On March 12, 1989, British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee wrote an arcane-sounding paper that would launch a revolution. It was called “Information Management: A Proposal,” and it basically laid out the structure and theory of the Web as we use it now.
Choosing a “birthday” for the Web is a rather arbitrary task; contrary to urban legend, former Vice President Al Gore didn’t just flip a switch and send the whole thing into existence — rather, the World Wide Web (and its predecessor, the Internet) evolved over a series of years — and over a wide, dispersed network that included thousands of computer scientists and engineers.
Still, Berners-Lee’s paper was a critical turning point, and 25 years later, it makes as good a time as any to reflect on the changes the Internet hast wrought.
To be clear, this isn’t an exhaustive catalog: With more than 4 billion indexed Web pages, thousands imploding and starting up by the day, any thorough accounting of the Web’s impact would be impossible. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Timpane calls the Web a sort of secular, modern-day Shiva: “god of creation, god of destruction.”
What has the Web made in the past 25 years? What has it destroyed? That list could go on forever — but we thought we’d start with these 36 ways the Web has changed our lives … and the world in general.
1. We multitask more. Multitasking existed long before the Internet, of course, but the ubiquity of smartphones — and tabs! infinite tabs! — has made multitasking both easier and more damaging. “The technology is rewiring our brains,” one brain scientist told The New York Times. Neurologists have found Internet-enabled multitasking often makes us less productive.
2. There’s no such thing as “dead time.” On the metro, in line at Starbucks, even in the shower — mobile Internet has crowded out the time we used to spend doing, well, nothing. Per a Google study in 2011, nearly 40 percent of smartphone owners use their phone in the bathroom. A similar percentage report using their cellphone when they’re “bored.”
3. Political campaigns are won (and lost) online. Three-quarters of Internet users went online to get political news and talk about their candidates during the 2008 campaign. In 2012, more than a fifth of registered voters announced their candidate on Twitter or Facebook. That helps explain why Health and Human Services is now in the business of making doge memes, and President Obama appeared on Funny or Die.
4. We no longer send telegrams. (Don’t even mention cards and letters). Western Union shut down in 2006, blaming the Internet and cellphones for its rapid drop in popularity. But people could still send telegrams in India until last year, when the world’s last commercial operation also closed shop.
5. We are our own doctors. My mother, a nurse, used to crack a hefty tome from the Mayo Clinic whenever one of us had a rash or a cough. Now she, like 72 percent of Internet users, goes online for health information. Slightly scarier: 50 percent of doctors do the same.
6. Entirely average people are somehow celebrities.
7. No one needs phone books. Remember those clunky yellow things that used to come to your door for free? States have begun telling telecom companies they no longer have to print them. “Anybody who doesn’t have access to some kind of online way to look things up now is probably too old to be able to read the print in the white pages anyway,” one commentator said when the phase-out started.
8. We’re more socially connected than we were pre-Internet. This isn’t true for everyone: A Pew study found that, between 1985 and 2009, there was actually a small drop in the percentage of people who say they have no confidants — a key indicator of social isolation. But in that same study, Internet and cellphone users reported having more confidants and larger social networks. Internet users are also more trusting in general. Thanks, Facebook!
9. Watches serve no functional purpose. People can easily check the time on a phone or computer, so today’s watches are often for fashion only. That’s prompted some shifts in the watch industry.
10. It’s really easy to cheat at bar trivia. Eighty-six percent of smartphone owners use their phones to get “just-in-time” information — stuff like directions or sports scores. Hence why some bars ask players to put their phones away during play.
11. Music discovery lost its magic. Spotify, Pandora, iHeartRadio, Slacker — who needs to dig through record bins anymore? A series of tech writers took the issue up in this month’s Wired: “In this era, the real rock star are the curators—the people, tools, and algorithms that bring you the music you’ll love.” Emphasis on “tools and algorithms.”
12. Related: We don’t need music stores. Sam Goody recently made our list of stores we loved in childhood, but aren’t around today. Unsurprisingly, other chains that retail the analog predecessors of digital things — Blockbuster, Borders, Moviefone — have also shut down.
13. We sleep less.
14. We work less.
16. We don’t memorize phone numbers. That’s what contact lists and inbox searches are for! Per a 2010 study, seven in 10 people don’t know their best friend’s phone number, and more than five in 10 don’t know their parents’.
17. We watch TV shows and movies whenever we want. Gone are the days of VCRs and blank video cassettes! Given the primacy of online-streaming services — and the gradual ease and normalization of digital piracy — even DVRs are looking kind of obsolete.
HLN is launching a show called ″I Can Haz NewsToons”, in what I assume is a doomed effort to make Nancy Grace seem dignified by comparison.— Tim Carvell (@timcarvell) February 19, 2014
19. No one “checks the paper” for sports’ scores or the weather. Well, maybe some people do. But the wide availability of this information, online and on smartphones, makes the paper redundant. That helps explain, in part, why sales of print newspapers have declined steadily since the mid-90s. Print ad sales, meanwhile, have cratered.
20. Many languages have died out — or are in the process of doing so. Only 5 percent of the world’s 7,700+ languages have migrated to the Internet, leading some scholars to believe they’ll fade out entirely within the next 100 years. Wikipedia has launched a language “incubator” to help battle that trend.
21. Meanwhile, nude photos (and other personal blunders) refuse to die. Nudes — and their terrible, inevitable follow-up, “revenge porn” — have become so widespread that there are calls for legislation to police them. (Per Pew, 15 percent of teens have received a nude sext.) Nudes posted online, like drunk tweets and Facebook rants about your employer, can live on into infamy — prompting the birth of companies that exist solely to clean up customers’ online reputations.
22. Information “wants to be free.”
23. We cook from computers. Sales of cookbooks still do well, but millions of people use sites like AllRecipes and Food.com to decide what to eat — a switch that’s gradually changing recipe preferences. Says culinary historian Jan Longone, “I personally wouldn’t go to the Internet for a recipe … [but] 20 years from now, I’m probably going to be obsolete.”
24. We don’t wait in line at banks. In those now-distant pre-Internet days, people had to physically go into a bank, or at least call it, to check their balance or deposit a check. Online banking has long since eliminated the former task — more than half of U.S. adults now bank online — and many banks have begun touting new mobile check-cashing services that let you deposit checks from a phone. In fact, there’s really no need to send checks at all anymore: PayPal, the Internet’s largest money transfer site, processed $27 billion in payments last year, and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are gaining mainstream traction.
25. … or at stores, for that matter. Seventy-nine percent of teenage women, and 76 percent of teenage men, say they shop online. Here’s the intriguing catch, though: They all prefer to shop in stores, by a factor of almost 4:1.
“is f-ing carrot top standing behind me right now?” “no” pic.twitter.com/c3qKMRLkge— darth™ (@darth) March 11, 2014
28. High-school reunions ≠ entirely necessary. A third of the average Facebook user’s friends are classmates from high school and college. These are usually “dormant” relationships — the two people don’t actually speak or engage much. But they can creepily scope out each other’s jobs, relationship statuses and weight gain or loss since graduation, which is really what reunions are for.
29. We don’t use encyclopedias or other reference works. If you Google “Encyclopedia Brittanica,” the Wikipedia page for the feted, centuries-old series is one of the first results. That’s part of the reason it went out of print in 2011.
30. We don’t meet in dog parks or at bars. One in 10 American adults online date, and online daters are far more likely to be active than they were even five years ago.
31. Serendipity is dead. So say critics of sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor, which have become popular ways to evaluate restaurants and travel destinations … without actually leaving your house.
32. Privacy might be dead, too. And don’t even try to stay anonymous online.
33. We’re closer to each other than we were before. Despite the backlash against social media’s purported superficiality, and the frequent insistence that “ambient ties” don’t tie us much at all, 67 percent of Internet users say they’re closer to friends and family because they talk online.
34. We self-medicate … but not with drugs or alcohol! A 2009 survey found that, during the recession, three-quarters of Internet users who were worried about the economy went online to “relax” and take their minds off it.
35. Reality and fiction are no longer distinct things. Sites like ViralNova and Twitter accounts like @HistoryinPics have built their empires on publishing photos, videos and stories that may or may not be real — and then sitting back and watching people share them. (That practice, which has also bled into old-school media, was recently the subject of a lengthy story in the Columbia Journalism Review.) We see so many hoaxes each week we started a regular column on it.
36. Cats. (… need I say more?)
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