Tag: Chapter

Chapter 4: Search

Previously in web history…

After an influx of rapid browser development following the creation of the web, Mosaic becomes the popular choice. Recognizing the commercial potential of the web, a team at O’Reilly builds GNN, the first commercial website. With something to browse with, and something to browse for, more and more people begin to turn to the web. Many create small, personal sites of their own. The best the web has to offer becomes almost impossible to find.

eBay had had enough of these spiders. They were fending them off by the thousands. Their servers buzzed with nonstop activity; a relentless stream of trespassers. One aggressor, however, towered above the rest. Bidder’s Edge, which billed itself as an auction aggregator, would routinely crawl the pages of eBay to extract its content and list it on its own site alongside other auction listings.

The famed auction site had unsuccessfully tried blocking Bidder’s Edge in the past. Like an elaborate game of Whac-A-Mole, they would restrict the IP address of a Bidder’s Edge server, only to be breached once again by a proxy server with a new one. Technology had failed. Litigation was next.

eBay filed suit against Bidder’s Edge in December of 1999, citing a handful of causes. That included “an ancient trespass theory known to legal scholars as trespass to chattels, basically a trespass or interference with real property — objects, animals, or, in this case, servers.” eBay, in other words, was arguing that Bidder’s Edge was trespassing — in the most medieval sense of that word — on their servers. In order for it to constitute trespass to chattels, eBay had to prove that the trespassers were causing harm. That their servers were buckling under the load, they argued, was evidence of that harm.

eBay in 1999

Judge Ronald M. Whyte found that last bit compelling. Quite a bit of back and forth followed, in one of the strangest lawsuits of a new era that included the phrase “rude robots” entering the official court record. These robots — as opposed to the “polite” ones — ignored eBay’s requests to block spidering on their sites, and made every attempt to circumvent counter measures. They were, by the judge’s estimation, trespassing. Whyte granted an injunction to stop Bidder’s Edge from crawling eBay until it was all sorted out.

Several appeals and countersuits and counter-appeals later, the matter was settled. Bidder’s Edge paid eBay an undisclosed amount and promptly shut their doors. eBay had won this particular battle. They had gotten rid of the robots. But the actual war was already lost. The robots — rude or otherwise — were already here.


If not for Stanford University, web search may have been lost. It is the birthplace of Yahoo!, Google and Excite. It ran the servers that ran the code that ran the first search engines. The founders of both Yahoo! and Google are alumni. But many of the most prominent players in search were not in the computer science department. They were in the symbolic systems program.

Symbolic systems was created at Stanford in 1985 as a study of the “relationship between natural and artificial systems that represent, process, and act on information.” Its interdisciplinary approach is rooted at the intersection of several fields: linguistics, mathematics, semiotics, psychology, philosophy, and computer science.

These are the same fields of study one would find at the heart of artificial intelligence research in the second half of the 20ᵗʰ century. But this isn’t the A.I. in its modern smart home manifestation, but in the more classical notion conceived by computer scientists as a roadmap to the future of computing technology. It is the understanding of machines as a way to augment the human mind. That parallel is not by accident. One of the most important areas of study at the symbolics systems program is artificial intelligence.

Numbered among the alumni of the program are several of the founders of Excite and Srinija Srinivasan, the fourth employee at Yahoo!. Her work in artificial intelligence led to a position at the ambitious A.I. research lab Cyc right out of college.

Marisa Mayer, an early employee at Google and, later, Yahoo!’s CEO, also drew on A.I. research during her time in the symbolic systems program. Her groundbreaking thesis project used natural language processing to help its users find the best flights through a simple conversation with a computer. “You look at how people learn, how people reason, and ask a computer to do the same things. It’s like studying the brain without the gore,” she would later say of the program.

Marissa Mayer in 1999

Search on the web stems from this one program at one institution at one brief moment in time. Not everyone involved in search engines studied that program — the founders of both Yahoo! and Google, for instance, were graduate students of computer science. But the ideology of search is deeply rooted in the tradition of artificial intelligence. The goal of search, after all, is to extract from the brain a question, and use machines to provide a suitable answer.

At Yahoo!, the principles of artificial intelligence acted as a guide, but it would be aided by human perspective. Web crawlers, like Excite, would bear the burden of users’ queries and attempt to map websites programmatically to provide intelligent results.

However, it would be at Google that A.I. would become an explicitly stated goal. Steven Levy, who wrote the authoritative book on the history of Google,https://bookshop.org/books/in-the-plex-how-google-thinks-works-and-shapes-our-lives/9781416596585 In the Plex, describes Google as a “vehicle to realize the dream of artificial intelligence in augmenting humanity.” Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin would mention A.I. constantly. They even brought it up in their first press conference.

The difference would be a matter of approach. A tension that would come to dominate search for half a decade. The directory versus the crawler. The precision of human influence versus the completeness of machines. Surfers would be on one side and, on the other, spiders. Only one would survive.


The first spiders were crude. They felt around in the dark until they found the edge of the web. Then they returned home. Sometimes they gathered little bits of information about the websites they crawled. In the beginning, they gathered nothing at all.

One of the earliest web crawlers was developed at MIT by Matthew Gray. He used his World Wide Wanderer to go and find every website on the web. He wasn’t interested in the content of those sites, he merely wanted to count them up. In the summer of 1993, the first time he sent his crawler out, it got to 130. A year later, it would count 3,000. By 1995, that number grew to just shy of 30,000.

Like many of his peers in the search engine business, Gray was a disciple of information retrieval, a subset of computer science dedicated to knowledge sharing. In practice, information retrieval often involves a robot (also known as “spiders, crawlers, wanderers, and worms”) that crawls through digital documents and programmatically collects their contents. They are then parsed and stored in a centralized “index,” a shortcut that eliminates the need to go and crawl every document each time a search is made. Keeping that index up to date is a constant struggle, and robots need to be vigilant; going back out and re-crawling information on a near constant basis.

The World Wide Web posed a problematic puzzle. Rather than a predictable set of documents, a theoretically infinite number of websites could live on the web. These needed to be stored in a central index —which would somehow be kept up to date. And most importantly, the content of those sites needed to be connected to whatever somebody wanted to search, on the fly and in seconds. The challenge proved irresistible for some information retrieval researchers and academics. People like Jonathan Fletcher.

Fletcher, a former graduate and IT employee at the University of Stirling in Scotland, didn’t like how hard it was to find websites. At the time, people relied on manual lists, like the WWW Virtual Library maintained at CERN, or Mosaic’s list ofhttps://css-tricks.com/chapter-3-the-website/ “What’s New” that they updated daily. Fletcher wanted to handle it differently. “With a degree in computing science and an idea that there had to be a better way, I decided to write something that would go and look for me.”

He built Jumpstation in 1993, one of the earliest examples of a searchable index. His crawler would go out, following as many links as it could, and bring them back to a searchable, centralized database. Then it would start over. To solve for the issue of the web’s limitless vastness, Fletcher began by crawling only the titles and some metadata from each webpage. That kept his index relatively small, but but it also restricted search to the titles of pages.

Fletcher was not alone. After tinkering for several months, WebCrawler launched in April of 1994 out of the University of Washington. It holds the distinction of being the first search engine to crawl entire webpages and make them searchable. By November of that year, WebCrawler had served 1 million queries. At Carnegie Mellon, Michael Maudlin released his own spider-based search engine variant named for the Latin translation of wolf spider, Lycos. By 1995, it had indexed over a million webpages.

Search didn’t stay in universities long. Search engines had a unique utility for wayward web users on the hunt for the perfect site. Many users started their web sessions on a search engine. Netscape Navigator — the number one browser for new web users — connected users directly to search engines on their homepage. Getting listed by Netscape meant eyeballs. And eyeballs meant lucrative advertising deals.

In the second half of the 1990’s, a number of major players entered the search engine market. InfoSeek, initially a paid search option, was picked up by Disney, and soon became the default search engine for Netscape. AOL swooped in and purchased WebCrawler as part of a bold strategy to remain competitive on the web. Lycos was purchased by a venture capitalist who transformed it into a fully commercial enterprise.

Excite.com, another crawler started by Stanford alumni and a rising star in the search engine game for its depth and accuracy of results, was offered three million dollars not long after they launched. Its six co-founders lined up two couches, one across from another, and talked it out all night. They decided to stick with the product and bring in a new CEO. There would be many more millions to be made.

Excite in 1996

AltaVista, already a bit late to the game at the end of 1995, was created by the Digital Equipment Corporation. It was initially built to demonstrate the processing power of DEC computers. They quickly realized that their multithreaded crawler was able to index websites at a far quicker rate than their competitors. AltaVista would routinely deploy its crawlers — what one researcher referred to as a “brood of spiders” — to index thousands of sites at a time.

As a result, AltaVista was able to index virtually the entire web, nearly 10 million webpages at launch. By the following year, in 1996, they’d be indexing over 100 million. Because of the efficiency and performance of their machines, AltaVista was able to solve the scalability problem. Unlike some of their predecessors, they were able to make the full content of websites searchable, and they re-crawled sites every few weeks, a much more rapid pace than early competitors, who could take months to update their index. They set the standard for the depth and scope of web crawlers.

AltaVista in 1996

Never fully at rest, AltaVista used its search engine as a tool for innovation, experimenting with natural language processing, translation tools, and multi-lingual search. They were often ahead of their time, offering video and image search years before that would come to be an expected feature.

Those spiders that had not been swept up in the fervor couldn’t keep up. The universities hosting the first search engines were not at all pleased to see their internet connections bloated with traffic that wasn’t even related to the university. Most universities forced the first experimental search engines, like Jumpstation, to shut down. Except, that is, at Stanford.


Stanford’s history with technological innovation begins in the second half of the 20th century. The university was, at that point, teetering on the edge of becoming a second-tier institution. They had been losing ground and lucrative contracts to their competitors on the East Coast. Harvard and MIT became the sites of a groundswell of research in the wake of World War II. Stanford was being left behind.

In 1951, in a bid to reverse course on their downward trajectory, Dean of Engineering Frederick Terman brokered a deal with the city of Palo Alto. Stanford University agreed to annex 700 acres of land for a new industrial park that upstart companies in California could use. Stanford would get proximity to energetic innovation. The businesses that chose to move there would gain unique access to the Stanford student body for use on their product development. And the city of Palo Alto would get an influx of new taxes.

Hewlett-Packard was one of the first companies to move in. They ushered in a new era of computing-focused industry that would soon be known as Silicon Valley. The Stanford Research Park (later renamed Stanford Industrial Park) would eventually host Xerox during a time of rapid success and experimentation. Facebook would spend their nascent years there, growing into the behemoth it would become. At the center of it all was Stanford.

The research park transformed the university from one of stagnation to a site of entrepreneurship and cutting-edge technology. It put them at the heart of the tech industry. Stanford would embed itself — both logistically and financially — in the crucial technological developments of the second half of the 20ᵗʰ century, including the internet and the World Wide Web.

The potential success of Yahoo!, therefore, did not go unnoticed.


Jerry Yang and David Filo were not supposed to be working on Yahoo!. They were, however, supposed to be working together. They had met years ago, when David was Jerry’s teaching assistant in the Stanford computer science program. Yang eventually joined Filo as a graduate student and — after building a strong rapport — they soon found themselves working on a project together.

As they crammed themselves into a university trailer to begin working through their doctoral project, their relationship become what Yang has often described as perfectly balanced. “We’re both extremely tolerant of each other, but extremely critical of everything else. We’re both extremely stubborn, but very unstubborn when it comes to just understanding where we need to go. We give each other the space we need, but also help each other when we need it.”

In 1994, Filo showed Yang the web. In just a single moment, their focus shifted. They pushed their intended computer science thesis to the side, procrastinating on it by immersing themselves into the depths of the World Wide Web. Days turned into weeks which turned into months of surfing the web and trading links. The two eventually decided to combine their lists in a single place, a website hosted on their Stanford internet connection. It was called Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web, launched first to Stanford students in 1993 and then to the world in January of 1994. As catchy as that name wasn’t, the idea (and traffic) took off as friends shared with other friends.

Jerry and David’s Guide was a directory. Like the virtual library started at CERN, Yang and Filo organized websites into various categories that they made up on the fly. Some of these categories had strange or salacious names. Others were exactly what you might expect. When one category got too big, they split it apart. It was ad-hoc and clumsy, but not without charm. Through their classifications, Yang and Filo had given their site a personality. Their personality. In later years, Yang would commonly refer to this as the “voice of Yahoo!”

That voice became a guide — as the site’s original name suggested — for new users of the web. Their web crawling competitors were far more adept at the art of indexing millions of sites at a time. Yang and Filo’s site featured only a small subset of the web. But it was, at least by their estimation, the best of what the web had to offer. It was the cool web. It was also a web far easier to navigate than ever before.

Jerry Yang (left) and David Filo (right) in 1995 (Yahoo, via Flickr)

At the end of 1994, Yang and Filo renamed their site to Yahoo! (an awkward forced acronym for Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle). By then, they were getting almost a hundred thousand hits a day, sometimes temporarily taking down Stanford’s internet in the process. Most other universities would have closed down the site and told them to get back to work. But not Stanford. Stanford had spent decades preparing for on-campus businesses just like this one. They kept the server running, and encouraged its creators to stake their own path in Silicon Valley.

Throughout 1994, Netscape had included Yahoo! in their browser. There was a button in the toolbar labeled “Net Directory” that linked directly to Yahoo!. Marc Andreessen, believing in the site’s future, agreed to host their website on Netscape’s servers until they were able to get on steady ground.

Yahoo! homepage in Netscape Navigator, circa 1994

Yang and Filo rolled up their sleeves, and began talking to investors. It wouldn’t take long. By the spring of 1996, they would have a new CEO and hold their own record-setting IPO, outstripping even their gracious host, Netscape. By then, they became the most popular destination on the web by a wide margin.

In the meantime, the web had grown far beyond the grasp of two friends swapping links. They had managed to categorize tens of thousands of sites, but there were hundreds of thousands more to crawl. “I picture Jerry Yang as Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times,” one journalist described, “confronted with an endless stream of new work that is only increasing in speed.” The task of organizing sites would have to go to somebody else. Yang and Filo found help in a fellow Stanford alumni, someone they had met years ago while studying abroad together in Japan, Srinija Srinivasan, a graduate of the symbolic systems program. Many of the earliest hires at Yahoo! were given slightly absurd titles that always ended in “Yahoo.” Yang and Filo went by Chief Yahoos. Srinivasan’s job title was Ontological Yahoo.

That is a deliberate and precise job title, and it was not selected by accident. Ontology is the study of being, an attempt to break the world into its component parts. It has manifested in many traditions throughout history and the world, but it is most closely associated with the followers of Socrates, in the work of Plato, and later in the groundbreaking text Metaphysics, written by Aristotle. Ontology asks the question “What exists?”and uses it as a thought experiment to construct an ideology of being and essence.

As computers blinked into existence, ontology found a new meaning in the emerging field of artificial intelligence. It was adapted to fit the more formal hierarchical categorizations required for a machine to see the world; to think about the world. Ontology became a fundamental way to describe the way intelligent machines break things down into categories and share knowledge.

The dueling definitions of the ontology of metaphysics and computer science would have been familiar to Srinija Srinivasan from her time at Stanford. The combination of philosophy and artificial intelligence in her studies gave her a unique perspective on hierarchical classifications. It was this experience that she brought to her first job after college at the Cyc Project, an artificial intelligence research lab with a bold project: to teach a computer common sense.

Srinija Srinivasan (Getty Images/James D. Wilson)

At Yahoo!, her task was no less bold. When someone looked for something on the site, they didn’t want back a random list of relevant results. They wanted the result they were actually thinking about, but didn’t quite know how to describe. Yahoo! had to — in a manner of seconds — figure out what its users really wanted. Much like her work in artificial intelligence, Srinivasan needed to teach Yahoo! how to think about a query and infer the right results.

To do that, she would need to expand the voice of Yahoo! to thousands of more websites in dozens of categories and sub-categories without losing the point of view established by Jerry and David. She would need to scale that perspective. “This is not a perfunctory file-keeping exercise. This is defining the nature of being,” she once said of her project. “Categories and classifications are the basis for each of our worldviews.”

At a steady pace, she mapped an ontology of human experience onto the site. She began breaking up the makeshift categories she inherited from the site’s creators, re-constituting them into more concrete and findable indexes. She created new categories and destroyed old ones. She sub-divided existing subjects into new, more precise ones. She began cross-linking results so that they could live within multiple categories. Within a few months she had overhauled the site with a fresh hierarchy.

That hierarchical ontology, however, was merely a guideline. The strength of Yahoo!’s expansion lay in the 50 or so content managers she had hired in the meantime. They were known as surfers. Their job was to surf the web — and organize it.

Each surfer was coached in the methodology of Yahoo! but were left with a surprising amount of editorial freedom. They cultivated the directory with their own interests, meticulously deliberating over websites and where they belong. Each decision could be strenuous, and there were missteps and incorrectly categorized items along the way. But by allowing individual personality to dictate hierarchal choices, Yahoo! retained its voice.

They gathered as many sites as they could, adding hundreds each day. Yahoo! surfers did not reveal everything on the web to their site’s visitors. They showed them what was cool. And that meant everything to users grasping for the very first time what the web could do.


At the end of 1995, the Yahoo! staff was watching their traffic closely. Huddled around consoles, employees would check their logs again and again, looking for a drop in visitors. Yahoo! had been the destination for the “Internet Directory” button on Netscape for years. It had been the source of their growth and traffic. Netscape had made the decision, at the last minute (and seemingly at random), to drop Yahoo!, replacing them with the new kids on the block, Excite.com. Best case scenario: a manageable drop. Worst case: the demise of Yahoo!.

But the drop never came. A day went by, and then another. And then a week. And then a few weeks. And Yahoo! remained the most popular website. Tim Brady, one of Yahoo!’s first employees, describes the moment with earnest surprise. “It was like the floor was pulled out in a matter of two days, and we were still standing. We were looking around, waiting for things to collapse in a lot of ways. And we were just like, I guess we’re on our own now.”

Netscape wouldn’t keep their directory button exclusive for long. By 1996, they would begin allowing other search engines to be listed on their browser’s “search” feature. A user could click a button and a drop-down of options would appear, for a fee. Yahoo! bought themselves back in to the drop-down. They were joined by four other search engines, Lycos, InfoSeek, Excite, and AltaVista.

By that time, Yahoo! was the unrivaled leader. It had transformed its first mover advantage into a new strategy, one bolstered by a successful IPO and an influx of new investment. Yahoo! wanted to be much more than a simple search engine. Their site’s transformation would eventually be called a portal. It was a central location for every possible need on the web. Through a number of product expansions and aggressive acquisitions, Yahoo! released a new suite of branded digital products. Need to send an email? Try Yahoo! Mail. Looking to create website? There’s Yahoo! Geocities. Want to track your schedule? Use Yahoo! Calendar. And on and on the list went.

Yahoo! in 1996

Competitors rushed the fill the vacuum of the #2 slot. In April of 1996, Yahoo!, Lycos and Excite all went public to soaring stock prices. Infoseek had their initial offering only a few months later. Big deals collided with bold blueprints for the future. Excite began positioning itself as a more vibrant alternative to Yahoo! with more accurate search results from a larger slice of the web. Lycos, meanwhile, all but abounded the search engine that had brought them initial success to chase after the portal-based game plan that had been a windfall for Yahoo!.

The media dubbed the competition the “portal wars,” a fleeting moment in web history when millions of dollars poured into a single strategy. To be the biggest, best, centralized portal for web surfers. Any service that offered users a destination on the web was thrown into the arena. Nothing short of the future of the web (and a billion dollar advertising industry) was at stake.

In some ways, though, the portal wars were over before they started. When Excite announced a gigantic merger with @Home, an Internet Service Provider, to combine their services, not everyone thought it was a wise move. “AOL and Yahoo! were already in the lead,” one investor and cable industry veteran noted, “and there was no room for a number three portal.” AOL had just enough muscle and influence to elbow their way into the #2 slot, nipping at the heels of Yahoo!. Everyone else would have to go toe-to-toe with Goliath. None were ever able to pull it off.

Battling their way to market dominance, most search engines had simply lost track of search. Buried somewhere next to your email and stock ticker and sports feed was, in most cases, a second rate search engine you could use to find things — only not often and not well. That’s is why it was so refreshing when another search engine out of Stanford launched with just a single search box and two buttons, its bright and multicolored logo plastered across the top.


A few short years after it launched, Google was on the shortlist of most popular sites. In an interview with PBS Newshour in 2002, co-founder Larry Page described their long-term vision. “And, actually, the ultimate search engine, which would understand, you know, exactly what you wanted when you typed in a query, and it would give you the exact right thing back, in computer science we call that artificial intelligence.”

Google could have started anywhere. It could have started with anything. One employee recalls an early conversation with the site’s founders where he was told “we are not really interested in search. We are making an A.I.” Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the creators of Google, were not trying to create the web’s greatest search engine. They were trying to create the web’s most intelligent website. Search was only their most logical starting point.

Imprecise and clumsy, the spider-based search engines of 1996 faced an uphill battle. AltaVista had proved that the entirety of the web, tens of millions of webpages, could be indexed. But unless you knew your way around a few boolean logic commands, it was hard to get the computer to return the right results. The robots were not yet ready to infer, in Page’s words, “exactly what you wanted.”

Yahoo! had filled in these cracks of technology with their surfers. The surfers were able to course-correct the computers, designing their directory piece by piece rather than relying on an algorithm. Yahoo! became an arbiter of a certain kind of online chic; tastemakers reimagined for the information age. The surfers of Yahoo! set trends that would last for years. Your site would live or die by their hand. Machines couldn’t do that work on their own. If you wanted your machines to be intelligent, you needed people to guide them.

Page and Brin disagreed. They believed that computers could handle the problem just fine. And they aimed to prove it.

That unflappable confidence would come to define Google far more than their “don’t be evil” motto. In the beginning, their laser-focus on designing a different future for the web would leave them blind to the day-to-day grind of the present. On not one, but two occasions, checks made out to the company for hundreds of thousands of dollars were left in desk drawers or car trunks until somebody finally made the time to deposit them. And they often did things different. Google’s offices, for instances, were built to simulate a college dorm, an environment the founders felt most conducive to big ideas.

Google would eventually build a literal empire on top of a sophisticated, world-class infrastructure of their own design, fueled by the most elaborate and complex (and arguably invasive) advertising mechanism ever built. There are few companies that loom as large as Google. This one, like others, started at Stanford.


Even among the most renowned artificial intelligence experts, Terry Winograd, a computer scientist and Stanford professor, stands out in the crowd. He was also Larry Page’s advisor and mentor when he was a graduate student in the computer science department. Winograd has often recalled the unorthodox and unique proposals he would receive from Page for his thesis project, some of which involved “space tethers or solar kites.” “It was science fiction more than computer science,” he would later remark.

But for all of his fanciful flights of imagination, Page always returned to the World Wide Web. He found its hyperlink structure mesmerizing. Its one-way links — a crucial ingredient in the web’s success — had led to a colossal proliferation of new websites. In 1996, when Page first began looking at the web, there were tens of thousands of sites being added every week. The master stroke of the web was to enable links that only traveled in one direction. That allowed the web to be decentralized, but without a central database tracking links, it was nearly impossible to collect a list of all of the sites that linked to a particular webpage. Page wanted to build a graph of who was linking to who; an index he could use to cross-reference related websites.

Page understood that the hyperlink was a digital analog to academic citations. A key indicator of the value of a particular academic paper is the amount of times it has been cited. If a paper is cited often (by other high quality papers), it is easier to vouch for its reliability. The web works the same way. The more often your site is linked to (what’s known as a backlink), the more dependable and accurate it is likely to be.

Theoretically, you can determine the value of a website by adding up all of the other websites that link to it. That’s only one layer though. If 100 sites link back to you, but each of them has only ever been linked to one time, that’s far less valuable than if five sites that each have been linked to 100 times link back to you. So it’s not simply how many links you have, but the quality of those links. If you take both of those dimensions and aggregate sites using backlinks as a criteria, you can very quickly start to assemble a list of sites ordered by quality.

John Battelle describes the technical challenge facing Page in his own retelling of the Google story, The Search.

Page realized that a raw count of links to a page would be a useful guide to that page’s rank. He also saw that each link needed its own ranking, based on the link count of its originating page. But such an approach creates a difficult and recursive mathematical challenge — you not only have to count a particular page’s links, you also have to count the links attached to the links. The math gets complicated rather quickly.

Fortunately, Page already knew a math prodigy. Sergey Brin had proven his brilliance to the world a number of times before he began a doctoral program in the Stanford computer science department. Brin and Page had crossed paths on several occasions, a relationship that began on rocky ground but grew towards mutual respect. The mathematical puzzle at the center of Page’s idea was far too enticing for Brin to pass up.

He got to work on a solution. “Basically we convert the entire Web into a big equation, with several hundred million variables,” he would later explain, “which are the page ranks of all the Web pages, and billions of terms, which are the links. And we’re able to solve that equation.” Scott Hassan, the seldom talked about third co-founder of Google who developed their first web crawler, summed it up a bit more concisely, describing Google’s algorithm as an attempt to “surf the web backward!”

The result was PageRank — as in Larry Page, not webpage. Brin, Page, and Hassan developed an algorithm that could trace backlinks of a site to determine the quality of a particular webpage. The higher value of a site’s backlinks, the higher up the rankings it climbed. They had discovered what so many others had missed. If you trained a machine on the right source — backlinks — you could get remarkable results.

It was only after that that they began matching their rankings to search queries when they realized PageRank fit best in a search engine. They called their search engine Google. It was launched on Stanford’s internet connection in August of 1996.

Google in 1998

Google solved the relevancy problem that had plagued online search since its earliest days. Crawlers like Lycos, AltaVista and Excite were able to provide a list of webpages that matched a particular search. They just weren’t able to sort them right, so you had to go digging to find the result you wanted. Google’s rankings were immediately relevant. The first page of your search usually had what you needed. They were so confident in their results they added an “I’m Feeling Lucky” button which took users directly to the first result for their search.

Google’s growth in their early days was not unlike Yahoo!’s in theirs. They spread through word of mouth, from friends to friends of friends. By 1997, they had grown big enough to put a strain on the Stanford network, something Yang and Filo had done only a couple of years earlier. Stanford once again recognized possibility. It did not push Google off their servers. Instead, Stanford’s advisors pushed Page and Brin in a commercial direction.

Initially, the founders sought to sell or license their algorithm to other search engines. They took meetings with Yahoo!, Infoseek and Excite. No one could see the value. They were focused on portals. In a move that would soon sound absurd, they each passed up the opportunity to buy Google for a million dollars or less, and Page and Brin could not find a partner that recognized their vision.

One Stanford faculty member was able to connect them with a few investors, including Jeff Bezos and David Cheriton (which got them those first few checks that sat in a desk drawer for weeks). They formally incorporated in September of 1998, moving into a friend’s garage, bringing a few early employees along, including symbolics systems alumni Marissa Mayer.

Larry Page (left) and Sergey Brin (right) started Google in a friend’s garage.

Even backed by a million dollar investment, the Google founders maintained a philosophy of frugality, simplicity, and swiftness. Despite occasional urging from their investors, they resisted the portal strategy and remained focused on search. They continued tweaking their algorithm and working on the accuracy of their results. They focused on their machines. They wanted to take the words that someone searched for and turn them into something actually meaningful. If you weren’t able to find the thing you were looking for in the top three results, Google had failed.

Google was followed by a cloud of hype and positive buzz in the press. Writing in Newsweek, Steven Levy described Google as a “high-tech version of the Oracle of Delphi, positioning everyone a mouse click away from the answers to the most arcane questions — and delivering simple answers so efficiently that the process becomes addictive.” It was around this time that “googling” — a verb form of the site synonymous with search — entered the common vernacular. The portal wars were still waging, but Google was poking its head up as a calm, precise alternative to the noise.

At the end of 1998, they were serving up ten thousand searches a day. A year later, that would jump to seven million a day. But quietly, behind the scenes, they began assembling the pieces of an empire.

As the web grew, technologists and journalists predicted the end of Google; they would never be able to keep up. But they did, outlasting a dying roster of competitors. In 2001, Excite went bankrupt, Lycos closed down, and Disney suspended Infoseek. Google climbed up and replaced them. It wouldn’t be until 2006 that Google would finally overtake Yahoo! as the number one website. But by then, the company would transform into something else entirely.

After securing another round of investment in 1999, Google moved into their new headquarters and brought on an army of new employees. The list of fresh recruits included former engineers at AltaVista, and leading artificial intelligence expert Peter Norving. Google put an unprecedented focus on advancements in technology. Better servers. Faster spiders. Bigger indexes. The engineers inside Google invented a web infrastructure that had, up to that point, been only theoretical.

They trained their machines on new things, and new products. But regardless of the application, translation or email or pay-per-click advertising, they rested on the same premise. Machines can augment and re-imagine human intelligence, and they can do it at limitless scale. Google took the value proposition of artificial intelligence and brought it into the mainstream.

In 2001, Page and Brin brought in Silicon Valley veteran Eric Schmidt to run things as their CEO, a role he would occupy for a decade. He would oversee the company during its time of greatest growth and innovation. Google employee #4 Heather Cairns recalls his first days on the job. “He did this sort of public address with the company and he said, ‘I want you to know who your real competition is.’ He said, ‘It’s Microsoft.’ And everyone went, What?

Bill Gates would later say, “In the search engine business, Google blew away the early innovators, just blew them away.” There would come a time when Google and Microsoft would come face to face. Eric Schmidt was correct about where Google was going. But it would take years for Microsoft to recognize Google as a threat. In the second half of the 1990’s, they were too busy looking in their rearview mirror at another Silicon Valley company upstart that had swept the digital world. Microsoft’s coming war with Netscape would subsume the web for over half a decade.


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Chapter 3: The Website

Previously in web history…

Berners-Lee, motivated by his own curiosity, creates the World Wide Web at CERN. He releases its technologies to the public domain, which enables the development of several new browsers for every operating system. Mosaic proves to the most popular, and its introduction of color images directly inline in content changes fundamentally the way people think about the web.

The very first website was about the web. That kind of thing is not all that unusual. The first email sent to another person was about email As technology progresses, we may have lost a bit of theatrics. The first telegraph, for instance, read “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT.” However, in most cases, telecommunication firsts follow this meta template.

Anyway, the first website was instructive for a reason. If you were a brand new web user, it is the first thing you would see. If that page didn’t manage to convince you the web was worth sinking a bit of time into, then that was the end of the story. You’d go and check out Gopher instead. So, as a starting point for new web users, the first website was critical.

The URL was info.cern.ch. Its existence on the CERN server should be of no surprise. The first website was created by the web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, while he was still working there.

It was a simple page. A list of headers and links — to download web browser code, find out more info about the web, and get all of the technical details — was divided only by short descriptions o f each section. One link brought you to a list of websites. Berners-Lee collected a list of links that were sent to him, or plucked them from mailing lists whenever he found them. Every time he found a link he added it to the CERN website, loosely organized by category. It was a short list. In July of 1993, there were still only about 130 websites in the world.

(A few years back, some enterprising folks took it upon themselves to re-create the first website at CERN. So you can go and browse it now, just as it was then.)

As far as websites go, it was noting spectacular. The language was plain enough, though a bit technical. The instructions were clear, as long as you had some background in programming or computers. The web before the web was difficult to explain. The primary goal of the website was to prompt a bit of exploration from those who visited it. By that measure, it was successful.

But Berners-Lee never meant for the CERN website to be the most important page on the web. It was just there to serve as an example for others to recreate in their own image.

Tim Berners-Lee also created the first browser. It gave users the ability to both read — and crucially to publish — websites. In his conception, each consumer of the web would have their own personal homepage. The homepage could be anything. For most people, he thought, it would likely be a private place to store personal bookmarks or jot down notes. Others might chose to publish their site for the public, using it as an opportunity to introduce themselves, or explore some passion (similar to what services like Geocities would offer later). Berners-Lee imagined that when you opened your browser, any browser, your own homepage would be the first thing that you saw.

By the time other browsers hit the market, the publishing capabilities faded away. People were left to simply surf, and not to author, the web. For the earliest of web users, the CERN website remained a popular destination. With usage still growing, it was the best place to find a concise list of websites. But if the web was going to succeed — truly succeed — it was going to have to be more than links. The web was going to need to find its utility.

Fortunately Berners-Lee had created the URL. Anyone could create a website. Heck, he’d even post a link to it.


“Louise saw the web as a godsend,” Berners-Lee wrote in his personal retelling of the web’s history. The Louise in question is Louise Addis, librarian at SLAC for over 40 years before she retired in the mid-90s. Along with Paul Kunz, Tony Johnson, and several others, she helped create the first web server in the United States and one of the most influential websites of the early web. She would later put it a bit differently. “The Web was a revolution!” That may be true, but it wouldn’t have been a revolution if not for what she helped create.

As we found in the first chapter, Berners-Lee’s curiosity led him on a path to set information free. Louise Addis was also curious. Her curiosity led her to try to connect people to that information. She studied International Relations at Stanford University only to bounce around at a few jobs and land herself back at her alma mater working for a secret research lab known simply as Project M in 1960. Though she had no experience in the field, she worked there as a librarian, eventually moving up to head librarian. After a couple of years, the lab would go public and become formally known as the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC.

SLAC’s primary mission was to advance the research of American scientists in the wake of World War II. It houses a two-mile long linear accelerator, the longest in the world. SLAC recruits scientists across a broad set of fields, but its primary focus is particle physics. It has produced a number of Nobel prizes and has shared groundbreaking new discoveries across the world.

Research is at the center of the work done at SLAC. While she was there, Addis was relentless in her quest to connect her peers with research. When she learned that there wasn’t a good system for keeping track of the multitude of authors attributed to particle physics papers (some had over 1,000 authors on a single paper), she picked up a bit of programming with no formal training. “If I needed to know something, I asked someone to show me how to do a particular task. Then I went back to the Library and tried it on my own.”

A couple of years after she discovered the web, Addis would start the first unofficial tech support group for web newcomers known as the WWW Wizards. The Wizards worked — mostly in their spare time — to help new web users come online. They were a profoundly important resource for the early web. Addis continually made it her mission to help people find the information they needed.

She used her ad-hoc programming experience in the late 1960’s to create the SPIRES-HEP database, a digital library with hundreds of thousands of bibliographic records for particle physics papers. It is still in use today, though it’s newest iteration is called INSPIRE-HEP. The SPIRES-HEP database was a foundational resource. If you were a particle physics researcher anywhere in the world, you would be accessing it frequently. It ran on an IBM mainframe that looked like this:

An IBM mainframe console from the 70's

The mainframe used a very specific programming language also developed by IBM, which has since gone into disuse. Locked inside was a very well organized bibliography of research papers. Accessing it was another thing entirely. There were a few ways to do that.

The first required a bit of programming knowledge. If you were savvy enough, you could log directly into the SPIRES-HEP database remotely and, using the database-specific SPIRES query language, pull the records you needed directly from the mainframe. This was the quickest option, but required the most technical know-how and a healthy dose of tenacity. Let’s consider this method the high bar.

The middle bar was an interface built by SLAC researcher Paul Kunz that let you email the server to pull out the records you needed. You still needed to know the SPIRES query language, but it solved the remote access part of the equation.

The low bar was to email or message a librarian at SLAC so they could pull the record for you and send it back. The easiest bar to clear, this was the method that most people used. Which meant that the most widely accessed particle physics database in the world was beset by a bottleneck of librarians at SLAC who needed to ferry bibliographic records back and forth from researchers.

The SPIRES-HEP database was invaluable, but widespread access remained its largest obstacle.


For a second time in the web’s history, the NeXT computer played an important role in its fate. For a computer that was short-lived, and largely unheard of, it is a key piece of the web’s history.

Like Tim Berners-Lee, SLAC physicist Paul Kunz, creator of the SPIRES-HEP instant messaging and email service, used a NeXT computer. When Berners-Lee called him into his office on one of his visits, Berners-Lee invited him into his office. The only reason Kunz agreed to go was to see how somebody else was using a NeXT computer. While he was there, Berners-Lee showed Kunz the web. And then Kunz went back to SLAC and showed the web to Addis.

Kunz and Addis were both enthusiastic purveyors of research at SLAC. They each played their part in advancing information discovery. When Kunz told Addis about the web, they both had the same idea about what to do with it. SLAC was going to need a website. Kunz built a web server at Stanford — the first in the United States. Addis, meanwhile, wrangled a few colleagues to help her build the SLAC website. The site launched on December 12, 1991, a year after Berners-Lee first published his own website at CERN.

Most of the programmers and researchers that began tinkering on the web in the early days were drawn by a nerdy fascination. They liked to play around with browsers, mess around with some code. The website was, in some cases, the mere after-effect of a technological experiment. That wasn’t the case for Addis. The draw of the web wasn’t its technology. It was what it enabled her to do.

The SLAC website started out with two links. The first one let you search through a list of phone numbers at SLAC. That link wasn’t all that interesting. (But it was a nice nod to the web’s origin. The most practical early use of the web was as an Internet-enabled phonebook at CERN.) The second link was far more interesting. It was labeled “HEP.” Clicking on it brought you to a simple page with a single text field. Type a query into that field, click Enter and you got live results of records directly from the SPIRES-HEP database. And that was the SLAC website. Its primary purpose was to act as an interface in front of the SPIRES-HEP database and pull down queried results.

When Berners-Lee demoed the SLAC website a couple of months later at a conference, it was met with wild applause, practically a standing ovation.

The importance was obviously not lost on that audience. No longer would researchers be forced to wrestle with complicated programming languages, or emails to SLAC librarians. The SLAC website took the low bar of access for the SPIRES-HEP database and dropped it all the way to the floor. It made searching the database easy (and within a couple of years, it would even add links to downloadable PDFs).

The SLAC website, nothing more than a searchable bibliography, was the beginning of something on the web. Physicists began using it, and it rebounded from one research lab to the next. The web’s first micro-explosion happened the day Berners-Lee demoed the site. It began reverberating around the physics community, and then outside of it.

SLAC was the website that showed what the would could do. GNN was going to be the first that made the web look good doing it.


Global Network Navigator was going to be exciting. A bold experiment on and with the web. The web was a wall of research notes and scientific diagrams; plain black text on stark white backgrounds as far as the eye could see. GNN would change that. It would be fun. Lively. Interactive.

That was the pitch made to designer Jennifer Robbins by O’Reilly co-founder Dale Dougherty in 1993. Robbins’ mind immediately jumped to the possibilities of this incredible, new, digital medium.

She met with another O’Reilly employee, Rob Raisch. A couple of years after that pitch, Raisch would propose one of the first examples of a stylesheet. At the time, he was just the person at the company who happened to know the most about the web, which had only recently cracked a hundred total sites. When Robbins walked into his office, the first thing he said to her was: “You know, you probably can’t do what you want.” He had a point. The language of the web was limiting. But the GNN team was going to find a way around that.

GNN was the brainchild of Dale Dougherty. By the early 90s, Dougherty had become a minor celebrity for experiments just like this one. From the early days of O’Reilly media, the book publisher he co-founded, he was always cooking up some project or another.

Wherever technology is going, Dougherty has a knack for being there first. At one conference early on in O’Reilly’s history, he sold self-printed copies of a Unix manual for $ 5 apiece just before Unix exploded on the scene. After spending decades in book publishing, he’s recently turned his attention to the maker culture. He has been called a godfather of the Maker movement.

That was no less true for the web. He became one of the web’s earliest adopters and its most prolific early champion. He brought together Tim Beners-Lee and the developers of NCSA Mosaic, including Marc Andreessen, for the first time in a meeting in Cambridge. That meeting would eventually lead to the creation of the W3C. He’d be responsible for early experiments with web advertising, basically on the first day advertising was allowed. He would later coin the term Web 2.0, in the wake of transformation after the dot-com boom. Dougherty loved the web.

But staring at the web for the first time in the early 90s, he didn’t exactly know what to do with it. His first thought was to put a book on the web. After all, O’Reilly had a gigantic back catalog, and the web was mostly text. But Dougherty knew that the web’s greatest asset was the hyperlink. He needed a book that could act as a springboard to bring people to different parts of the web. He found it in the newly-published bestseller by author Ed Krol, The Whole Internet User’s Guide and Catalog. The book was a guided tour through the technologies of the Internet. It had a paragraph on the web. Not exactly a lot, but enough for Dougherty to make the connection.

Dougherty had recruited Pei-Yuan Wei, creator of the popular ViolaWWW browser to make an earlier version of an interactive Internet guide. But he pulled a together a production team — led by managing editor Gina Blaber — of writers, designers, programmers, and sales staff. They launched GNN, the web’s first true commercial website, in early 1993.

GNN was created before any other commercial websites, before blogs, and online magazines. Digital publishing was something new altogether. As a result, GNN didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. It operated somewhere between a portal and a magazine. Navigating the site was an exercise in tumbling down one rabbit hole after another.

In one section, the site included the Whole Internet Catalog repurposed and ported to the web. Contained within were pages upon pages of best-of lists; collections of popular websites sorted into categories like finance, literature and cooking.

Another section, labeled GNN Magazine, jumped to a different group of sortable webpages known as metacenters. These were, in the website’s own description, “special-interest magazines that gather together the best Internet resources on topics such as travel, music, education, and computers. Each metacenter contains articles, columns, reference guides, and discussion groups.” Though conceptually similar to modern day media portals, the nickname “metacenter” never truly caught on. The site’s content and design was produced and maintained by the GNN staff. Not to be outdone by their print predecessors, GNN magazine contained interviews, features, biographies, and explainers. One hyperlink after another.

Over time, GNN would expand to affiliated publications. When the Mosaic team got too busy working on the web’s most popular browser, they handed off their browser homepage to the GNN team. The page was called What’s New, and it featured the most interesting links around the web for the day. The GNN seized the opportunity to expand their platform even further.

Explaining what GNN was to someone who had never heard of the web, let alone a website, was an onerous task. Blaber explained GNN as giving “users a way to navigate through the information highway by providing insightful editorial content, easy point-and-click commands, and direct electronic links to information resources.” That’s a meaningful description of the site. It was a way into the web, one that wasn’t as fractured or unorganized as jumping in blind. It was also, however, the kind of thing you needed to see to understand.

And it was something to see. Years before stylesheets and armed with nothing but a handful of HTML tags, the GNN team set about creating the most ambitious project with the web medium yet. Browsers had only just begun allowing inline graphics, and GNN took full advantage. The homepage in particular featured big colorful graphics, including the hot air balloon that would endure for years as the GNN logo. They laid out their pages meticulously — most pages had a unique design. They used images as headers to break up the page. Most pages featured large graphics, and colored text and backgrounds. Wherever the envelope was, they’d push it a little further.

The result: a brand new kind of interactive experience. The web was a sea of plain websites with no design mostly coming from research institutions and colleges. Before Mosaic, bold graphics and colors weren’t even possible. And even after Mosaic’s release, the web was mostly filled with dense websites of scrolling text with nothing more than scientific diagrams to break it up, or sparse websites with a link, an email and a phone number. Most sites had nothing in the way of hierarchy or interactivity. Content was difficult to follow unless it was exactly what you were looking for. There was a ton of information on the web, but no one had thought to organize it to any meaningful degree. Imagine seeing all of that, day after day, and then one day you click a link and come to this:

Screenshot of what GNN looked like when it launched in 1993, with its famous hot air balloon logo

It looks dated now, but a splash page with bold colors and big graphics, organized into sections and layered with interesting content… that was something to see.

The GNN team was creating the rules of web design, a field that had yet to be invented. In the first few years of the web, there were some experiments. The Vatican had scanned a number of materials from its archives and put them on a website. The Exploratorium took that one step further, creating the first online museum, with downloadable sounds and pictures. But they were still very much constrained by the simplicity of the web experience. Click this link, download this file, and that was it. GNN began to take things further. Dale Dougherty recalls that their goal was to “shift from the Internet as command line retrieval to the internet as this more digital interface… like a book.” A perfectly reasonable goal for a book publisher but a tall order for the web.

To accomplish their goal, GNN’s staff used the rules of graphic design as a roadmap (as philosopher Marshall McLuhan once said, “the content of any medium is always another medium”). But the team was also writing a brand new rulebook, on the fly, as they went. There were open questions about how to handle web graphics, new patterns for designing user interfaces, and best practices for writing HTML. Once the team closed one loop, they moved on to the next one. It was as if they writing the manual for flying a rocketship — while strapped to the wings and hurtling towards space.

As browsers got better, GNN evolved to take advantage of the latest design possibilities. They began to use image maps to make more complex navigation. They added font tags and frames. GNN was also the first site on the web with a sponsored link, and even that was careful and considered. Before the popup would plague our browsing experience, GNN created simple, unobtrusive, informational adverts inserted in between their other listings.

GNN provided a template for the commercial web. As soon as they launched, dozens of copycats quickly followed. Many adopted a similar style and tone. Within a few years, web portals and online magazines would become so common they were considered trite and uninteresting. But very few sites that followed it had the lasting impact GNN did on a new generation of digital designers.


Ranjit Bhatnagar has an offbeat sort of humor. He’s a philosopher and a musician. He’s smart. He’s a fan of the weird and the banal. He’s anti-consumerist, or at the very least, opposed to consumerist culture. I won’t go as far as to say he’s pedantic, but he certainly revels in the most minute of details. He enjoys lively debates and engaged discourse. He’s fascinated by dreams, and once had a dream where he was flying through the air with his mother taking in the sights.

I’ve never met Bhatnagar. I know all of this because I read it on his website. Anyone can. And his website started with lunch.

Bhatnagar’s website was called Ranjit’s HTTP Playground. Playground describes it rather well; hyperlinks are scattered across the homepage like so many children’s toys. One link takes you to a half-finished web experiment. Another takes you to a list of his favorite bookmarks arranged by category. Yet another might contain a rant about the web, or a long-winded tribute to Kinder eggs. If you’re in the mood for a debate you can post your own thoughts to a page devoted to the single question: Are nuts wood? There’s still no consensus on that one.

Browsing Ranjit’s HTTP Playgroundis like peeling back the layers of Bhatnagar’s brain. He added new entries to his site pretty regularly, never more than a sentence or two, arranged in a series of dated bullet points. Pages were laid out on garish backgrounds, scalding bright green on jet black, or surrounded by a dizzying dance of animated GIFs. Each page was littered with links to more pages, seemingly at random. Every time you think you’ve reached the end of a thread, there’s another link to click. And every once in a while, you’ll find yourself back on the homepage wondering how you got there and how much time had passed in the meantime. This was the magic of the early web.

Bhatnagar first published his website in late 1993, just a few months after the GNN website went up. The very first thing Bhatnagar posted to his website was what he ordered for lunch every day. It was arranged in reverse chronological order, his most recent lunch order right at the top.

SLAC captured the utility of the web. GNN realized its popular appeal. Bhatnagar, and others like him, made the web personal.

Claudio Pinhanez began adding daily entries to the MIT Media Lab website in 1994. He posted movie and book reviews, personal musings, and shared his favorite links. He followed the same format as Bhatnagar’s Lunch Server. Entries were arranged on the page in reverse chronological order. Each entry was short and to the point — no longer than a sentence or two. This movie was good. This meal was bad. Isn’t it interesting that… and so on.

In early 1995, Carolyn Burke began posting daily entries to her website in one of the earliest examples of an online diary. Each one was a small slice from her life. The posts were longer than the short-burst of Pinhanez and Bhatnagar. Burke took her time with narrative anecdotes and meandering asides. She was loquacious and insightful. Her writing was conversational, and she promised readers that she would be honest. “I notice now that I have held back in being frank. My academic analysis skills come out, and I write with them things that I’ve known for a long time,” she wrote in an entry from the first few months, “But this is therapy for me… honesty and freedom therapy. Wow, that’s a loaded word. freedom.

Perhaps no site was more honest, or more free as Burke puts it, than Links from the Underground. Its creator, Swarthmore undergraduate Justin Hall, had transformed inviting others into his life into an art form. What began as a simple link dump quickly transformed into a network of short stories and poems, diary entries, and personal details from his own life. The layout of the site matched that of Bhatnagar, scattered and unorganized. But his tone was closer to Burke’s, long and deeply, deeply personal. Just about every day, Hall would post to his website. It was his daily inner monologue made public.

Sometimes, he would cross a line. If you were a friend of Justin’s, he might share a secret that you told him in confidence, or disparage you on a fully public post. But he also shared the most intimate details from his own life, from dorm room drama to his greatest fears and inadequacies. He told stories from his troubled past, and publicly tried to come to terms with an alcoholic father. His good humor was often tinged with tragedy. He was clearly working through something emotional and personally profound, and he was using the web to do it out in the open.

But for Hall, this was all in the service of something far greater than himself. Describing the web to newcomers in a documentary about his experience on the web, Hall’s primary message was about its ability to create — not to tear down — connections.

What’s so great about the web is I was able to go out there and talk about what I care about, what I feel strongly about and people responded to it. Because every high school’s got a poet, whether it’s a rich high school or a poor high school, you know, they got somebody that’s in to writing, that’s in to getting people to tell their stories. You give them access to this technology and all of a sudden they’re telling stories to people in Israel, to people in Japan, to people in their own town that they never would have been able to talk to. And that’s, you know, that’s a revolution.

There’s that word again. Revolution. Though coming at the web from very different places, Addis and Hall agreed on at least one thing. I would venture to guess that they agreed on a whole lot more.

Justin Hall became a presence on the web not soon forgotten by those that came across him. He’s had two documentaries made about him (one of which he made himself). He’s appeared on talk shows. He’s toured the country. He’s had very public mental breakdowns. But he believed deeply that the web meant nothing at all unless it was a place for people to share their own stories.

When Tim Berners-Lee first imagined the web, he believed that everybody would have their own homepage. He designed his first browser with authoring capabilities for just that reason. That dream never came true. But Hall and Burke and Bhatnagar channeled a similar idea when they decided to make the web personal. They created their own homepages, even if it meant having to spend a few hours, or a few weeks, learning HTML.

Within a couple of years, the web filled up with these homepages. There were some notable breakthrough websites, like when David Farley began posting daily webcomics to Doctor Fun or VJ Adam Curry co-opted the MTV website to post his own personal brand of music entertainment. There were extreme examples. In 1996, Jennifer Ringley stuck a webcam in her room and beamed images every few seconds, so anyone could watch her entire life in real time. She called it Jennicam, a name that would ultimately lead to the moniker cam girl. Ringley appeared on talk shows and became an overnight sensation for her strange website that let others peer directly into her world.

But mostly, homepages acted as a creative outlet — short biographies, photo albums of families and pets, short stories, status updates. There were a lot of diaries. People posted their art, their “hot takes” and their deepest secrets and greatest passions. There were fan pages dedicated to discontinued television shows and boy bands. A dizzying array of style and personality with no purpose other than to simply exist.

Then came the links. At the bottom of a homepage: a list of links to other homepages. Scattered in diary posts, links to other websites. In one entry, Hall might post a link to Bhatnagar’s site, musing about the influence it had on his own website. Bhatnagar’s own site had his own chaotic list of his favorites. Eventually, so did Burke’s. Half the fun of a homepage was obsessing over which others to share.

As the web turned on a moment of connection, the process of discovery became its greatest asset. The fantastic intrigue of clicking on a link and being transported into the world and mind of another person was — in the end — the defining feature of the web. There would be plenty of opportunities to use the web to find something you want or need. The lesson of the homepage is that what people really wanted to find was each other. The web does that better than any technology that has come before it.


At the end of 1993, there were just over 600 websites. One year later, at the end of 1994, there were over 10,000. They no longer fit on a single page on the CERN website maintained by the web’s creator.

The personal website would become the cornerstone of the web. The web would be filled with more applications, like SLAC. And more businesses, like GNN. But it would mostly be filled with people. When the web’s next wave came crashing down, it would become truly social.


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Chapter 2: Browsers

Previously in web history…

Sir Tim Berners-Lee creates the technologies behind the web — HTML, HTTP, and the URL which blend hypertext with the Internet — with a small team at CERN. He convinces the higher-ups in the organizations to put the web in the public domain so anyone can use it.

Dennis Ritchie had a problem.

He was working on a new, world class operating system. He and a few other colleagues were building it from the ground up to be simple and clean and versatile. It needed to run anywhere and it needed to be fast.

Ritchie worked at Bell Labs. A hotbed of innovation, in the 60s, and 70s, Bell employed some of the greatest minds in telecommunications. While there, Ritchie had worked on a time-sharing project known as Multics. He was fiercely passionate about what he saw as the future of computing. Still, after years of development and little to show for it, Bell eventually dropped the project. But Ritchie and a few of his colleagues refused to let the dream go. They transformed Multics into a new operating system adaptable and extendable enough to be used for networked time sharing. They called it Unix.

Ritchie’s problem was with Unix’s software. More precisely, his problem was with the language the software ran on. He had been writing most of Unix in assembly code, quite literally feeding paper tape into the computer, the way it was done in the earliest days of computing. Programming directly in assembly — being “close to the metal” as some programmers refer to it — made Unix blazing fast and memory efficient. The process, on the other hand, was laborious and prone to errors.

Ritchie’s other option was to use B, an interpreted programming language developed by his co-worker Ken Thompson. B was much simpler to code with, several steps abstracted from the bare metal. However, it lacked features Ritchie felt were crucial. B also suffered under the weight of its own design; it was slow to execute and lacked the resilience needed for time-sharing environments.

Ritchie’s solution was to chose neither. Instead, he created a compiled programming language with many of the same features as B, but with more access to the kinds of things you could expect from assembly code. That language is called C.

By the time Unix shipped, it had been fully rewritten in C, and the programming language came bundled in every operating system that ran on top of it, which, as it turned out, was a lot of them. As more programmers tried C, they adapted to it quickly. It blended, as some might say, perfectly abstract functions and methods for creating predictable software patterns with the ability to get right down to the metal if needed. It isn’t prescriptive, but it doesn’t leave you completely lost. Saron Yitabrek, host of the Command Heroes podcast, describes C as “a nearly universal tool for programming; just as capable on a personal computer as it was on a supercomputer.”

C has been called a Swiss Army language. There is very little it can’t do, and very little that hasn’t been done with it. Computer scientist Bill Dally once said, “It set the tone for the way that programming was done for several decades.” And that’s true. Many of the programming paradigms developed in the latter half of the 20th century originated in C. Compilers were developed beyond Unix, available in every operating system. Rob Pike, a software engineer involved in the development of Unix, and later Go, has a much simpler way of putting it. “C is a desert island language.”

Ritchie has a saying of his own he was fond of repeating. “C has all the elegance and power of assembly language with all the readability and maintainability of… assembly language.” C is not necessarily everyone’s favorite programming language, and there are plenty of problems with it. (C#, created in the early 2000s, was one of many attempts to improve it.) However, as it proliferated out into the world, bundled in Unix-like operating systems like X-Windows, Linux, and Mac OSX, software developers turned to it as a way to speak to one another. It became a kind of common tongue. Even if you weren’t fluent, you could probably understand the language conversationally. If you needed to bundle up and share a some code, C was a great way to do it.

In 1993, Jean-François Groff and Sir Tim Berners-Lee had to release a package with all of the technologies of the web. It could be used to build web servers or browsers. They called it libwww, and released it to the public domain. It was written in C.


Think about the first time you browsed the web. That first webpage. Maybe it was a rich experience, filled with images, careful design and content you couldn’t find anywhere else. Maybe it was unadorned, uninteresting, and brief. No matter what that page was, I’d be willing to bet that it had some links. And when you clicked that link, there was magic. Suddenly, a fresh page arrives on your screen. You are now surfing the web. And in that moment you understand what the web is.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee finished writing the first web browser, WorldWideWeb, in the final days of 1990. It ran on his NeXT machine, and had read and write capabilities (the latter of which could be used to manage a homepage on the web). The NeXTcube wasn’t the heaviest computer you’ve ever seen, but it was still a desktop. That didn’t stop Berners-Lee from lugging it from conference to conference so he could plug it in and show people the web.

Again and again, he ran into the same problem. It will seem obvious to us now when considering the difficulty of demonstrating a globally networked hypertext application running on a little-used operating system (NeXT) on a not-widely-owned computer (NeXT Computer System) alone at a conference without the Internet. The problem came after the demo with the inevitable question: how can I start using it? The web lacks its magic if you can’t connect to the network yourself. It’s entirely useless isolated on a single computer. To make the idea click, Berners-Lee need to get everybody surfing the web. And he couldn’t very well lend his computer out to anybody that wanted to use it.

That’s where Nicola Pellow came in. An undergraduate at Leicester Polytechnic, Pellow was still an intern at CERN. She was assigned to Berners-Lee’s and Calliau’s team, so they tasked her with building an interoperable browser that could be installed anywhere. The fact that she had no background in programming (she was studying mathematics) and that she was at CERN as part of an internship didn’t concern her much. Within a couple of months she picked up a bit of C programming and built the Line Mode Browser.

Using the Line Mode Browser today, you would probably feel like a hacker from the 1980s. It was a text-only browser designed to run from a command line terminal. In most cases, just plain white text on a black background, pixels bleeding from edge to edge. Typing out a web address into the browser would bring up that website’s text on the screen. The up and down arrows on a keyboard could be used for navigation. Links were visible as a numbered list, and one could jump from site to site by entering the right number.

It was designed that way for a reason. Its simplicity guaranteed interoperability. The Line Mode Browser holds the unique distinction of being the only browser for many years to be platform-agnostic. It could be installed anywhere, on just about any computer or operating system. It made getting online easy, provided you knew what to do once you installed it. Pellow left CERN a few months after she released the Line Mode Browser. She returned after graduation, and helped build the first Mac browser.

Almost soon as Pellow left, Berners-Lee and Cailliau wrangled another recruit. Jean-François Groff was working at CERN, one office over. A programmer for years, Groff had written the French translation of the official C Programming Guide by Brian Kernighan and the language’s creator, Dennis Ritchie. He was working on a bit of physics software for UNIX systems when he got a chance to see what Berners-Lee was working on.

Not everybody understood what the web was going for. It can be difficult to grasp without the worldwide picture we have today. Groff was not one of those people. He longed for something just like the web. He understood perfectly what the web could be. Almost as soon as he saw a demo, he requested a transfer to the team.

He noticed one problem right away. “So this line mode browser, it was a bit of a chicken and egg problem,” he once described in an interview, “because to use it, you had to download the software first and install it and possibly compile it.” You had to use the web to download a web browser, but you needed a web browser to use the web. Groff found a clever solution. He built a simple mechanism that allowed users to telnet in to the NeXT server and browse the web using its built-in Line Mode Browser. So anyone in the world could remotely access the web without even needing to install the browser. Once they were able to look around, Groff hoped, they’d be hooked.

But Groff wanted to take it one step further. He came from UNIX systems, and C programming. C is a desert island language. Its versatility makes it invaluable as a one-size-fits-all solution. Groff wanted the web to be a desert island platform. He wanted it to be used in ways he hadn’t even imagined yet, ways that scientists at research institutions couldn’t even fathom. The one medium you could do anything with. To do that, he would need to make the web far more portable.

Working alongside Berners-Lee, Groff began pulling out the essential elements of the NeXT browser and porting them to the C programming language. Groff chose C not only because he was familiar with it, but because he knew most other programmers would be as well. Within a few months, he had built the libwww package (its official title would come a couple of years later). The libwww package was a set of common components for making graphical browsers. Included was the necessary code for parsing HTML, processing HTTP requests and rendering pages. It also provided a starting point for creating browser UI, and tools for embedding browser history and managing graphical windows.

Berners-Lee announced the web to the public for the first time on August 7, 1991. He posted a brief description along with a simple note:

If you’re interested in using the code, mail me. It’s very prototype, but available by anonymous FTP from info.cern.ch. It’s copyright CERN but free distribution and use is not normally a problem.

If you were to email Sir Tim Berners-Lee, he’d send you back the libwww package.

By November of 1992, the library had fully matured into a set of reusable tools. When CERN put the web in the public domain the following year, its terms included the libwww package. By 1993, anyone with a bit of time on their hands and a C compiler could create their own browser.

Before he left CERN to become one of the first web consultants, Groff did one final thing. He created a new mailing list, called www-talk, for a new generation of browser developers to talk shop.


On December 13, 1991 — almost a year after Berners-Lee had put the finishing touches on the first ever browser — Pei-Yuan Wei posted to the www-talk mailing list. After a conversation with Berners-Lee, he had built a browser called ViolaWWW. In a few months, it would be the most popular of the early browsers. In the middle of his post, Wei offhandedly — in a tone that would come off as bragging if it weren’t so sincere — mentioned that the browser build was a one night hack.

A one night hack. Not even Berners-Lee or Pellow could pull that off. Wei continued the post with the reasons he was able to get it up and running so quickly. But that nuance would be lost to history. What programmers would remember is that the it only took one day to build a browser. It was “hacked” together and shipped to the world, buggy, but usable. That phrase would set the tone and pace of browser development for at least the next decade. It is arguably the dominant ideology among browser makers today.

The irony is the opposite was true. ViolaWWW was the product of years of work that simply culminated in a single night. Wei is a great software programmer. But he also had all the pieces he needed before the night even started.

Pei-Yuan Wei has made a few appearances on the frontlines of web history. Apart from the ViolaWWW browser, he was hired by Dale Dougherty to work on an early version of GNN.com, the first commercial website. He was at a meeting of web pioneers the day the idea of the W3C was first discussed. In 2012, he was on the list of witnesses to speak in court to the many dangers of the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA). In the web’s early history Wei was a persistent presence.

Wei was a student at UCLA Berkley in the early 90s. It was HyperCard that set off his fascination with hypertext software. HyperCard was an application built for the Mac operating system in the late 80s. It allowed its users to create stacks of virtual “cards,” each with a bit of info. Users could then connect these cards however they wanted, and quickly sort, search, and navigate through their stacks. People used it to organize their recipes, replace their Rolodexes, organize research notes, and a million other things. HyperCard is the kind of software that attracts a person who demands a certain level of digital meticulousness, the kind of user that organizes their desktop folders into neat sections and precisely tags their data. This core group of power users manipulated the software using its built-in scripting language, HyperScript, to extend it to new heights.

Wei had just glimpsed Hypercard before he knew he needed to use it. But he was on an X-Windows computer, and HyperCard could only run on a Mac. Wei was not to be deterred. Instead of buying a Mac computer (an expensive but reasonable solution the problem) Wei began to write software of his own. He even went one step further. Wei began by creating his very own programming language. He called it Viola, and the first thing he built with it was a HyperCard clone.

Wei felt that the biggest limitation of HyperCard — and by extension his own hypertext software — was that it lacked access to a network. What good was data if it was locked up inside of a single computer? By the time he had reached that conclusion, it was nearing the end of 1991, around the time he saw a mention of the World Wide Web. So one night, he took Viola, combined it with libwww, and built a web browser. ViolaWWW was officially released.

ViolaWWW was built so quickly because most of it was already done by the time Wei found out about the web project. The Viola programming language was in the works for a couple of years at that point. It had already been built to accept hyperlinks and hypermedia for the HyperCard clone. It had been built to be extendable to other possible applications. Once Wei was able to pick apart libwww, he ported his software to read HTML, which itself was still a preposterously simple language. And that piece, the final tip of the iceberg, only took him a single night.

ViolaWWW would be the site of a lot of experimentation on the early web. Wei was the first to include an early version of stylesheets. He added a bookmarking function. The browser supported forms and embedded media. In a prescient move, Wei also included downloadable applets, allowing fairly advanced applications running inside of the browser. This became the template for what would eventually become Java applets.

For X-Windows users, ViolaWWW was the most popular browser on the market. Until the next thing came along.


Releasing a browser in the early 90s was almost a rite of passage. There was a useful exercise in downloading the libwww package and opening it up in your text editor. The web wasn’t all that complicated: there was a bit of code for rendering HTML, and processing HTTP requests from web servers (or other origins, like FTP or Gopher). Programmers of the web used a browser project as a way of getting familiar with its features. It was kind of like the “Hello World” of the early web.

In June of 1993, there were 130 websites in the entire world. There was easily a dozen browsers to chose from. That’s roughly one browser for every ten websites.

This rapid development of browsers was driven by the nature of innovation in the web community. When Berners-Lee put the web in the public domain, he did more than just give it to the world. He put openness at the center of its ideology. It would take five years — with the release of Netscape — for the web to get its first commercial browser. Until then, the “browser makers” were a small community of programmers talking things out the www-talk mailing list trying to make web browsing feel as revolutionary as they wanted it to be.

Some of the earliest projects ported one browser to another operating system. Occasionally, one of the browser makers would spontaneously release something that now feels essential. The first PDF rendering inside of a browser window was a part of the Midas browser. HTML tables were introduced and properly laid out in another called Arena. Tabbed browsing was a prominent feature in InternetWorks. All of these features were developed before 1995.

Most early browsers have faded into obscurity. But the people behind them didn’t. Counted among the earliest browser makers are future employees at Netscape, members of the W3C and the web standards movement, the inventor of cookies (and the blink tag), and the creators of some of the most important websites of the early web.

Of course, no one knew that at the time. To most of the creators, it was simply an exercise in making something cool they could pass along to their Internet friends.


The New York Times introduced its readers to the web on December 8, 1993. “Think of it as a map to the buried treasures of the Information Age,” read the first line. But the “map” the writer was referring to — one he would spend the first half of the article describing — wasn’t the World Wide Web; it was its most popular browser. A browser called Mosaic.

Mosaic was created, in part, by Marc Andreessen. Like many of the early web pioneers, Andreessen is a man of lofty ambition. He is drawn to big ideas and grand statements (he once said that software will “eat the world”). In college, he was known for being far more talkative than your average software engineer, chatting it up about the next bing thing.

Andreessen has had a decades-long passion for technology. Years later, he would capture the imagination of the public with the world’s first commercial browser: Netscape Navigator. He would grace the cover of Time magazine. He would become a cornerstone of Silicon Valley, define its rapid “ship first, think later” ethos for years, and seek and capture his fortune in the world of venture capital.

But Mosaic’s story does not begin with a commanding legend of Silicon Valley overseeing, for better or worse, the future of technology. It begins with a restless college student.

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee posted the initial announcement about the web, about a year before the article in The New York Times, Andreessen was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois. While he attended school he worked at the university-affiliated computing lab known as the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). NCSA occupied a similar space as ARPA in that they both were state-sponsored projects without an explicit goal other than to further the science of computing. If you worked at NCSA, it was possible to move from project to project without arising too much suspicion from the higher ups.

Andreessen was supposed to be working on visualization software, which he had found a way to run mostly on auto-pilot. In his spare time, Andreessen would ricochet around the office listening to everyone about what it was they were interested in. It was during one of those sessions that a colleague introduced him to the World Wide Web. He was immediately taken aback. He downloaded the ViolaWWW browser, and within a few days he had decided that the web would be his primary focus. He decided something else too. He needed to make a browser of his own.

In 1992, browsers could be cumbersome software. They lacked the polish and the conventions of modern browsers without decades of learning to build off of. They were difficult to download and install, often requiring users to make modifications to system files. And early browser makers were so focused on developing the web they didn’t think too much about the visual interface of their software.

Andreessen wanted to build a well-designed, performant, easy-to-install browser while simultaneously building on the features that Wei was adding to the ViolaWWW browser. He pitched his idea to a programmer at NCSA, Eric Bina. “Marc’s a very good salesman,” Bina would later recall, so he joined up.

Taking their cue from the pace of others, Andreessen and Bina finished the first version of the Mosaic browser in just a few weeks. It was available for X Windows computers. To announce the browser, Andreessen posted a download link to the www-talk mailing list, with the message “By the power vested in me by nobody in particular, alpha/beta version 0.5 of NCSA’s Motif-based networked information systems and World Wide Web browser, X Mosaic, is hereby released.” The web got more than just a popular browser. It got its first pitchman.

That first version of the browser was impressive in a somewhat crowded field. To be sure, it had forms and some media support early on. But it wasn’t the best browser, nor was it the most advanced browser. Instead, Andreessen and Bina focused on something else entirely. Mosaic set itself apart because it was the easiest to use. The installation process was simple and the interface was, relatively speaking, intuitive.

The Mosaic browser’s secret weapon was its iteration. Before long, other programmers at NCSA wanted in on the project. They parceled off different operating systems to port the browser to. One team took the Mac, another Windows. By the fall of 1993, a few months after its initial release, Mosaic had feature-paired versions on Mac, Windows and Unix systems, as well as compatible server software.

After that, the pace of development only accelerated. Beta versions were released often and were available to download via FTP. New features were added at a rapid pace and new versions seemed to ship every week. The NCSA Mosaic was fully engaged with the web community, active in the www-talk mailing list, talking with users and gathering bug reports. It was not at all unusual to submit a bug report and hear back a few hours later from an NCSA programmer with a fix.

Andreessen was a particularly active presence, posting to threads almost daily. When the Mosaic team decided they might want to collect anonymous analytics about browser usage, Andreessen polled the www-talk list to see if it was a good idea. When he got a lot of questions about how to use HTML, he wrote a guide for beginners.

When one Mosaic user posted some issues he was having, it led to a tense back and forth between that user and Andreessen. He claimed he wasn’t a customer, and Andreessen shouldn’t care too much about what he thought. Andreessen replied, “We do care what you think simply because having the wonderful distributed beta team that we essentially have due to this group gives us the opportunity to make our product much better than it could be otherwise.” What Andreessen understood better than any of the early browser makers was that Mosaic was a product, and feedback from his users could drive its development. If they kept the feedback loop tight, they could keep the interface clean and bug-free while staying on the cutting edge of new features. It was the programming parable given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow come to life in browser development.

There was an electricity to Mosaic development at NCSA. Internal competition fueled OS teams to get features out the door. Sometimes the Mac version would get to something first. Sometimes it was Bina and Andreessen continuing to work on X-Mosaic. “We would get together, middle of the night, and come up with some cool idea — images was an example of that — then we would go off and race and see who would do it first,” creator of the Windows version of Mosaic Jon Mittelhauser later recalled. Sometimes, the features were duds and would hardly go anywhere at all. Other times, as Mittelhauser points out, they were absolutely essential.

In the months after launch, they started to surpass the feature list of even their nearest competitor, ViolaWWW. They added forms support and rich media. They added bookmarks for users to keep track of their links. They even created their own “What’s New” page, updated every single day, which tracked the web’s most popular links. When you opened up Mosaic, the NCSA What’s New page was the first thing you saw. They weren’t just building a browser. They were building a window to the web.

As Mittelhauser points out, it was the <img> tag which became Mosaic’s defining feature. It succeeded in doing two things. The tag was added without input from Sir Tim Berners-Lee or the wider web community. (Andreessen posted a note to www-talk only after it had already been implemented.) So firstly, that set the Mosaic team in a conflict with other browser makers and some parts of the web community that would last for years.

Secondly, it made Mosaic infinitely more popular. The <img> tag allowed for images to be embedded directly inline in the Mosaic browser. People found the web boring to browse. It was sterile, rigid, and scientific. Inline images changed all that. Within a few months, a new class of web designer was beginning to experiment with what was possible with images on the web. In some ways, it was the tag that made the web famous.

The image tag prompted the feature in The New York Times, and a subsequent write-up in Wired. By the time the press got around to talking about the web, Mosaic was the most popular browser and became a surrogate for the larger web world. “Mosaic” was to browsing the web as “Google” is to searching now.

Ultimately, the higher ups got involved. NCSA was not a tech company. They were a supercomputing lab. They came in to help make the Mosaic browser more cohesive, and maybe, more profitable. Licenses were parceled out to a dozen or so companies. Mosaic was bundled into Spry’s Internet in a Box product. It was embedded in enterprise software by the Santa Cruz Operation.

In the end, Mosaic split off into two directions. Pressure from management pushed Andreessen to leave and start a new company. It would be called Netscape. Another of the licensees of the software was a company called Spyglass. They were beginning to have talks with Microsoft. Both would ultimately choose to rewrite the Mosaic browser from scratch, for different reasons. Yet that browser would be their starting point and their products would have lasting implications on the browser market for decades as the world began to see its first commercial browsers.


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Chapter 1: Birth

Tim Berners-Lee is fascinated with information. It has been his life’s work. For over four decades, he has sought to understand how it is mapped and stored and transmitted. How it passes from person to person. How the seeds of information become the roots of dramatic change. It is so fundamental to the work that he has done that when he wrote the proposal for what would eventually become the World Wide Web, he called it “Information Management, a Proposal.”

Information is the web’s core function. A series of bytes stream across the world and at the end of it is knowledge. The mechanism for this transfer — what we know as the web — was created by the intersection of two things. The first is the Internet, the technology that makes it all possible. The second is hypertext, the concept that grounds its use. They were brought together by Tim Berners-Lee. And when he was done he did something truly spectacular. He gave it away to everyone to use for free.

When Berners-Lee submitted “Information Management, a Proposal” to his superiors, they returned it with a comment on the top that read simply:

Vague, but exciting…

The web wasn’t a sure thing. Without the hindsight of today it looked far too simple to be effective. In other words, it was a hard sell. Berners-Lee was proficient at many things, but he was never a great salesman. He loved his idea for the web. But he had to convince everybody else to love it too.


Tim Berners-Lee has a mind that races. He has been known — based on interviews and public appearances — to jump from one idea to the next. He is almost always several steps ahead of what he is saying, which is often quite profound. Until recently, he only gave a rare interview here and there, and masked his greatest achievements with humility and a wry British wit.

What is immediately apparent is that Tim Berners-Lee is curious. Curious about everything. It has led him to explore some truly revolutionary ideas before they became truly revolutionary. But it also means that his focus is typically split. It makes it hard for him to hold on to things in his memory. “I’m certainly terrible at names and faces,” he once said in an interview. His original fascination with the elements for the web came from a very personal need to organize his own thoughts and connect them together, disparate and unconnected as they are. It is not at all unusual that when he reached for a metaphor for that organization, he came up with a web.

As a young boy, his curiosity was encouraged. His parents, Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods, were mathematicians. They worked on the Ferranti Mark I, the world’s first commercially available computer, in the 1950s. They fondly speak of Berners-Lee as a child, taking things apart, experimenting with amateur engineering projects. There was nothing that he didn’t seek to understand further. Electronics — and computers specifically — were particularly enchanting.

Berners-Lee sometimes tells the story of a conversation he had with his with father as a young boy about the limitations of computers making associations between information that was not intrinsically linked. “The idea stayed with me that computers could be much more powerful,” Berners-Lee recalls, “if they could be programmed to link otherwise unconnected information. In an extreme view, the world can been seen as only connections.” He didn’t know it yet, but Berners-Lee had stumbled upon the idea of hypertext at a very early age. It would be several years before he would come back to it.


History is filled with attempts to organize knowledge. An oft-cited example is the Library of Alexandria, a fabled library of Ancient Greece that was thought to have had tens of thousands of meticulously organized texts.

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At the turn of the century, Paul Otlet tried something similar in Belgium. His project was called the Répertoire Bibliographique Universel (Universal Bibliography). Otlet and a team of researchers created a library of over 15 million index cards, each with a discrete and small piece of information in topics ranging from science to geography. Otlet devised a sophisticated numbering system that allowed him to link one index card to another. He fielded requests from researchers around the world via mail or telegram, and Otlet’s researchers could follow a trail of linked index cards to find an answer. Once properly linked, information becomes infinitely more useful.

A sudden surge of scientific research in the wake of World War II prompted Vanneaver Bush to propose another idea. In his groundbreaking essay in The Atlantic in 1945 entitled “As We May Think,” Bush imagined a mechanical library called a Memex. Like Otlet’s Universal Bibliography, the Memex stored bits of information. But instead of index cards, everything was stored on compact microfilm. Through the process of what he called “associative indexing,” users of the Memex could follow trails of related information through an intricate web of links.

The list of attempts goes on. But it was Ted Neslon who finally gave the concept a name in 1968, two decades after Bush’s article in The Atlantic. He called it hypertext.

Hypertext is, essentially, linked text. Nelson observed that in the real world, we often give meaning to the connections between concepts; it helps us grasp their importance and remember them for later. The proximity of a Post-It to your computer, the orientation of ingredients in your refrigerator, the order of books on your bookshelf. Invisible though they may seem, each of these signifiers hold meaning, whether consciously or subconsciously, and they are only fully realized when taking a step back. Hypertext was a way to bring those same kinds of meaningful connections to the digital world.

Nelson’s primary contribution to hypertext is a number of influential theories and a decades-long project still in progress known as Xanadu. Much like the web, Xanadau uses the power of a network to create a global system of links and pages. However, Xanadu puts a far greater emphasis on the ability to trace text to its original author for monetization and attribution purposes. This distinction, known as transculsion, has been a near impossible technological problem to solve.

Nelson’s interest in hypertext stems from the same issue with memory and recall as Berners-Lee. He refers to it is as his hummingbird mind. Nelson finds it hard to hold on to associations he creates in the real world. Hypertext offers a way for him to map associations digitally, so that he can call on them later. Berners-Lee and Nelson met for the first time a couple of years after the web was invented. They exchanged ideas and philosophies, and Berners-Lee was able to thank Nelson for his influential thinking. At the end of the meeting, Berners-Lee asked if he could take a picture. Nelson, in turn, asked for a short video recording. Each was commemorating the moment they knew they would eventually forget. And each turned to technology for a solution.

By the mid-80s, on the wave of innovation in personal computing, there were several hypertext applications out in the wild. The hypertext community — a dedicated group of software engineers that believed in the promise of hypertext – created programs for researchers, academics, and even off-the-shelf personal computers. Every research lab worth their weight in salt had a hypertext project. Together they built entirely new paradigms into their software, processes and concepts that feel wonderfully familiar today but were completely outside the realm of possibilities just a few years earlier.

At Brown University, the very place where Ted Nelson was studying when he coined the term hypertext, Norman Meyrowitz, Nancy Garrett, and Karen Catlin were the first to breathe life into the hyperlink, which was introduced in their program Intermedia. At Symbolics, Janet Walker was toying with the idea of saving links for later, a kind of speed dial for the digital world – something she was calling a bookmark. At the University of Maryland, Ben Schneiderman sought to compile and link the world’s largest source of information with his Interactive Encyclopedia System.

Dame Wendy Hall, at the University of Southhampton, sought to extend the life of the link further in her own program, Microcosm. Each link made by the user was stored in a linkbase, a database apart from the main text specifically designed to store metadata about connections. In Microcosm, links could never die, never rot away. If their connection was severed they could point elsewhere since links weren’t directly tied to text. You could even write a bit of text alongside links, expanding a bit on why the link was important, or add to a document separate layers of links, one, for instance, a tailored set of carefully curated references for experts on a given topic, the other a more laid back set of links for the casual audience.

There were mailing lists and conferences and an entire community that was small, friendly, fiercely competitive and locked in an arms race to find the next big thing. It was impossible not to get swept up in the fervor. Hypertext enabled a new way to store actual, tangible knowledge; with every innovation the digital world became more intricate and expansive and all-encompassing.

Then came the heavy hitters. Under a shroud of mystery, researchers and programmers at the legendary Xerox PARC were building NoteCards. Apple caught wind of the idea and found it so compelling that they shipped their own hypertext application called Hypercard, bundled right into the Mac operating system. If you were a late Apple II user, you likely have fond memories of Hypercard, an interface that allowed you to create a card, and quickly link it to another. Cards could be anything, a recipe maybe, or the prototype of a latest project. And, one by one, you could link those cards up, visually and with no friction, until you had a digital reflection of your ideas.

Towards the end of the 80s, it was clear that hypertext had a bright future. In just a few short years, the software had advanced in leaps and bounds.


After a brief stint studying physics at The Queen’s College, Oxford, Tim Berners-Lee returned to his first love: computers. He eventually found a short-term, six-month contract at the particle physics lab Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (European Council for Nuclear Research), or simply, CERN.

CERN is responsible for a long line of particle physics breakthroughs. Most recently, they built the Large Hadron Collider, which led to the confirmation of the Higgs Boson particle, a.k.a. the “God particle.”

CERN doesn’t operate like most research labs. Its internal staff makes up only a small percentage of the people that use the lab. Any research team from around the world can come and use the CERN facilities, provided that they are able to prove their research fits within the stated goals of the institution. A majority of CERN occupants are from these research teams. CERN is a dynamic, sprawling campus of researchers, ferrying from location to location on bicycles or mine-carts, working on the secrets of the universe. Each team is expected to bring their own equipment and expertise. That includes computers.

Berners-Lee was hired to assist with software on an earlier version of the particle accelerator called the Proton Synchrotron. When he arrived, he was blown away by the amount of pure, unfiltered information that flowed through CERN. It was nearly impossible to keep track of it all and equally impossible to find what you were looking for. Berners-Lee wanted to capture that information and organize it.

His mind flashed back to that conversation with his father all those years ago. What if it were possible to create a computer program that allowed you to make random associations between bits of information? What if you could, in other words, link one thing to another? He began working on a software project on the side for himself. Years later, that would be the same way he built the web. He called this project ENQUIRE, named for a Victorian handbook he had read as a child.

Using a simple prompt, ENQUIRE users could create a block of info, something like Otlet’s index cards all those years ago. And just like the Universal Bibliography, ENQUIRE allowed you to link one block to another. Tools were bundled in to make it easier to zoom back and see the connections between the links. For Berners-Lee this filled a simple need: it replaced the part of his memory that made it impossible for him to remember names and faces with a digital tool.

Compared to the software being actively developed at the University of Southampton or at Xerox or Apple, ENQUIRE was unsophisticated. It lacked a visual interface, and its format was rudimentary. A program like Hypercard supported rich-media and advanced two-way connections. But ENQUIRE was only Berners-Lee’s first experiment with hypertext. He would drop the project when his contract was up at CERN.

Berners-Lee would go and work for himself for several years before returning to CERN. By the time he came back, there would be something much more interesting for him to experiment with. Just around the corner was the Internet.


Packet switching is the single most important invention in the history of the Internet. It is how messages are transmitted over a globally decentralized network. It was discovered almost simultaneously in the late-60s by two different computer scientists, Donald Davies and Paul Baran. Both were interested in the way in which it made networks resilient.

Traditional telecommunications at the time were managed by what is known as circuit switching. With circuit switching, a direct connection is open between the sender and receiver, and the message is sent in its entirety between the two. That connection needs to be persistent and each channel can only carry a single message at a time. That line stays open for the duration of a message and everything is run through a centralized switch. 

If you’re searching for an example of circuit switching, you don’t have to look far. That’s how telephones work (or used to, at least). If you’ve ever seen an old film (or even a TV show like Mad Men) where an operator pulls a plug out of a wall and plugs it back in to connect a telephone call, that’s circuit switching (though that was all eventually automated). Circuit switching works because everything is sent over the wire all at once and through a centralized switch. That’s what the operators are connecting.

Packet switching works differently. Messages are divided into smaller bits, or packets, and sent over the wire a little at a time. They can be sent in any order because each packet has just enough information to know where in the order it belongs. Packets are sent through until the message is complete, and then re-assembled on the other side. There are a few advantages to a packet-switched network. Multiple messages can be sent at the same time over the same connection, split up into little packets. And crucially, the network doesn’t need centralization. Each node in the network can pass around packets to any other node without a central routing system. This made it ideal in a situation that requires extreme adaptability, like in the fallout of an atomic war, Paul Baran’s original reason for devising the concept.

When Davies began shopping around his idea for packet switching to the telecommunications industry, he was shown the door. “I went along to Siemens once and talked to them, and they actually used the words, they accused me of technical — they were really saying that I was being impertinent by suggesting anything like packet switching. I can’t remember the exact words, but it amounted to that, that I was challenging the whole of their authority.” Traditional telephone companies were not at all interested in packet switching. But ARPA was.

ARPA, later known as DARPA, was a research agency embedded in the United States Department of Defense. It was created in the throes of the Cold War — a reaction to the launch of the Sputnik satellite by Russia — but without a core focus. (It was created at the same time as NASA, so launching things into space was already taken.) To adapt to their situation, ARPA recruited research teams from colleges around the country. They acted as a coordinator and mediator between several active university research projects with a military focus.

ARPA’s organization had one surprising and crucial side effect. It was comprised mostly of professors and graduate students who were working at its partner universities. The general attitude was that as long as you could prove some sort of modest relation to a military application, you could pitch your project for funding. As a result, ARPA was filled with lots of ambitious and free-thinking individuals working inside of a buttoned-up government agency, with little oversight, coming up with the craziest and most world-changing ideas they could. “We expected that a professional crew would show up eventually to take over the problems we were dealing with,” recalls Bob Kahn, an ARPA programmer critical to the invention of the Internet. The “professionals” never showed up.

One of those professors was Leonard Kleinrock at UCLA. He was involved in the first stages of ARPANET, the network that would eventually become the Internet. His job was to help implement the most controversial part of the project, the still theoretical concept known as packet switching, which enabled a decentralized and efficient design for the ARPANET network. It is likely that the Internet would not have taken shape without it. Once packet switching was implemented, everything came together quickly. By the early 1980s, it was simply called the Internet. By the end of the 1980s, the Internet went commercial and global, including a node at CERN.

Once packet switching was implemented, everything came together quickly. By the early 1980s, it was simply called the Internet.

The first applications of the Internet are still in use today. FTP, used for transferring files over the network, was one of the first things built. Email is another one. It had been around for a couple of decades on a closed system already. When the Internet began to spread, email became networked and infinitely more useful.

Other projects were aimed at making the Internet more accessible. They had names like Archie, Gopher, and WAIS, and have largely been forgotten. They were united by a common goal of bringing some order to the chaos of a decentralized system. WAIS and Archie did so by indexing the documents put on the Internet to make them searchable and findable by users. Gopher did so with a structured, hierarchical system. 

Kleinrock was there when the first message was ever sent over the Internet. He was supervising that part of the project, and even then, he knew what a revolutionary moment it was. However, he is quick to note that not everybody shared that feeling in the beginning. He recalls the sentiment held by the titans of the telecommunications industry like the Bell Telephone Company. “They said, ‘Little boy, go away,’ so we went away.” Most felt that the project would go nowhere, nothing more than a technological fad.

In other words, no one was paying much attention to what was going on and no one saw the Internet as much of a threat. So when that group of professors and graduate students tried to convince their higher-ups to let the whole thing be free — to let anyone implement the protocols of the Internet without a need for licenses or license fees — they didn’t get much pushback. The Internet slipped into public use and only the true technocratic dreamers of the late 20th century could have predicted what would happen next.


Berners-Lee returned to CERN in a fellowship position in 1984. It was four years after he had left. A lot had changed. CERN had developed their own network, known as CERNET, but by 1989, they arrived and hooked up to the new, internationally standard Internet. “In 1989, I thought,” he recalls, “look, it would be so much easier if everybody asking me questions all the time could just read my database, and it would be so much nicer if I could find out what these guys are doing by just jumping into a similar database of information for them.” Put another way, he wanted to share his own homepage, and get a link to everyone else’s.

What he needed was a way for researchers to share these “databases” without having to think much about how it all works. His way in with management was operating systems. CERN’s research teams all bring their own equipment, including computers, and there’s no way to guarantee they’re all running the same OS. Interoperability between operating systems is a difficult problem by design — generally speaking — the goal of an OS is to lock you in. Among its many other uses, a globally networked hypertext system like the web was a wonderful way for researchers to share notes between computers using different operating systems.

However, Berners-Lee had a bit of trouble explaining his idea. He’s never exactly been concise. By 1989, when he wrote “Information Management, a Proposal,” Berners-Lee already had worldwide ambitions. The document is thousands of words, filled with diagrams and charts. It jumps energetically from one idea to the next without fully explaining what’s just been said. Much of what would eventually become the web was included in the document, but it was just too big of an idea. It was met with a lukewarm response — that “Vague, but exciting” comment scrawled across the top.

A year later, in May of 1990, at the encouragement of his boss Mike Sendall (the author of that comment), Beners-Lee circulated the proposal again. This time it was enough to buy him a bit of time internally to work on it. He got lucky. Sendall understood his ambition and aptitude. He wouldn’t always get that kind of chance. The web needed to be marketed internally as an invaluable tool. CERN needed to need it. Taking complex ideas and boiling them down to their most salient, marketable points, however, was not Berners-Lee’s strength. For that, he was going to need a partner. He found one in Robert Cailliau.

Cailliau was a CERN veteran. By 1989, he’d worked there as a programmer for over 15 years. He’d embedded himself in the company culture, proving a useful resource helping teams organize their informational toolset and knowledge-sharing systems. He had helped several teams at CERN do exactly the kind of thing Berners-Lee was proposing, though at a smaller scale.

Temperamentally, Cailliau was about as different from Berners-Lee as you could get. He was hyper-organized and fastidious. He knew how to sell things internally, and he had made plenty of political inroads at CERN. What he shared with Berners-Lee was an almost insatiable curiosity. During his time as a nurse in the Belgian military, he got fidgety. “When there was slack at work, rather than sit in the infirmary twiddling my thumbs, I went and got myself some time on the computer there.” He ended up as a programmer in the military, working on war games and computerized models. He couldn’t help but look for the next big thing.

In the late 80s, Cailliau had a strong interest in hypertext. He was taking a look at Apple’s Hypercard as a potential internal documentation system at CERN when he caught wind of Berners-Lee’s proposal. He immediately recognized its potential.

Working alongside Berners-Lee, Cailliau pieced together a new proposal. Something more concise, more understandable, and more marketable. While Berners-Lee began putting together the technologies that would ultimately become the web, Cailliau began trying to sell the idea to interested parties inside of CERN.

The web, in all of its modern uses and ubiquity can be difficult to define as just one thing — we have the web on our refrigerators now. In the beginning, however, the web was made up of only a few essential features.

There was the web server, a computer wired to the Internet that can transmit documents and media (webpages) to other computers. Webpages are served via HTTP, a protocol designed by Berners-Lee in the earliest iterations of the web. HTTP is a layer on top of the Internet, and was designed to make things as simple, and resilient, as possible. HTTP is so simple that it forgets a request as soon as it has made it. It has no memory of the webpages its served in the past. The only thing HTTP is concerned with is the request it’s currently making. That makes it magnificently easy to use.

These webpages are sent to browsers, the software that you’re using to read this article. Browsers can read documents handed to them by server because they understand HTML, another early invention of Tim Berners-Lee. HTML is a markup language, it allows programmers to give meaning to their documents so that they can be understood. The “H” in HTML stands for Hypertext. Like HTTP, HTML — all of the building blocks programmers can use to structure a document — wasn’t all that complex, especially when compared to other hypertext applications at the time. HTML comes from a long line of other, similar markup languages, but Berners-Lee expanded it to include the link, in the form of an anchor tag. The <a> tag is the most important piece of HTML because it serves the web’s greatest function: to link together information.

The hyperlink was made possible by the Universal Resource Identifier (URI) later renamed to the Uniform Resource Indicator after the IETF found the word “universal” a bit too substantial. But for Berners-Lee, that was exactly the point. “Its universality is essential: the fact that a hypertext link can point to anything, be it personal, local or global, be it draft or highly polished,” he wrote in his personal history of the web. Of all the original technologies that made up the web, Berners-Lee — and several others — have noted that the URL was the most important.

By Christmas of 1990, Tim Berners-Lee had all of that built. A full prototype of the web was ready to go.

Cailliau, meanwhile, had had a bit of success trying to sell the idea to his bosses. He had hoped that his revised proposal would give him a team and some time. Instead he got six months and a single staff member, intern Nicola Pellow. Pellow was new to CERN, on placement for her mathematics degree. But her work on the Line Mode Browser, which enabled people from around the world using any operating system to browse the web, proved a crucial element in the web’s early success. Berners-Lee’s work, combined with the Line Mode Browser, became the web’s first set of tools. It was ready to show to the world.


When the team at CERN submitted a paper on the World Wide Web to the San Antonio Hypertext Conference in 1991, it was soundly rejected. They went anyway, and set up a table with a computer to demo it to conference attendees. One attendee remarked:

They have chutzpah calling that the World Wide Web!

The highlight of the web is that it was not at all sophisticated. Its use of hypertext was elementary, allowing for only simplistic text based links. And without two-way links, pretty much a given in hypertext applications, links could go dead at any minute. There was no linkbase, or sophisticated metadata assigned to links. There was just the anchor tag. The protocols that ran on top of the Internet were similarly basic. HTTP only allowed for a handful of actions, and alternatives like Gopher or WAIS offered far more options for advanced connections through the Internet network.

It was hard to explain, difficult to demo, and had overly lofty ambition. It was created by a man who didn’t have much interest in marketing his ideas. Even the name was somewhat absurd. “WWW” is one of only a handful of acronyms that actually takes longer to say than the full “World Wide Web.”

We know how this story ends. The web won. It’s used by billions of people and runs through everything we do. It is among the most remarkable technological achievements of the 20th century.

It had a few advantages, of course. It was instantly global and widely accessible thanks to the Internet. And the URL — and its uniqueness — is one of the more clever concepts to come from networked computing.

But if you want to truly understand why the web succeeded we have to come back to information. One of Berners-Lee’s deepest held beliefs is that information is incredibly powerful, and that it deserves to be free. He believed that the Web could deliver on that promise. For it to do that, the web would need to spread.

Berners-Lee looked to his successors for inspiration: the Internet. The Internet succeeded, in part, because they gave it away to everyone. After considering several licensing options, he lobbied CERN to release the web unlicensed to the general public. CERN, an organization far more interested in particle physics breakthroughs than hypertext, agreed. In 1993, the web officially entered the public domain.

And that was the turning point. They didn’t know it then, but that was the moment the web succeeded. When Berners-Lee was able to make globally available information truly free.

In an interview some years ago, Berners-Lee recalled how it was that the web came to be.

I had the idea for it. I defined how it would work. But it was actually created by people.

That may sound like humility from one of the world’s great thinkers — and it is that a little — but it is also the truth. The web was Berners-Lee’s gift to the world. He gave it to us, and we made it what it was. He and his team fought hard at CERN to make that happen.

Berners-Lee knew that with the resources available to him he would never be able to spread the web sufficiently outside of the hallways of CERN. Instead, he packaged up all the code that was needed to build a browser into a library called libwww and posted it to a Usenet group. That was enough for some people to get interested in browsers. But before browsers would be useful, you needed something to browse.


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Thoughts After Looking at the Web Almanac’s Chapter on CSS

Woah, I didn’t see this coming! The HTTP Archive dropped this big “state of the web” report called Web Almanac with guest writers exploring data from 5.8 million websites.

Una Kravetz and Adam Argyle wrote the CSS chapter. The point is to squeeze a digestible amount of insight out of a mountain’s worth of data. So there is some irony here with me squeezing in my thoughts about this chapter for an even quicker read, but hey, here we go.

  • 83% of sites make use of rgba() but only 22% use rgb(). That entirely makes sense to me, as rgb() isn’t a particularly useful color format, if you ask me. It’s the “a” (alpha) that gives the format the ability control transparency, which is only recently available in the most popular format, Hex, in the form of 8-Digit Hex Codes. But even then, it isn’t as nice as rgba(). hsla() is arguably the nicest color format.
  • Definitely not surprising that white and black are the two most popular named colors. I use them, by name, a lot. I even change CSS commits to use white instead of #FFF and black instead of #000 because I think there is less mental overhead to it.
  • em is twice as popular as rem. Wow. I’m a rem guy myself, just because I find it less finicky and more predictable. In theory, I still like the idea of px at the Root, rem for Components, and em for Text Elements, but I’m not sure I’ve ever pulled it off that cleanly.
  • Classes are by far the leader in selector types. Factoring how many are used, they have over a 10x lead over anything else. I like to see that. They have a low-but-not-too-low specificity value. They have nice APIs for manipulating them. Their entire purpose is to be a styling hook. They are element-agnostic. It’s just the right way to do styling. The flatter you keep styles, the less headaches you’ll have., A little more surprisingly to me is the fact that the average number of classes per element is one. Makes me really wanna know the decimal though. Was it 1.1? 1.4? 1.00001?
  • Holy buckets. Flexbox on half of sites and grid only on two percent?! The browser support isn’t that different. I’m well aware they are both very useful and can be used together and are for different things, but I find grid generally more useful and personally use it more often than flexbox.
  • I would have guessed the median number of loaded fonts on a site to average to 0, but it’s 3! I think of CSS-Tricks as having one (which is Rubik at time of writing and used only for titles. The body font of this site is system-ui.) But really, it’s 4, because of preloading and subsetting and bold versus regular and such. I wonder when variable fonts will start having an impact. I would think it would lower this number over time. Open Sans and Roboto are triple any other loaded font, and the whole list is Google Font stuff, other than some instances of Font Awesome.
  • It’s funny how some major libraries can skew stats at such a global/universal scale for their use of certain features. I remember how YouTube’s play button used to “morph” into a pause button using an SVG technology called SMIL. But because YouTube is so huge, it could look like a very high percentage of internet traffic includes SMIL, when it’s really just one button on one site. filter is in that report. While filters are cool, it’s really the fact that it happens to be within YouTube embeds and Font Awesome’s stylesheet that the percentage of sites using it (78%) looks astonishingly high.
  • Of pages that make super heavy use of transitions and animations, transitions are about twice as heavily used, but, transitions are used six times more at the 50th percentile. That feels about right to me. Transitions are generally more useful, but the more animation you are doing, the more you reach for advanced tools like keyframes.
  • Looks like most websites have approximately 45 media queries on them. It’s not totally clear if those are different media queries, or if they could be the same media queries repeated elsewhere in the stylesheet. That seems like a lot if they are all different, so I suspect it’s just a tooling thing where people use nested media queries for authoring clarity and they bubble out but don’t get combined because that’s too weird with specificity. I’d be interested to see how many unique media queries people use. The most fascinating thing to me about the media query data is that min-width and max-width are neck-and-neck in usage. I would have put max-width far ahead if I was guessing.
  • About six stylesheets per site. It’s probably too hard to tell because assets like this are so often hosted on CDNs, but I’d love to know how many are hand-authored for the site, and how many are from third parties. Is the distribution like three and three or like one and five?

There is a lot more in the report, and CSS is just one of twenty chapters. So go digging!

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