The Web's First Rules of Etiquette Still Define the Internet Today

When he built the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee wrote a code of conduct that forever shaped how we publish and share information online.

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Mar 12 2014, 4:50pm
Tim Berners-Lee in 1991 with the computer that housed the Web. Image: CERN

This hypertext document is part of a series about surfing the first website ever built, a quarter-century later. 

On the first website ever built, there's a section simply labeled "Etiquette." Tim Berners-Lee seems to have intended the page to serve as a sort of 'best practices' guide for the few users willing or able to add to the burgeoning World Wide Web in the early 90s. Under the heading, there's a single sentence: "There are a few conventions which will make for a more useable, less confusing, web."

And so there are. The page struck me when I first stumbled onto it; bare bones and awkward as it was, it read prophetically. Those conventions, after all, ended up helping to define how we use and understand the web today. This is a good example:

Give the status of the information

Some information is definitive, some is hastily put together and incomplete. Both are useful to readers, so do not be shy to put information up which is incomplete or out of date -- it may be the best there is. However, do remember to state what the status is. When was it last updated? Is it complete? What is its scope? For a phone book for example, what set of people are in it?

Let that sink in for a second. Berners-Lee is calling for users to publish any and all information, no matter how accurate or sloppy or half-gathered it is—just to be sure to label it accordingly. He envisioned the web, from the beginning, as a medium for fast-moving information. Seems a pretty apt way to describe our attitude towards sharing and publishing information today. 

Unsubstantiated rumors are to be posted immediately on a blog, but appended with the appropriate disclaimer. The contents of a breaking press release are to be relayed, and, if unverified, questioned, and perhaps posted in its entirety below the fold. UPDATES are to be added as more is learned. This is how media understand the internet. Major news outlets run mini-stories on tips and hearsay, tagged DEVELOPING, of course, in order to be first to the story. Twitter hoaxes may be published as they unfold, or misinformation about terrorist suspects, so as long as it's implied that the veracity remains unconfirmed. 

But it's not just the internet. The code of conduct towards publishing information the Web engendered has now thoroughly influenced, if not subsumed, how we do so everywhere else. If CNN gets a tip, it's there with cameras in the street, before it knows what's going on. The talking heads are repeating the same paragraph worth of confirmed facts, trying to be clear when they're speculating and opining, not relaying or newscasting. "Do remember to state what the status is" could be the aspirational slogan for both the mainstream and social media for the last decade, ever since the Web bent everything else to its potentiality.

The web has become a race to get information posted, and the biggest questions about its trustworthiness are often whether its status has been accurately described—that part of Berners-Lee's code of conduct is prone to buckle under the weight of the desired to be first.

To provide context for all of the above—whether it be a short blurb, a half-finished directory, or an entire story—Berners-Lee suggested internet users always link back:

Refer back

You may create some data as part of an information tree, but others may may make links to it from other places. Don't make assumptions about what people have just read. Make links from your data back to more general data, so that if people have jumped in there, and at first they don't understand what it's all about, they can pick up some background information to get the context.

That reads: 'link to everything.' Cite your sources. On today's internet, context is still understood through links, and good internet etiquette still holds that sources should be linked up front and center. The more links, the more factual we consider something to be. 'Click here for more' and 'Source' are instantly recognizable as the wellspring from which a reblog has sprung, and the sense that we are only seeing a piece of an internet-spanning tapestry hangs over every webpage. 

But on each particular webpage, Berners-Lee suggests you provide a page for context:

A root page for outsiders

You don't have to have any particular structure to the data you publish: you can let it evolve as you think best. However, it is neat to have a document on each host which others can use to get a quick idea (with pointers) of what information is available there. 

Make a home page, basically, or an 'about' page. And the "Sign It!" convention that starts off the Etiquette section basically calls for users to make an author page to refer back to.

Some of these suggestions may seem like obvious constructs now, but this was long before anyone foresaw the commercialization of the web, or predicted that the entire media apparatus would be forced to move online. These were suggestions for organizing information, plain and simple, so others could retrieve it and build upon the enterprise.

But these conventions took root and eventually formed the backbone of the content we find on the Web. The best practices for sharing, publishing, and organizing information online in 2014 were described by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989.