

The first web browser that Berners-Lee developed was also an editor. He continually encouraged companies to come out with combined browsers/editors but most declined. It’s interesting to think how differently the Web would have evolved had the browser/editor concept taken off.

Berners-Lee’s philosophy goes beyond technology. He designed the Web to be an open, decentralized system that anyone could participate in. “Whether inspired by free-market desires or humanistic ideals, we all felt that control was the wrong perspective. I made it clear that I had designed the Web so there should be no centralized place where someone would have to ‘register’ a new server, or get approval of its contents. Anybody could build a server and put anything on it.” (page 99)

As the Web has become more and more dominated by a few large tech companies, many feel this early philosophy has been lost. It’s not the current ethos. It’s not the way that most people interact with the Web. Berners-Lee was very prescient in understanding this threat. “If a company claims to give access to the world of information, then presents a filtered view, the Web loses its credibility. That is why hardware, software, and transmission companies must remain unbiased toward content. I would like to keep the conduit separate from the content.” (page 132)

The last quarter of Weaving the Web deals with Berners-Lee’s vision for how the Web should evolve. Much of it did not come to pass—at least not in the way he advocated. It includes explanations of standards like SMIL that never really took off. It speaks to how creating a standard is not as important as making a killer app. This section is interesting from a historical standpoint—to understand what people were thinking about after the first decade of the Web. But it’s not nearly as interesting as the rest of the book.

Overall, Weaving the Web does a great job recounting the story of the Web’s creation. It’s well written and insightful. Most importantly, it clearly states the philosophical underpinnings that inspired Berners-Lee and propelled the Web through its critical first phase of growth. It provides a lot of historical context and insight for many of our current debates around the Web.

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I teach Computer Science to college students, develop software, podcast, and write books about programming including the Classic Computer Science Problems series. I'm the publisher of the hyper local newsletter BTV Daily.

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Based on tdSimple originally by Lasantha Bandara and released under the CC By 3.0.