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The Birth of the 'Fifth Estate': William Dutton on 20 Years of the World Wide Web

By Manfred Dworschak

In a SPIEGEL interview, William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute discusses how fundamentally the World Wide Web has changed our lives since its creation 20 years ago, offering his views on how it helps communities organize and its emergence as a 'Fifth Estate,' helping hold both governments and media around the globe accountable.

A screen shot of the NeXT computer used by Tim Berners-Lee to browse the World Wide Web at the time became publicly accessible on Aug. 6, 1991. Zoom
CERN

A screen shot of the NeXT computer used by Tim Berners-Lee to browse the World Wide Web at the time became publicly accessible on Aug. 6, 1991.

SPIEGEL: Professor Dutton, do you happen to remember what you were doing on Aug. 6, 1991?

Dutton: I have no idea. It's very interesting that the invention of the World Wide Web was not an earth-shaking event. It was definitely not like the Kennedy assassination.

SPIEGEL: On that Aug. 6, Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web, made his invention accessible to the Internet community. He did so in a discussion forum called alt.hypertext ...

Dutton: ... and probably not even Berners-Lee himself anticipated the viral spread of the standards he created.

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Photo Gallery: The Birth of the World Wide Web
SPIEGEL: The forum still exists today, 20 years later. Now it's a barren, spooky place that advertises cheap sunglasses and a "hot, crazy wife." Is this a sign of the times?

Dutton: On the Internet, people are always moving to the next cool site. And it's still very hard to predict where the public will go.

SPIEGEL: When did it become clear to you that something really big was about to emerge?

Dutton: Well, first it didn't look like that at all. I had already been writing e-mails since the mid-1970s, using the precursor to the Internet, the Arpanet. But for many years to come, the Internet was a tool only for computer scientists and academics -- even in 1991, it was frustratingly difficult to convince other people of its benefits. The Internet was complicated to use and visually unappealing. People thought the Web was something like CB radio. Local "bulletin boards" were much more popular back then, because they already had colorful, more graphical user interfaces. The breakthrough came with the first graphic Web browsers, Mosaic and later Netscape. At that time, I realized that this was going to be a mass medium. All of a sudden, everybody around me was learning HTML and creating their own websites.

SPIEGEL: In retrospect, do you think that the Web has lived up to its promise?

Dutton: It has exceeded what anybody could have imagined. Today over a third of the population in Great Britain regard the Internet as essential to their information needs in everyday life and work, more essential than the press or television.

SPIEGEL: The Oxford Internet Institute, which you run, investigates the Internet's influence on society, politics and everyday life -- often with astonishing results, for example on the field of online dating.

Dutton: Yes. We've studied how many couples have met on the Internet, particularly since 2000 and social networking. The percentage is rising, and it's the highest in Germany, where almost one in three couples with Internet access who met since 2000, met online -- in a social network, a chat room or with the help of an online agency.

SPIEGEL: That's surprising indeed ...

Dutton: ... particularly given that the Internet was usually seen as a place where only computer geeks would look for relationships -- not to mention all this panic around dangerous people lurking there. But in the meantime, the Net has apparently been accepted as a new venue to look for somebody you may not otherwise meet. It's a matter of people trying things out before becoming convinced. That's why I call the Internet an "experience" technology.

SPIEGEL: Does the large supply also affect people's choice of partners?

Dutton: Yes, couples that met each other online are more diverse -- such as with greater differences in age and education than couples who met offline. And it's people from the working class who are more interested in looking for relationships online than people with high socioeconomic status. They often want to expand their horizon, to get out of their neighborhood, their workplace.

SPIEGEL: If couples are becoming more diverse, what do they have in common?

Dutton: The Internet is good at linking people with similar interests. Many dating services promise to match couples according to interests, others by personalities. There is even a dating site for the Gothic scene.

SPIEGEL: So the online youth are now learning how to flirt in front of a computer screen?

Dutton: No. Young people are not consciously interested in finding partners through the Internet. Most still have their social networks in real life. It's more the people over forty, with one or two marriages behind them. If I encourage my two daughters to try an online dating site, they think it's ridiculous.

SPIEGEL: The supply of potential partners is practically endless. Doesn't that make people more picky?

Dutton: I think so. We have evidence of that. But the agencies do a good job to keep it manageable. For example, some offer you three good matches first. This role of a third party could become more common in a variety of areas where people are overwhelmed by too much choice and distrust -- shopping, for example. However, the Internet is good at cutting through that information deluge -- by search engines, by focusing people on the top-rated sites, or the sites your friends recommend.

SPIEGEL: Are relationships now constantly under threat because there could always be a better match waiting for you online?

Dutton: Yes, they are. There are some famous cases of women who met their partner online getting a divorce after having caught their spouse flirting with some other woman online. That happens in real life as well. But on the Internet what's going on is so transparent that it tends to get exaggerated -- just like the dangers of Internet addiction or gambling online. It's this kind of moral panic that I'm quite worried about.

SPIEGEL: Now you're exaggerating.

Dutton: I'm not. When it comes to the risks of the Internet, our society shows a tendency toward a disproportionate reaction. Just think of the concerns about children online. In fact the Internet is a great technology for informal learning, for anything a child might be interested in. From time to time, perhaps once a year, there is a story about somebody getting abducted or whatever, which is obviously terrible. People often say the Web is like a swimming pool - where we need strict guidelines and safety mechanisms. But swimming pools are far more dangerous than the Internet. Panic doesn't solve the problem and often leads to poor remedies.

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About William Dutton
  • Graham Harrison
    Professor William Dutton, 63, is director of the respected Oxford Internet Institute. The University of Oxford organization has spent the past decade researching the ways in which the Internet has fundamentally changed society.

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