We met with Dame Wendy Hall to discuss Wikipedia, the internet, hypermedia, and much more. Enjoy!
"It's incredibly fragile because of that, in terms of what happens when the founders go, who will look after it, who will make sure it stays for the people?"” – Dame Wendy Hall, PhD
Dame Wendy Hall discusses her contributions to the construction of the internet and the World Wide Web. As a pioneer of computer science in hypermedia she has watched the internet grow up and transform into what it is today. Professor Hall comments on the future of Wikipedia as well as what we must do to protect it. Follow along as University of Southampton Regius Professor of computer science, Wendy Hall talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.
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(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)
Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and AcademicInfluence, and today we have Dame Wendy Hall who’s coming to us from England, and she is a pioneer of the Internet.
So the first question I have for you today, Dame Wendy, is what is the difference really between the Internet and the World Wide Web, and how did it all get started?
Wendy: Well, this is a very good question, ’cause we tend to talk about it all as the Internet these days, and the Internet is the network of computers that enables messaging to be passed between computers, and it’s that hardware network, and there’s a lot of wires involved, and the way that that is... That runs globally around the world with under-sea cables and might go up into satellites, and there’s a lot of technology involved in it, but there were some simple protocols that Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn developed back in the ’70s, TCP/IP, that became the standard for the exchange of messages between computers, and that’s the Internet, really.
"And it sounds very simple put like that, but those two inventions, the Internet and the World Wide Web, has given us everything that we're doing today."” – Dame Wendy Hall, PhD
And then Tim Berners-Lee with the World Wide Web, his idea was to develop a global hypermedia system that ran on top of the Internet and used the Internet which... And so developed open universal and free standards for exchange... For when you click on a link, you send a message to another computer and download a file at that other computer, and the standards were HTTP and HTML. And that... And it sounds very simple put like that, but those two inventions, the Internet and the World Wide Web, has given us everything that we’re doing today.
Jed: So then one of the amazing things that we have is this thing called Wikipedia, which our website uses, AcademicInfluence, to rank different people just based on how much activity their name has in the Wikipedia space. Tell us what you know about Wikipedia. I know you’re kind of an expert in this, so go ahead and tell us what you know.
Wendy: Well, I saw it grow up, and like many people, I was skeptical about it. But the thing about the Web was it took a while to get... It’s a very different business model that’s developed or how people use and develop things on the Web, because if you remember, you remember those days when as people started to use websites, in fact, one of the first things we did was exchange... We put students’ lecture notes up on the World Wide Web back in the ’90s. So universities were trailblazers, because universities had the Internet, right? So we were one of the first users. And of course, Tim designed the Web to enable physicists to exchange information. That was his primary...
Jed: Yeah, and I saw that your husband is a physicist, as am I, so.
Wendy: Right. Yeah, he was an experimental physicist, though, so... But anyway, it doesn’t matter, yes, he was. And Tim was at CERN in Switzerland and looking to enable physicists to exchange information using the Internet.
But the thing about the Web is that you have to... It works... Both the Internet and the Web work on the network effect, so the more people that use something, the more people use it. And when you started... When we started out with the Web, there was nothing on it, people said, "This isn’t interesting. Why should I bother?" And it wasn’t... It’s not until you get enough information on there to make it useful that people start to realize that that there’s something here that they could actually make use of.
"You don't exist if you don't have a website or your company doesn't have a website, or a university."” – Dame Wendy Hall, PhD
So you’d start to say to people, "Why should I... " You want to put your information on the Web and they’d say, "Well, I’ve got a document information management system, why do I need to use the Web? Why do I need other people to see my information?" You can’t imagine that now. You don’t exist if you don’t have a website or your company doesn’t have a website, or a university.
And then of course we got the early days of the Web. We got early pioneers who did e-commerce, we had... Amazon started then and they’ve kept going, but many didn’t survive.
There was a dotcom boom and then a burst because we didn’t get... The Web started in 1990, we didn’t get broadband until much later in the development of the Web, and you can see on the graphs when the Web starts to take off in the 2000s as broadband and Wi-Fi developed. We didn’t get Google until 2000, around 1999, 2000, 10 years after the Web.
There were things to help you find documents, if you will, like Yahoo and the others at the time, but which have sort of come and gone, but Google became dominant because of the way they did things, that’s a whole other story, in 2000.
And then they, because of the network effect, Google grew and grew and grew and grew. And then you had Amazon becoming the big shop, and then in the mid-2000s, the social network companies started. So Facebook started at Harvard in 2004, and it grew. It was called The Facebook then, and then it grew... It starts to grow. Then Twitter started in 2007, I think. And that’s when Apple released the iPhone, the first smartphone, so you could actually walk around with a phone and actually tweet from your phone as you were on the move, and this was nearly 20 years after the beginning, Tim put the first website up. And Wikipedia, it was Jimmy Wales and his partner, I can’t remember his partner’s name, terrible...
Jed: Larry Sanger .
Jed: Larry Sanger.
Wendy: It’s in Wiki... I was going to say it’s in Wikipedia.
Wendy: They have this idea that... People have had this idea before of sort of a dictionary or encyclopedia of the people. And you think all encyclopedias are of the people, but the amazing thing about Wikipedia, is it’s of the Web, it is a social machine. And basically, the more people that write information into Wikipedia, the more people write information.
At the beginning, there was nothing there. And so people said, "You can’t use that, there’s no facts there, it can’t be used in a court case, you can’t use it in education." But, of course, this is a wonderful thing about Wikipedia is you can both put information in, put the links in to other, link it all up using the Web links, hypertext, and correct it. People can correct it.
And it’s developed its own governance system, so that there are people that have permission to take down sites where it gets controversial or be careful about what’s there if it gets controversial, and can block, block things, if it looks controversial.
But generally, anybody can, if you register, you can put information up and you can also correct it, so you get this sort of flow of active corrections to stories. And over the last 15 years, Wikipedia... The facts and information in Wikipedia have grown and grown and grown.
And so now, it’s almost the definitive source of information for things. And then you get the controversial discussions of the dynamic things that occur. But can you imagine life without Wikipedia?
Jed: No, I cannot. [chuckle]
"It isn't actually a company, and that's the cool thing about it is he set it up as for the people, but it means it's incredibly fragile because of that."” – Dame Wendy Hall, PhD
Wendy: Well, you see, the problem is, Wikipedia, it’s like the Web, it isn’t owned by anybody. It is in the sense that there’s a board, that Jimmy Wales chairs that runs it, but it’s not. It isn’t actually a company, and that’s the cool thing about it is he set it up as for the people, but it means it’s incredibly fragile because of that. In terms of, what happens when the founders go, who will look after it, who will make sure it stays for the people. And just...
The thing is, though, in that time that we have developed Wikipedia, the business we had before of printing encyclopedias has gone. So if the electricity goes or if Wikipedia disappears, and we don’t have access to it, we don’t have a fall-back plan.
Jed: Everything would be from the 1990s, the last...
Wendy: Obviously, there are online encyclopedias, but then they’re not as... And so, we have to take care of it, and I think we have to make sure that Wikipedia is there for the future.
These issues about who manages the Internet, who governs it, who are the right people to regulate it, and as you had the giant... The tech companies grow, and the issues around... I mean, censoring.
I can’t believe that a social media company blocked the Twitter account of a democratically elected US President. I mean, that is remarkable, you can understand why they did it. But it’s remarkable that we have built... And I say we intentionally, because we were part of building that ecosystem of social media platforms, has such control of our democratic processes.
Wendy: And I think, we’ve really got to think that that’s something huge. It isn’t just about who pays tax where, it’s about who has the right to censor this stuff.
Jed: Because like you said, those platforms like Twitter, they came about because we invested our time...
Jed: And our little tweets into it.
Wendy: Absolutely. Which is why we call them social machines, they are a new... So they are co-created by people and technology together.
Jed: Yeah. Wow. Fascinating. Well, I know that this is going to be a fun interview for people to watch, because you lived through all of this. You are part of seeing the internet transform into the World Wide Web, which we all call the internet now.
Wendy: And what it is today. Yeah.
Jed: Yeah. And you saw Wikipedia just being born and now growing into this thing that we cannot live without, and you are now ranked in the top, very top of computer science, because of Wikipedia, because of our input into that Wikipedia platform, that basically cast our votes for who is the most influential people out there.
Wendy: Isn’t that amazing? So you’re inventing another social machine there, that’s very clever.
Jed: That’s right. Yeah, well, we are so glad you could take some time with us today. Thank you, Dame Wendy, for spending time with us.
Wendy: My pleasure. Thank you for asking me.
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