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The NS Profile: Tim Berners-Lee

Tim Berners-Lee could have been a billionaire if he had sold his invention, the World Wide Web.

This article was first published in 2011

Twenty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee launched the World Wide Web among a small circle of fellow computer enthusiasts. Today, the 56-year-old Briton remains one of the internet's most vigorous advocates. Its vast success, however, has had a downside: it has exposed him to a bombardment of requests from visionaries, obsessives and rubberneckers, as well as hordes of children demanding help with school projects. All expect him to exist as some kind of open-source human being.

Berners-Lee has never been an enthusiastic self-publicist. Nowadays, he shelters behind carapaces of email gateways and protective staff. He seldom gives interviews. If you're not persistent and pertinent, you may not even earn a rebuff. "I'm quite busy," he explains - a huge understatement - when eventually we talk on the phone.

“I have built a moat around myself, along with ways over that moat so that people can ask questions. What I do has to be a function of what I can do, not a function of what people ask me to do." (He tends to use techy terms such as "function" quite a lot. He doesn't mind "geek", either.)

That the creator of the web - a father of two children, separated from his wife and based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he pursues his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - has to live like an electronic Howard Hughes is just one of the many paradoxes that his invention has thrown up over the past two decades.

Nevertheless, Berners-Lee is campaigning for ever more openness, pushing for the internet to exist as a free-for-all, unfettered by creeping government interference or commercial intrigue. He believes that access to the internet should be a human right.

Born to mathematician parents in west London in June 1955, Berners-Lee studied at Oxford University, graduating with a First in physics in 1976. In 1980, he joined the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva, better known as Cern, as a consultant but left a year later to become director of the tech firm Image Computer Systems.

Returning to Cern in 1984, he started working on hypertext to help researchers share information. His new project could easily have been dismissed as another case of a back-room enthusiast tinkering with clunky, electronic networks: even though he had the ability to construct a computer using a soldering iron and an old television set, Berners-Lee was just one of many sandal-wearing scientists.

“I wanted to build a creative space, something like a sandpit where everyone could play together," he says now. "Life was very simple. I was too busy to think about the bigger questions. I was writing specs for the web, writing the code. My priority was getting more people to use it, looking for communities who might adopt it. I just wanted the thing to take off."

Berners-Lee formally introduced his hobby-built system to the world on 6 August 1991 by posting a message on an internet bulletin board for fellow hypertext program developers. That day, he put the world's first proper website online. It explained what a website was and gave details of how to create one. Neither initiative caused any immediate interest.

It feels odd to picture him struggling to convince people of the web's potential. "It was just a load of hard work," he says - "getting up in the morning and thinking, 'What the hell will I do today? Should I ask people at Cern to instal browsers? Should I get more servers running, write more code for browsers, or should I talk at a conference? Or should I do my own website as an example for other people?'"

At the time, computer fans were an obscure minority, their efforts loudly derided by analogue hipsters. Steadily, however, the World Wide Web gained momentum as the limited group of early users - computer scientists and military and government agencies - expanded until it attracted a critical mass in the mid-1990s. Now, according to the analyst Internet World Stats, over 30 per cent of the global population - more than two billion people - have online access.

Berners-Lee could have become a billionaire by charging royalties for his invention. Instead, in 1994, he gave it to the world for free, without a patent. "If I had made the web into a product, it would have been in somebody's interest to make an incompatible version of it," he says.

He liberated his precocious brainchild while trying, like any conscientious parent, to guide its path. To this end, he created the World Wide Web Consortium, to help spread high technical standards for building websites, browsers and devices such as televisions that offer access to web content. It hardly sounds like the glamorous end of the action - but then, Berners-Lee is known for preferring to live modestly, driving clapped-out cars and wearing cagoules. He concedes that the web has grown far beyond the scope of his first imag­inings. "I did not dream that it would attain its present scale. It was just supposed to be successful . . . Then again, it is supposed to be the World Wide Web."

The vast expansion of the web demands a change of ethos, he believes. We should no longer consider internet access as optional. "Originally, the web was intended to be universal, to work for any culture or any software, but we did not say that it should work for everyone as individuals. That wasn't important when you didn't need the web to function in everyday life. Now, things such as 0800 numbers are being replaced by websites. If you are not on the web, you will have problems accessing services."

He worries that the web may become a new cause of global inequality, rather than a positive force for mass collaboration. "The world's urban poor and the illiterate are going to be increasingly disadvantaged and are in danger of being left behind. The web has added a new dimension to the gap between the first world and the developing world. We have to start talking about a human right to connect."

That's not just talk. In 2008, he launched the World Wide Web Foundation, which campaigns to promote internet usage. Back then, he thought that global expansion was desirable. Now, he sees it as essential.

For many of us in the wealthy west, the web has brought the opposite problem. Connectivity has left us constantly at our employers' beck and call. Six in ten workers in the US check their emails while on holiday, according to a survey by the communications company Xobni. Conversations are seldom completed without someone checking a smartphone. We seem unable to switch off.

Berners-Lee acknowledges the problem. "We will find a way to deal with this new medium and learn how to use it appropriately. We are still learning the ground rules. Certainly, one-to-one time without any electronics is something that people should treasure."

He quickly returns to a favourite theme: technology will bring us the answers to the problems caused by technology. "Every now and then, someone will invent a nifty new program to help us to cope with this," he says brightly. "When we are in our meeting room, we have laptops open and running. They enable people to join the meetings while working in other countries. They also help to run the debate. The laptops feature bots that tell us when it's our turn to talk. They remind us what we want to contribute. In cases like this, face-to-face interactions are enhanced."

For Berners-Lee, communication holds the most promise of solving all of our trickiest problems. When I ask him what he is most proud of achieving, he says: "That the World Wide Web is an open platform. I'm pleased that it was designed very cleanly so that programs can talk to each other across the net. It means that there is one information space where you can put everything. I am chuffed to bits when someone tells me, for example, that they found some medical information online that has really helped their life."

His greatest fear is that the opposite might happen - that the web could be killed off by a large company or government. "That is why I campaign for commercial net neutrality," he says. "If large corporations control our access to the internet and determine which websites we can go to, we will lose its openness and its democratic nature. We can all help to campaign for the right to connect. It is essential that we keep the space open as a white sheet of paper that anyone can use, without being spied on, blocked and diverted."

Nevertheless, government encroachment is already rife, according to data from the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders. Almost all of the developed world's internet is moderately to pervasively censored by the authorities. Only a small number of nations, including Mongolia and Madagascar, have a completely open web.

Countries such as China, Iran and Egypt can even switch off the service. Proposed laws in the United States would enable the government to shut down websites that allegedly breach copyright laws. Net-freedom lobbyists fear that these powers could be misused to block political campaigns, for instance. And the Digital Economy Act, passed last year in the UK, gave the government powers to instruct service providers to cut off the inter­net account of anyone suspected of copyright infringement.

Berners-Lee also worries about the web's potential as a conduit for extremism. "I was following a Twitter debate on net neutrality recently, when I realised that no one was saying anything in the middle ground. They were all vehement and angry. It may be the case that, with fast communications, reasoned opinions just don't propagate. These conduits accelerate people's emotions.

“Also, you get conspiracy theorists and religious cults emerging. Every now and again, human beings get organised in ways such as the Nazi takeover of Germany or the Heaven's Gate mass suicide. These were geographically limited - but could they spread through the internet in the name of some cause or religion?"

Despite these concerns, Berners-Lee remains resolutely optimistic about the future of his invention. "The web is now coming of age. We have to look at it and decide how best to use it for science and technology. I think it can do uniquely important things," he says.

These are big aspirations. A couple of decades ago, they would have sounded wildly optimis­tic; now, they sound eminently reasonable. If an inventor with a more typically inflated ego had created the World Wide Web, he would no doubt be declaring his genius and demanding the right to lead his creation into its promised land. Not Berners-Lee. His ambitions are characteristically self-effacing. No one person can lead the web, he believes. Humanity and the internet will progress only if our egos coalesce in one global effort.

“With many of the significant problems we have now got, such as cancer, no one person can hold all the pieces of the puzzle together in their head. The challenge is whether we can put some pieces of that puzzle together from different heads around the world.

“When I started the web, I wanted to foster creative interconnectivity, in which people from all around the world can build something together. It's about trying to create a sort of human meta-brain - getting connected brains to function as a greater human brain. With these things, we have to trust in humanity. I think human nature, on balance, is wonderful. If we use the web properly, we can enhance that."

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The mother lode: how mums became the ultimate viral fodder

The internet’s favourite joke used to be "your mum". Now it's "my mum".

“I was like: oh my.”

Terri Squires is describing her reaction to the news that she had gone viral. Last month, more than 213,000 people shared a tweet about Terri – but it wasn’t sent from her account. The 50-year-old Ohioan was propelled to internet stardom by her son, Jeff, who had tweeted about his mother.

“I didn’t really realise what it meant at first until he was like: ‘Mum, you do realise that millions of people have looked at this?’ … When I started seeing those numbers I was like: ‘Oh boy’.”

It’s a funny story – and Terri laughs heartily all she tells it. After coming out of a meeting, she checked her phone and noticed a picture of a missing – white – dog on Facebook. She quickly texted 17-year-old Jeff to check that the family dog, Duey, was safe. “That’s not Duey… Duey’s face is brown,” replied her son. “OK – just checking,” replied Terri.

More than 600,000 people “liked” Terri’s mistake after Jeff shared screenshots of the text message exchange on Twitter. But Terri is just one of hundreds of mums who have gone viral via their sons and daughters. Texts mums send, mistakes they make, things they fail to notice – these have all become the ultimate viral fodder.

In the last three months alone, Gerald’s mum went viral for a microphone mishap, Adam’s mum shot to Twitter fame for failing to understand WhatsApp, Lois’ mum got tricked by her daughter, Harry’s mum was hit in the head with a football, Hanna’s mum misunderstood a hairstyle, and Jake’s mum failed to notice her son had swapped a photo in her home for a portrait of Kim Jong-un.

But how do the mothers behind these viral tweets feel?

“I'm pretty much a mum that everybody wants to talk to these days,” says Terri, with another warm laugh. The mum of three says going viral “is not that big of a deal” to her, but she is happy that her son can enjoy being a “local superstar”. But is she embarrassed at being the punchline of Jeff’s joke?

“Believe me, I have thick skin,” she says. “I kinda look at what it is, and it’s actually him and his fame. I’m just the mum behind it, the butt of the joke, but I don't mind.”

Not all mums feel the same. A handful of similar viral tweets have since been deleted, indicating the mothers featured in them weren’t best pleased. A few people I reach out to haven’t actually told their mums that they’re the subject of viral tweets, and other mums simply don’t want any more attention.

“I think I’ve put my mum through enough with that tweet already,” says Jacko, when I ask if his mum would be willing to be interviewed. In 2014, Jacko tweeted out a picture of his family writing the word “cock” in the air with sparklers. “This is still my favourite ever family photo,” he captioned the tweet, “My mum did the ‘O’. We told her we were going to write ‘Love’.”

“No one ever expects to call home and say ‘Mum, have you heard of something called LADbible? No, you shouldn’t have, it’s just that a quarter of a million of its fans have just liked a photo of you writing the word ‘cock’ with a sparkler’,” Jacko explains.

Although Jacko feels his mum’s been through enough with the tweet, he does say she was “ace” about her new found fame. “She’s probably cooler about it all than I am”. Apart from the odd deletion, then, it seems most mums are happy to become viral Twitter stars.

Yet why are mums so mocked and maligned in this way? Although dads are often the subject of viral tweets, this is usually because of jokes the dads themselves make (here’s the most notable example from this week). Mums, on the other hand, tend to be mocked for doing something “wrong” (though there are obviously a few examples of them going viral for their clever and cunning). On the whole: dads make jokes, mums are the butt of them.

“We all think our mums are so clueless, you know. They don’t know what’s going on. And the fun thing is, one day we come to realise that they knew way more of what was going on than we thought,” says Patricia Wood, a 56-year-old mum from Texas. “People always kind of make fun of their mums, but love them.”

Last year, Patricia went viral when her daughter Christina tweeted out screenshots of her mum’s Facebook posts. In them, Patricia had forgotten the names of Christina’s friends and had candidly written Facebook captions like: “My gorgeous daughter and her date for formal, sorry I forgot his name”. Christina captioned her tweet “I really can't with my mom” and went on to get more than 1,000 likes.

“I felt, like, wow, it was like we’re famous, you know. I thought it was really cool,” says Patricia, of going viral. Her experiences have been largely positive, and as a part-time Uber driver she enjoys telling her customers about the tweet. “But I did have one bad experience,” she explains. A drunken passenger in her car saw the tweet and called Patricia an “asshole”.

Another aspect of viral fame also worried Patricia. She and her daughter were invited on a reality show, TD Jakes, with the production company offering to pay for flights and hotels for the pair. “I have too many skeletons in my closet and I didn't want them to come dancing out,” says Patricia, of her decision not to go. “By the time I got off it, it would be the Jerry Springer show, you know. I’m kind of a strange bird.”

On the whole, then, mothers are often amused by going viral via their offspring – and perhaps this is the real beauty of tweeting about our mums. Since the moment they earn the title, mums can’t afford to be fragile. There is a joy and relatability in “my mum” tweets – because really, the mum in question could be anyone’s. Still, from now on, mums might be more careful about what they tell their sons and daughters.

“When I send Jeff a text now I make sure I’m like: ‘Is my spelling correct? Is what I’m saying grammatically correct?’,” says Terri, “Because who knows where the words are gonna end up?”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.