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Internet - Andrew Brown on how the World Wide Web has failed to expand our horizons

The Internet is unnervingly like a universe: it keeps on expanding at incredible speeds, but the faster it grows, the harder it becomes to find any real novelty. As anyone who has looked at a lot of Hubble photographs will tell you, the billions of stupendously beautiful, overwhelmingly huge and distant galaxies all actually look very much like each other. Seen one nebula and you've seen them all. In the same kind of way, the millions of glossy, competent websites grow harder and harder to tell apart. They are all websites. They all behave in more or less the same way.

The speed of this expansion and homogenisation is almost impossible to grasp. As recently as seven years ago, the World Wide Web, which has now swallowed everything that people mean by the Internet, was still more or less unusable down a telephone line if you wanted to do it graphically, with a program such as Netscape Navigator; and this was only partly because Netscape had not been founded nor even dreamt of. The modems then available were so slow that only character-based interfaces worked, which looked as if someone else were controlling a typewriter on your screen. The first time I contacted a web server, in the very early 1990s, there were, I think, 15 sites in the whole world: you got to them by logging into the original server at the CERN atom-smashing project outside Geneva, and then pressing numbers to move between links. In those days, all the different bits of the Internet required different software to deal with them. The consequence of this gnarliness and difficulty was that the spaces that the early explorers traversed seemed vast, and the rewards at the end of their journeys very different from each other.

All the various destinations in cyberspace looked different, required commands in dissimilar languages to navigate, and yielded quite different information from each other. Curiously, because the Internet seemed mappable, it also seemed a wilder place to explore. You knew where the map ended, and what was genuinely unknown. The first modern graphical website was probably O'Reilly's Global Network Navigator, launched in 1993. People then were solemnly warned against visiting it, because it used pictures that took minutes to download. But it did hold out the promise of making navigable the whole global network.

The way that it was replaced by Yahoo! shows how quickly the web became unnavigable. To navigate is a stately process, using a map. Yahoo! as a name suggests simply jumping into the ocean for the sake of a swim. From its beginning, it was meant to be a partial and incomplete listing of the web, containing only the interesting or useful places. It was also hugely influential. Not only is it one of the very few sites to have drawn enough traffic to become profitable from advertising alone, its simple and efficient layout has been widely imitated, so that there are hundreds of sites that look more or less the same.

This is a product of commercialisation. If web browsers were the first blade of the great blender that homogenised cyberspace even while splattering it into every corner of our lives, money was the second. One of the things making the early Internet susceptible to exploration was a negative. No commercial traffic was allowed across the network at all - because the original Internet was government-funded - and it was a condition of connecting to the net that this ban be maintained. That's right. Seven years ago, a dot com company would have been a contradiction in terms.

Once it became possible to make money across the net, the pressure to make everything easy and inviting to use became overwhelming. This means that familiarity spreads like a mould, because the easiest site for a newcomer to understand and use is one that works in almost exactly the same way as the one they have come from. This lack of diversity need not be imposed from above. It is the natural, paradoxical result of savage commercial competition. The more the Internet resembles a shopping mall, the harder it becomes to map, given that in a mall it is not meant to make any difference where you find yourself. So in seven brief years we have reached the stage where almost everything anyone could want to know is on the web somewhere, but all this knowledge looks and feels the same. There can't be more than half a dozen sites in the whole world that it would be worth parodying.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Profile - Caprice