Future Tense

The Button That Could Have Changed the Internet

An illustrated hand clicks on a button that says, "Oh, yeah?"
Illustration by Slate and Getty Images Plus

Twenty-five years ago, on Dec. 3, 1997, the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, gave a talk at the W3C meeting in London. His speech was notable for its review of the early web, its initial development, and his thoughts about the future of the web.

One idea Berners-Lee posited in his talk—an idea he had been thinking about for more than a year—was undeniably brilliant.  He suggested that every browser be equipped with what he called the “Oh, Yeah?” button.  The idea was that we all would start building trust through signed metadata as we moved around the web. In a sense, our normal web browsing would create a gigantic accumulation of crowd-sourced credibility. “When we have this, we will be able to ask the computer not just for information, but why we should believe it,” he said.

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Imagine an “Oh, yeah?” button on your browser. There you are looking at a fantastic deal that can be yours just for the entry of a credit card number and the click of a button. Oh, yeah?, you think. You press the “Oh, yeah?” button. You are asking your browser why you should believe it. It, in turn, can challenge the server to provide some credentials: perhaps, a signature for the document or a list of documents that expresses what that key is good for. Those documents will be signed. Your browser rummages through with the server, looking for a way to convince you that the page is trustworthy for a purchase. Maybe it will come up with an endorsement from a magazine, which in turn has been endorsed by a friend. Maybe it will come up with an endorsement by the seller’s bank, which has in turn an endorsement from your bank. Maybe it won’t find any reason for you to actually believe what you are reading at all.

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The “Oh, Yeah?” button, it should be noted, was not truly about verifying information or locating “truth.” Berners-Lee wasn’t suggesting that ontological certitude would arise from the web mob’s ranking of websites that distributed the most accurate information. Rather, the “Oh, Yeah?” button would suggest a more paradigmatic truth—that is, a reasonable approximation of whether something you read on the web was considered generally in the realm of credible by most people.

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The “Oh, Yeah?” button represented an early warning that we’d all need to be more skeptical in cyberspace in the future. It was also an admission that the web, in the future, would likely be employed to fool us with some regularity. Politicians, salespeople, criminals, miscreants, and liars would abound, and we’d need an easy way to counter them in our daily perusal of information.

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Had it come to pass, so many ills that plague the web and social media today—think: “fake news” accusations, disinformation campaigns, and catfishing—could have been addressed from the start.

Yet, ultimately, the “Oh, Yeah?” button never got installed on our browsers. Too many factors conspired against it. In Berners-Lee’s original example, he noted its direct challenge to advertising. As the web grew more and more commercial, the idea that a simple click of a button might reveal paradigmatic truth about any product’s advertised claims represented an almost existential threat to its usefulness as a selling vehicle. The “Oh, Yeah?” button might also have resulted in increased tension and argumentation as the web evolved toward social media. Imagine the anger that would be ignited if you let your crazy uncle know what your browser’s “Oh, Yeah?” button informed you about his latest Facebook conspiracy.

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The “Oh, Yeah?” button, for all its admirable skepticism, also contained an important flaw that would only be revealed in the algorithmic age. Because each of our browsers would independently accumulate the signed metadata based on our distinct web usage, each of our “Oh, Yeah?” buttons would present us with distinct, unique paradigmatic truths.  Just as no two social media feeds are completely identical, it’s likely no two “Oh, Yeah?” buttons would return identical findings.  Berners-Lee, back in 1997, was too optimistic about the possibility of accumulating and distributing a shared reality in the future. We know now that we prefer social media algorithms channeling us into worlds where our biases and beliefs require no skepticism. Why would anybody want to click an “Oh, Yeah?” button to check the hilarious political meme reconfirming exactly what they already know to be true? Why spoil the fun?

In hindsight, we ultimately traded away the “Oh, Yeah?” button for the “Like” button. And that was a huge mistake.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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