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November 26, 2014

Welcome to the open Net!

I wanted to play Tim Berners-Lee’s 1999 interview with Terry Gross on WHYY’s Fresh Air. Here’s how that experience went:

  • I find a link to it on a SlashDot discussion page.

  • The link goes to a text page that has links to Real Audio files encoded either for 28.8 or ISBN.

  • I download the ISBN version.

  • It’s a RAM (Real Audio) file that my Mac (Yosemite) cannot play.

  • I look for an updated version on the Fresh Air site. It has no way of searching, so I click through the archives to get to the Sept. 16, 1999 page.

  • It’s a 404 page-not-found page.

  • I search for a way to play an old RAM file.

  • The top hit takes me to Real Audio’s cloud service, which offers me 2 gigabytes of free storage. I decline.

  • I pause for ten silent seconds in amazement that the Real Audio company still exists. Plus it owns the domain “”

  • I download a copy of RealPlayerSP from CNET, thus probably also downloading a copy of MacKeeper. Thanks, CNET!

  • I open the Real Player converter and Apple tells me I don’t have permission because I didn’t buy it through Apple’s TSA clearance center. Thanks, Apple!

  • I do the control-click thang to open it anyway. It gives me a warning about unsupported file formats that I don’t understand.

  • Set System Preferences > Security so that I am allowed to open any software I want. Apple tells me I am degrading the security of my system by not giving Apple a cut of every software purchase. Thanks, Apple!

  • I drag in the RAM file. It has no visible effect.

  • I use the converter’s upload menu, but this converter produced by Real doesn’t recognize Real Audio files. Thanks, Real Audio!

  • I download and install the Real Audio Cloud app. When I open it, it immediately scours my disk looking for video files. I didn’t ask it to do that and I don’t know what it’s doing with that info. A quick check shows that it too can’t play a RAM file. I uninstall it as quickly as I can.

  • I download VLC, my favorite audio player. (It’s a new Mac and I’m still loading it with my preferred software.)

  • Apple lets me open it, but only after warning me that I shouldn’t trust it because it comes from [dum dum dum] The Internet. The scary scary Internet. Come to the warm, white plastic bosom of the App Store, it murmurs.

  • I drag the file in to VLC. It fails, but it does me the favor of tellling me why: It’s unable to connect to WHYY’s Real Audio server. Yup, this isn’t a media file, but a tiny file that sets up a connection between my computer and a server WHYY abandoned years ago. I should have remembered that that’s how Real worked. Actually, no, I shouldn’t have had to remember that. I’m just embarrassed that I did not. Also, I should have checked the size of the original Fresh Air file that I downloaded.

  • A search for “Time Berners-Lee Fresh Air 1999” immediately turns up an NPR page that says the audio is no longer available.

    It’s no longer available because in 1999 Real Audio solved a problem for media companies: install a RA server and it’ll handle the messy details of sending audio to RA players across the Net. It seemed like a reasonable approach. But it was proprietary and so it failed, taking Fresh Air’s archives with it. Could and should have Fresh Air converted its files before it pulled the plug on the Real Audio server? Yeah, probably, but who knows what the contractual and technical situation was.

    By not following the example set by Tim Berners-Lee — open protocols, open standards, open hearts — this bit of history has been lost. In this case, it was an interview about TBL’s invention, thus confirming that irony remains the strongest force in the universe.

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  • August 9, 2014

    Tim Berners-Lee’s amazingly astute 1992 article on this crazy Web thing he started

    Dan Brickley points to this incredibly prescient article by Tim Berners-Lee from 1992. The World Wide Web he gets the bulk of the credit for inventing was thriving at CERN where he worked. Scientists were linking to one another’s articles without making anyone type in a squirrely Internet address. Why, over a thousand articles were hyperlinked.

    And on this slim basis, Tim outlines the fundamental challenges we’re now living through. Much of the world has yet to catch up with insights he derived from the slightest of experience.

    May the rest of us have even a sliver of his genius and a heaping plateful of his generosity.


    March 15, 2014

    It’s the 25th anniversary of the Web, not the Internet. It’s important to remember the difference.

    I just posted at about why it’s important to remember the difference between the Net and the Web. Here’s the beginning:

    A note to NPR and other media that have been reporting on “the 25th anniversary of the Internet”: NO, IT’S NOT. It’s the 25th anniversary of the Web. The Internet is way older than that. And the difference matters.

    The Internet is a set of protocols?—?agreements?—?about how information will be sliced up, sent over whatever media the inter-networked networks use, and reassembled when it gets there. The World Wide Web uses the Internet to move information around. The Internet by itself doesn’t know or care about Web pages, browsers, or the hyperlinks we’ve come to love. Rather, the Internet enables things like the World Wide Web, email, Skype, and much much more to be specified and made real. By analogy, the Internet is like an operating system, and the Web, Skype, and email are like applications that run on top of it.

    This is not a technical quibble. The difference between the Internet and the Web matters more than ever for at least two reasons.

    Continued at

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    May 1, 2011

    A big question

    Why did the world shatter at the touch of a hyperlink?

    Newspapers, encyclopedias, record companies, telephones, politics, education, analytics, scientifics, genetics, libraries, mass media, high culture, television, classrooms, assholism, channels, columns, stations, tours, travel, marketing, picketing, knitting, hectoring, picturing, gossiping, friendship redefined, attention redefined, leadership redefined, defamation redefined, curating, editing, publishing, correcting, crowds, mobs, shopping, bar-hopping, catalogs, sing-alongs, fact-checking, being together, being apart, staying together, moving on. Social forms and major institutions, many set in the Earth on stone foundations, fell down at the flick of a hyperlink.

    How could that have happened?

    Every discipline has its answer: economics, business, media, anthropology, sociology, religion, linguistics. You name it, and they have a theory. Of course they do because the collapse of institutions is a big deal, so the biggest deal frameworks have to provide some hypothesis.

    We need all those explanations, and we need them all at once. All I’d add is that part of the explanation is that we knew all along that atoms were never up to the job. We knew that the world doesn’t boil down to even the best of newspapers, that it doesn’t fit into 65,000 articles in a printed encyclopedia, that there was more disagreement than the old channels let through. (What they called noise, we called the the world.) We knew that the crap pushed through the radio wasn’t really all that we cared about, or that we all cared about the same things within three tv channels of difference. The old institutions were the best fictions we could come up with given that atoms are way too big.

    The old institutions were more fragile than we let ourselves believe. They were fragile because they made the world small. A bigger truth burst them. The world is more like a messy, inconsistent, ever-changing web than like a curated set of careful writings. Truth burst the world made of atoms.

    Yes, there is infinite space on the Web for lies. Nevertheless, the Web’s architecture is a better reflection of our human architecture. We embraced as if it were always true, and as if we had known it all along, because it is and we did.


    May 15, 2010

    If Mark Zuckerberg invented the Web

    Imagine an alternative universe in which Mark Zuckerberg is born before Tim Berners-Lee, and invents the Web.

    • Mark Zuckerberg forms a company and develops the Web as a commercial enterprise.

    • MZ owns and controls the HTML standard. Nothing changes in it unless MZ thinks it’s a good idea.

    • MZ owns and controls the client — MZ Explorer — that uses that standard. While other apps are permitted API access, the browser is whatever MZ decides to give us.

    • Users can only create pages on MZ’s server, subject to MZ’s content policies.

    • MZ decides how much about the author of each page is automatically disclosed, and he changes his mind every few months.

    • There is no “View Source” so users can easily figure out how to become developers.

    • Innovators’ creations are limited to the API access that MZ allows and are subject to the changes in policy and pricing structures that MZ decides on.

    • Users have no systematic, assured way of transferring out of the Web all of the pages they’ve created within it. Do they even own the pages they’ve created?

    • If the right deal is struck, the Web could be sold to a media company at any moment.

    This alternative history writes its own ending: The Web would be a boring, small, and of little consequence. The real Web unleashed a world-changing renaissance because a modest researcher at a physics lab gave it to us as a gift — open and free.

    The Web knows how pages are connected. Social networking sites know how people are connected. Both are obviously crucial. But, Facebook, for all its success, is not living up to the potential for social networking sites, not by a long shot. The social networking site that will do for the connections among people what the Web has done for the connections among sites is awaiting its own Tim Berners-Lee — a person or group that understands that control constrains, but gifts liberate.


    September 22, 2009

    Call-in on Web Exceptionalism

    I’m going to be on a call-in webcasty thing tomorrow (Thursday) as part of the Supernova series. You can see it here or call (347) 945-6578. It starts at 1pm EDT (Boston) time.

    The topic is: Is the Web really exceptional? Or is it Yet Another Communications Medium? Or something else?

    I’m probably going to say that it’s exceptional – that is, unique – in some important ways:. It’s hard to find another medium that works well at virtually every scale. It’s hard to find another medium that lowers the hurdle to global communication so far (although posting something that’s accessible to the world hardly means that the world will access it). And hyperlinks are unique and important.

    Of course, it’s not clear what the consequences are of those exceptional characteristics.


    January 29, 2008

    Course begins

    I’m too nervous to be able to blog about the course I’m co-teaching with John Palfrey, beyond saying that we had our first session yesterday, and there’s a course blog open to the students as posters and to anyone as a reader. (We didn’t have time yesterday to tell the students the URL, so none have posted there yet.) Well, I will say a couple more things: The title of the course is “The Web Difference,” and it’s about whether and how the Web is different, and what that means for law and policy. Also, JP is an awesome teacher. OMG.

    What the heck. Yesterday, after going through preliminaries and intros, JP led the class for half an hour in a discussion of a case in which awful things were said on a discussion board, yet the discussion board owner was not held liable. If those things had been said in a newspaper, the paper could have been sued. What’s the difference in the two situations and why might the law be different in them? I led a similarly-themed discussion, far more awkwardly, about whether friendship on the Web is “real” and how it differs from real world friendship. [Tags: ]


    October 11, 2007

    Explain cookies, win $5,000

    Berkman and, sponsored by Google, are having a contest. Create a YouTube that explains cookies and win yourself $5,000. And before you waste your time getting out the flour and the cookie cutters, be sure to read the rules. [Tags: cookies videos contests youtubes berkman ]

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    September 17, 2007

    Asks Jimmy Wales a question

    As part of One Web Day Matthew Burton is holding an Ask-Jimmy-Wales-a-Question event. To participate, go here. The event will be live in NYC on Saturday. If you’re in town, here’s the info. [Tags: onewebday ]

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    One Web Day at the Berkman Center

    On Tuesday at 12:30, the Berkman Center wil celebrate One Web Day [video | rocketboom] by devoting its weekly lunch discussion to The Net in Ten. Four Fellows will each give a five minute presentation on the future of the Net, and then there will be open discussion. You can sign up for the lunch here. [Tags: onewebday future ]

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