Same same…but different

For years it seems we’ve felt comfortable freely interchanging the words ‘internet’ and ‘web’. Technically speaking, the internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the TCP/IP protocol. This network carries an extensive range of information resources and services, such as file sharing, email, and the world wide web. In day to day conversation however, we often equate the web and the internet . And up until very recently, this confusion was of no real significance.

If like me, you came online during the 90’s or early 2000’s, your mental model of the internet was to a great deal shaped by that of the web. Going ‘online’, meant using a browser, typing URLs, frequenting web rings, and using search engines. As the internet grew, these concepts evolved to include mailing lists, Flash, blogging, RSS — and more recently — mobile, the cloud, APIs, social networks, messaging, bots, and AI based smart assistants (…to name but a few). And while these more contemporary instantiations of the internet often still touch the web, it isn’t always the driving force behind them.

Discovering the World Wide Web (1995) The Internet Revealed Series with Tim McLain

The thing with mental models is that they’re highly personal. When surveying friends and colleagues who were present at the web’s inception, it’s not uncommon to find a wide range of memories of the technology. One person may fondly recall evenings spent discussing the benefits of affordable healthcare on Usenet, while another may speak of her time participating in a One Piece web ring, or publishing her personal thoughts and creative endeavours through Geocities and LiveJournal.

“I can still remember spending hours on the Internet scouring free resources created by other teenagers for really great grunge brushes to create the best layouts that represented me at that point in my life.” — Rachel White

These differences in the way we think about the web have until now been — at best — a minor inconvenience. Most of us have enough concepts in common to bridge minor differences in experience. So while you may never have personally used Usenet, if I told you it was a bit like a mailing list combined with a web forum; you’d probably get the idea.

But will this always be the case?

Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

A clue to this may be found in the findings of Pew Internet.

“People two, three or four years apart are having completely different experiences with technology,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. “College students scratch their heads at what their high school siblings are doing, and they scratch their heads at their younger siblings. It has sped up generational differences.”

It’s also not uncommon to uncover geographic differences that align with populations that are discovering the internet mobile first (…if not mobile only).

“It seemed that in their minds, the Internet did not exist; only Facebook.” — Craig Mod

But if Facebook is ‘the internet’, where (if at all) does the web fit in? Being the curious type, I decided to dig a bit deeper.

A geographic and generational divide

This section includes a bit of data, so bear with me as I attempt to break it into a few salient points.

My goal in collecting this data, was to develop some way to visualise, and therefore more easily survey these generational waves. To do so, I defined three groups:

  • Group one (shown below in blue) contains a sampling of advanced economies : Canada, France, Germany Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States. Several of these countries also played a role in helping to invent and/or shape the early internet.
  • Group two (shown in orange) contains a sampling of fast growing emerging economies: Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Nigeria and Russia. Internet use varies amongst these populations, but they remain some of the largest emerging groups on the internet.
  • Group three (in green) represents the entire world (and includes the first two groups).
  • The data I gathered for each country includes its population and number of internet users, year-by-year from 1995–2015.
  • I also formulated a (subjective and non-comprehensive) list of key technology ‘highlights’ for each year. My goal here was to get an idea what might be included (and excluded) from a persons’ mental model around the time they first came online, and as their technology literacy grew.

The results are shown in the graph below (you may need this high resolution PDF to have a proper look).

In looking at the graph a few things immediately stand out.

  1. From 1995–2000, the total global number of internet users closely tracks the total number of users in developed economies.
  2. Five years later, the majority of users in developed economies were now online. This 2000–2005 period also saw big innovation 0n the web: web standards thrived, blogs, blogging platforms, and RSS took off, Nokia launched a WebKit smartphone browser, and Opera launched OperaMini, the hugely popular low bandwidth mobile browser. The iPhone launch was still two years away and the number of online users in developing economies had grown…but not by much.
  3. The big online push in emerging economies began around 2008: by this time we had the iPhone, app stores, Android, Facebook, and a growing number of social and e-commerce contenders in emerging economies.
  4. Between 2008 and 2015, the number of global users skyrocketed, growing from 1.5B to 3B in just seven years (a large part of that at the hands of the seven countries shown in group 2).
  5. During this time, social networks had grown up as well. In 2005, Facebook was a primarily desktop based network of just 6 million users. Within 10 years, this number had skyrocketed to 1.7 billion (half the global internet audience) with 86% of it’s users accessing the service via mobile. Add to this WeChat’s 700 million users (none of them Facebook users, but all of them mobile) we end up with around 2.5 billion people who primarily access the internet (or the web) in a very different way:
  • mobile-mostly
  • primarily push based discovery instead of search and URLs
  • often experiencing the web as a tiny canvas within a platform, rather than a (user-chosen) web browser.
“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed. [Unfortunately neither is the past.]” — William Gibson [addendum by me]

So what?

With the rise of mobile, social networks, and apps such as Snapchat that leverage a smartphone camera as a magic wand, it’s not surprising (and possibly guaranteed) that users coming online today will have radically different mental models than our own.

These mental models will be diverse — and will keep evolving — but may not include many of the (primarily web-based) concepts and literacies we grew up with — including for some the usefulness and importance of URLs, web standards, markup, accessibility, search engines, and the browser as the primary access point to the online world.

For these users, Facebook (or WeChat in China) is now a primary method for finding, reading and sharing information online. Messenger, SnapChat, Instagram, and WhatsApp apps have become some of their preferred methods of communications. Some in fact have no concept of the internet outside of these platforms.

The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it. — Mark Weiser

A Distant Early Warning

Since moving to Vancouver (which happens to be a film, VFX and animation hub) I’ve found myself interacting more and more with artists, writers, game designers, and filmmakers. It would be wrong to suggest that the internet hasn’t completely revolutionised they way they work. They can now connect directly to a vast global audience — often in real-time — and use online services such as YouTube, Steam, Tumblr and Itch to publish, market, and distribute their work. Yet when it comes to creating this work, most still turn to desktop and apps such as Adobe Creative Cloud, Ableton Live, Unity, and openFrameworks; or camera based mobile apps such as Instagram, (the sadly now defunct) Vine, and Snapchat.

An interesting Twitter thread on the use of social networks/media by artists.

In the process, some of their work does end up on the web, but this decision is often entirely at the discretion of the platform (Snapchat for example remains app only). Despite the many web standards that could be utilised by their profession (including SVG, web audio, web animation, WebGL and soon WebVR) the web appears to only serve the role of a publishing, discovery, and distribution platform, rather than a creative one.

Perhaps the most enlightening conversation I had was with an old friend who teaches a university level ‘creative computing’ class to art and design students. In previous years, the students’ primary tools would have been Flash and Processing, but rather than turn to HTML (to replace Flash) they opt for Unity, openFrameworks, or Xcode. When I asked if he’d considered teaching web technologies, he replied that he had indeed tried (in fact, several times), but most students found the web too slow or difficult to work with. More importantly, they seemed to feel that it was largely irrelevant to the type of work they wished to explore today.

Short film created using Spectacles (on wheels!) with live sketch annotations using Snapchat. By Pinot

Final thoughts

I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it. — Marshall McLuhan

You are of course free to suggest that my experiences have all been anecdotal, or that the data I’ve collected only tells part of a much larger story. But here’s my question: what will happen to the web if these signals are correct?

If young people today are finding the web too slow, difficult, and not relevant to the type of work they want to do, should this be viewed as a distant early warning of the overall health of the web?

There is of course no shortage of creativity to be found on the internet, with much of it currently accessible using a web browser, but I think it’s worth considering what the web may look like in 5, 10, or 20 years when another 3+ billion people with mental models starting much later than our own shape the internet?