The Internet Has Too Many Anniversaries

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
March 12 2014 5:41 PM

The Internet Has Too Many Anniversaries

Tim Berners-Lee's first web server.

Photo from Wikimedia.

Today is the 25th anniversary of the Web's founding.* On March 12, 1989, computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee proposed a type of digital information sharing at CERN that would use “linked information,” “nodes,” and “hypermedia” to form a “web.”

Lily Hay Newman Lily Hay Newman

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.

Berners-Lee is appropriately renowned today. He runs the World Wide Web Consortium, is a senior researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, was knighted, and a lot more. Today, on the quarter-century anniversary of the Web, he threw his support behind net neutrality and privacy regulations in a Guardian exclusive. And that was significant, whether you agreed or disagreed, because he is a big deal.


Except there are a bunch of other Web and Internet anniversaries. Is this one the real one? If you're counting from the first time a computer sent another computer a message on ARPANET, then the Internet is 44 and had its 40th anniversary in 2009. Or if you count it as starting when CERN made the Internet's protocols public for free, then it celebrated its 20th anniversary last April. Or if you take it from the first time someone registered a ".com" Web address, which had its 25th anniversary in 2010, then it's about to turn 29.* We could go all night.

Berners-Lee's proposal seems like a solid place to specifically hang the Web's hat, but even if you like a different birthday better, we should be able to all agree that neither the eighth anniversary of YouTube nor the seventh anniversary of LinkedIn's launch is a big deal. We can't celebrate all of these techniversaries every five years, much less every year. Instead of lending context, the practice degrades our understanding of how things unfolded by making every passage of time seem worth noting.

The problem is that dates and times are recorded very exactly on the Internet. You can look up when someone bought a particular domain name, when a company first took a site live, or when someone sent their first tweet. As humans we like anniversaries, and when tech journalists come across them, they publish about them because they know readers will be interested. But all we're actually doing is creating a body of these events that we will serve arbitrarily over time. The first electric toaster was invented in 1893. So last year was the 120th anniversary! Not important.

As early tech breakthroughs recede in history, they may naturally become less interesting, but they will just be replaced by new ones. If we don't stop collecting techniversaries and writing about them every year or every five years, we'll have more than one a day soon. The anniversary of Berners-Lee's proposal to CERN is important, but overall we need to chill out. It's a good problem to have, though, that humans so often invent things we are happy we made.

*Correction, March 12, 2014: This post originally misstated that March 12 is the anniversary of the Internet. It is the anniversary of the Web. While they are often used interchangeably, they are distinct.

*Correction, March 13, 2014: This post originally misstated that this year marks the 24th anniversary of someone registering a ".com" Web address. It marks the 29th anniversary.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Lily Hay Newman is lead blogger for Future Tense.


Medical Examiner

Here’s Where We Stand With Ebola

Even experienced international disaster responders are shocked at how bad it’s gotten.

It’s Not Easy for Me, but I Stand With Emma Watson on Women’s Rights

Divestment Is Fine but Mostly Symbolic. There’s a Better Way for Universities to Fight Climate Change.

Subprime Loans Are Back

And believe it or not, that’s a good thing.

It Is Very Stupid to Compare Hope Solo to Ray Rice

Building a Better Workplace

In Defense of HR

Startups and small businesses shouldn’t skip over a human resources department.

Why Are Lighter-Skinned Latinos and Asians More Likely to Vote Republican?

How Ted Cruz and Scott Brown Misunderstand What It Means to Be an American Citizen

  News & Politics
Sept. 22 2014 6:30 PM What Does It Mean to Be an American? Ted Cruz and Scott Brown think it’s about ideology. It’s really about culture.
Business Insider
Sept. 23 2014 10:03 AM Watch Steve Jobs Tell Michael Dell, "We're Coming After You"
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 23 2014 9:01 AM Tristan da Cunha: Life on the World's Most Remote Island
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 22 2014 7:43 PM Emma Watson Threatened With Nude Photo Leak for Speaking Out About Women's Equality
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Sept. 22 2014 1:52 PM Tell Us What You Think About Slate Plus Help us improve our new membership program.
Brow Beat
Sept. 23 2014 9:42 AM Listen to the Surprising New Single From Kendrick Lamar
Future Tense
Sept. 22 2014 6:27 PM Should We All Be Learning How to Type in Virtual Reality?
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 23 2014 7:00 AM I Stand With Emma Watson
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.