Sir Tim Berners-Lee – the ultimate influencer?
Even for those of us over the age of 30, it’s hard to remember a time before the internet. How on earth did we cope?
If you wanted to check a fact, you pulled out an encyclopaedia or reference book – or you asked someone cleverer than you. Wanted to listen to a particular song from years ago? You’d track it down on vinyl or one of those new-fangled CDs, and you’d buy it. The list goes on.
Earlier this week, what became the internet celebrated its 25th birthday. It was in March 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee, a British physics graduate and software engineer, found a way for networks of computers to talk to each other.
His initial proposal for a World Wide Web wasn’t exactly greeted with popping Champagne corks and billion-dollar cheques. In fact, his boss at Cern, the European science research centre in Switzerland, described it as “vague but exciting”.
Tim continued to develop his ideas, writing the code for HTML and HTTP, and in 1993 Cern took the landmark decision to make the World Wide Web technology available to all. For free. Mmm…wonder how much that technology is worth today?
It certainly took a while to get going (the first websites were badly designed, slow to load and had little or no animation, let alone video content) but gradually, through the 90s, the internet’s influence began to grow. By the mid-1990s, we had search engines such as Yahoo and browsers such as Internet Explorer, and net surfing was born. The first websites from big brands started to appear from about 1996.
There are now more than 600 million websites and we use the internet to exchange more than 20 million images a minute.
Those are just two of the myriad stats about the Web that no-one in 1989 – not even Tim Berners-Lee – could have envisaged.
Knighted 10 years ago, Sir Tim has never had a huge media profile and doesn’t go in for his own PR, but his influence on our personal and professional lives is probably greater than any individual of the past 50 years.
And when he speaks, his influence means that his comments are carried far and wide.
He still advocates a “Web for everyone”, one that is free and accessible to all. It’s a principle that, in an increasing drive to commercialise and monetise almost every aspect of the digital world, is under threat.
Sir Tim has used the 25th anniversary to ask people to suggest what they think the internet should become over the next 25 years. And, as you’d expect in 2014, he’s created a #web25 hashtag for the purpose.
“If we want a Web that is truly for everyone, then everyone must play a role in shaping its next 25 years,” he told journos gathered at the Science Museum for a peek at the computer that started it all.
He’s also come to the defence of whistleblower Edward Snowden, the former CIA agent. While guest-editing Radio 4’s Today programme, he said Snowden had “done the world a favour” by helping promote a more open and transparent society.
And he’s called for a ‘Magna Carta’ for the internet that would enshrine users’ rights and freedom of speech on the internet.
For all those reasons, Sir Tim Berners-Lee is, hands down, our top PR influencer this week. And probably every other week for the past 25 years.