In a recent online discussion about simple static websites, Chris Chapman posted this quite clever comment:
Firm supporter of Web Pi (3.14159). When it comes to building for the web today, I'm always amazed that "so much can be done with so little" and yet the default is the opposite - "so much is needed to deliver so little" - so irrational! Where did we go wrong? I wonder what Web Euler (2.71828) would have looked like?
I enjoyed the amusing play on the terms "Web 2.0" and "Web 3.0" as well as the irony-infused pun involving the word "irrational". I piled on to the witty wordplay with my own comment where I remarked how my favourite phase of the web was Web Golden (1.61803). I will elaborate here what that phase of the web looked like and why I was fond of it.
I believe I was fortunate enough to grow up during a time when the web was a very diverse place full of various eccentric digital gardens. I was introduced to the world wide web around 1999. Access to the Internet was very limited where I lived. My friends and I would visit so-called Internet cafés and shell out a significant chunk of our pocket money for just an hour of Internet usage.
I was already quite familiar with computers then but the Internet and the world wide web were completely new to me. Until then, thanks to my prior exposure to the Logo programming language, I had only considered computers to be a device for problem solving and recreation. However, the Internet showed me that computers were very flexible and malleable communication devices too. It was a fascinating realization!
While on the Internet, I used to spend most of my time browsing websites and joining various chat forums where I could talk to other programmers from all over the world. I learnt a lot about the world and its various cultures by talking to them. I met people who wrote their own full blown chat clients, people who were nearing retirement after having programmed about twenty different microcontrollers throughout their careers, people who developed software for global positioning systems, and so on. These experiences broadened my horizons. I could see that my enthusiasm for computers could one day lead to a fulfilling career.
The world wide web was a delightful place. There were no major social media websites yet. I believe the closest thing to social media we had back then was Geocities.com where we could create our own websites for free. One could also host their websites on shared website hosting providers for a fixed annual fee. Some also hosted their websites on servers running in their own houses.
Most websites were made up of static HTML pages. Some websites had
tiny guestbooks that allowed a little user-generated content. I
remember some of the website hosting providers made it really easy
to add guestbooks, even for someone with no programming experience.
All one needed to do was create an HTML page that contained
<form> element with the
attribute set to a URL of a CGI script provided by the hosting
provider. The CGI script would accept every comment submitted via
the guestbook and automatically insert the new comment into a static
HTML page. The good scripts would escape the special characters in
the comments properly before saving it in the static comments page.
But the poor ones would let any script kiddie deface the guestbook
within the comments. That would be the first lesson on cross-site
scripting for many of us in those days.
While most personal websites were static in nature, the motivated web developers would teach themselves enough programming to add little pieces of dynamic functionality by writing CGI scripts. Many used PHP instead which was much easier to write code in and deploy. I taught myself ASP to develop dynamic pages. It allowed me to write my own guestbook page and a dynamic quiz application for the visitors of my website.
Although these old, simple, and crude websites can still be found in certain corners of the web, the mainstream web no longer looks like this. Websites are generally heavier and more complex these days. Talking about the old web today only serves as nostalgia for people like me who grew up during that magical time. One might argue that the world wide web today is much more advanced and has much more utility than the old web I am reminiscing about here. That is true. The web today is a very versatile tool of great utility. The web today is a powerful agent that is shaping our civilization and influencing how societies evolve and function. Indeed, the web was quite limited in terms of utility back then. Online banking was not prevalent. Electronic commerce was very new and clunky. The most practical utility of the old web I can recall involved publishing and retrieving university exam results and even that was painfully slow. It would take a minute or two for university pages to load over dial-up connections.
However, what the web of the 90s lacked in terms of utility, it more than compensated by being a fertile ground for creativity. Thanks to the early web, many computer enthusiasts, including me, learnt to build their first few websites by writing one line of HTML at a time. To write a few lines of HTML code in a text editor and then watch the web browser render that code as a glorious web page full of colours, images, and text was a magical feeling. I do think that was the golden era of the web. It was quirky and yet beautiful. It was limited and yet diverse. It was the sweet spot between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. It was Web 1.61803! It was Web Golden!