Berners-Lee Talks up Online Friends and a Social Web

Tim Berners-Lee
Tim Berners-Lee
The man who invented the World Wide Web says that the technology is all about being social, so people need to use it to stretch themselves and the boundaries of their own personal networks.

"The Web is as much a technical creation as a social creation," said Tim Berners-Lee, who's credited by many with inventing the Web in 1989 and wrote the first Web browser in 1990.

"There's a person making all those links and a person is clicking on those links. You can look at the Web as a technical system but you can also look at it as humanity connected by technology," he added

Berners-Lee talked about the evolution of the Internet Wednesday night in a presentation at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge.

The English computer scientist told the audience that people are increasingly connected to their favorite Web sites and to each other in a world now largely defined by the Web.

"Suddenly the economic system is a very complex system of people connected by Twitter," said Berners-Lee, throwing his arms up and screaming.

"The Web has 10 to the power of 11 Web pages. To give you an idea, if you could take the Web and put it into a three-dimensional space the size of someone's brain, it would have more Web pages than the brain has neurons," he added. "We all depend on it and we assume it will work. We wake up in the morning and go online to see the weather and we buy things and we get the news."

The Internet Changed Our Lives

In an interview with Computerworld, Berners-Lee said the Web has changed the lives of most everyone.

"We are better. We are more efficient. We are healthier because of the Web," he said. "When we go to the doctor's now, it's for a second opinion because we've already looked up our symptoms online."

And the British computer scientist and MIT professor told the entire audience that the social nature of the Web -- with sites Facebook and Twitter gaining such massive popularity -- is actually making parties quite boring these days.

He explained that with social networks recommending users friend their friends' friends, there are fewer strangers to meet at our friends' cocktail parties. "If you imagine the connections between you and your friends, your social graph will be a very tightly knotted lump," he added.

Berners-Lee, who was recently ranked the 11th most inspirational British entrepreneur, challenged members of the audience to get out of their comfort zones and out of their tightly-woven circle of online friends.

"I think we should think about stretch friends," he said. "You are friends with so many people in this town or this academy or this religion, but today I'd like to suggest someone to you who is very similar but they're in Iran or he's Catholic or she's a woman. I'm going to ask you to stretch and make a connection with somebody who is on the other side of a boundary because we need more of this."

Berners-Lee said we simply are too focused staying within some very large groups -- work associates, classmates, people in our own neighborhoods. We put too much emphasis on those enclosed groups, he added.

"We need to move some of that and stretch our friends and stretch ourselves," he added.

"Everybody makes one stretch friend a week and bit by bit, bit by bit in the pubs and bars they talk about their stretch friends and bit by bit we start to understand each other and less want to blow their houses up and invade their countries," Berners-Lee said.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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