Technology

As we celebrate 20 years of the World Wide Web, lessons from Tim Berners-Lee

“I wanted to reframe the way we use information, the way we work together.”

Such was the kernel of an idea from one Tim Berners-Lee, a software engineer working at CERN back in the 1980s. Working on this idea was a side project for Berners-Lee, one dubbed “vague but exciting” by his boss at the time. Yet today, the results of the experiment turn 20 years old. As his former employer puts it, “On 30 April 1993, CERN published a statement making W3 technology available on a royalty free basis, allowing the web to flourish.” That’s a very less-than-vague achievement we should all take a moment to celebrate.

In 2009, Berners-Lee gave a TED Talk in which he described some of the history of developing the web, and detailed some of his ideas for what might happen next. He essentially documents principles of innovation that hold as true today as they did back when he was experimenting with his radical idea of web-style interoperability, and they’re certainly worth any would-be entrepreneur thinking about in the go-go bubble days of the current tech climate. Innovation, it turns out, is often very less than the result of a Eureka moment of genius insight. Instead, it’s the result of hard work and deep application.

Here, some lessons from Berners-Lee and his twenty-something baby, the World Wide Web.

1. Harness Your Own Frustration

Berners-Lee was annoyed that he couldn’t collaborate easily and seamlessly with the many colleagues who came through CERN’s doors, each one clutching potentially valuable insights and information locked away behind a ton of different formats. He became obsessed with wanting to figure out a way to develop a system to break this problem once and for all. Focusing on solving an actual tangible issue provides a solid foundation for unlocking true innovation potential, yet it’s one that many founders too often seem to overlook. For Berners-Lee, the potential was in the solution it would afford him personally, not in developing a particular technology per se.

2. Involve Others Early

In fact, Berners-Lee is explicit about his focus. “The most exciting thing was not the technology but the community and spirit of people getting together,” he says. It’s a philosophy echoed by a fellow Internet pioneer, Danny Hillis, who described the close-knit spirit of early experimentation in a talk given at TED2013. (Watch the talk below, and do check out his copy of the ARPANET Directory, which included the names and addresses of everyone with an email address in 1982.)

This idea holds particularly true in our age of “launch first, re-launch often.” The point: find your people and figure out how to harness their ideas and input. The web has enabled people from all sorts of locations and backgrounds to connect; there’s simply no excuse for existing in a lone bubble.

3. Don’t Stop

You might think that if you were responsible for launching the World Wide Web, you could kick back, pop open the champagne, and watch the praise and plaudits roll in. Not Berners-Lee. What’s inspiring about his 2009 TED Talk is the passion he clearly shows for his latest project, linked data. It’s clear that he’s proud of his baby, now leaving its teen years and entering adulthood. But it’s also apparent that he feels the conditions are ripe for new invention. His frustration at the walled gardens that have taken over the web (see 1), his excitement at persuading people to provide sources of data (see 2), and his clear drive and excitement at what might be next (see, um, 3) make it clear. We ain’t seen nothing yet.