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.”

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.