522: Jay Hoffman and The History of the Web

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Jay Hoffman talks with us about his History of the Web project and takes us through some of the important markers of the web's past including when ad money started, Web 2.0, Facebookification, RSS, CSS, and fads that have come and gone.



Jay Hoffmann

Web · Social

Lead Developer at Reaktiv Studios. Creator of The History of the Web.

Time Jump Links

  • 00:28 Dave's not here
  • 01:29 Guest introduction
  • 02:53 The old days in the current days
  • 05:00 A brief history of the web
  • 07:51 Academic distribution of knowledge documents
  • 11:14 When did ads and money start?
  • 14:44 Sponsor: Notion
  • 16:03 What are the bigger takeaways from the past?
  • 19:34 Web 2.0 in 2005
  • 22:39 Facebookification in 2010
  • 25:33 XML vs HTML
  • 31:39 RSS feeds
  • 34:01 The history of the history of the web project
  • 39:49 The invention of CSS
  • 41:42 Laying out websites with tables
  • 47:02 Thinking about fads and trends


[Banjo music]

MANTRA: Just Build Websites!

Dave Rupert: Hey there, Shop-o-maniacs. You're listening to another episode of the ShopTalk Show, a podcast all about front-end Web design and development - and maybe a little history lesson here today. I'm Dave Rupert and with me is Chris Coyier. Hey, Chris. How are you doing today?

Chris Coyier: I'm doing--

Dave: Did I introduce myself twice? [Laughter]

Chris: Dave -- Did you say--?

Dave: I'm a little out of it. I might have said Dave twice. Hey, I'm back from vacation. We're doing...

Chris: This podcast could use two Dave's more than it could use--

Dave: We need two. We need an intern Dave and a new Dave.

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: Old Dave and an intern Dave.

Chris: One for the soundboard?

Dave: Yeah, so--

Chris: Yeah. I was wondering. When you said front-end development, I'm like, "You know what, actually--" You know the early days, there was no such thing. It was just the webmaster.

Sometimes I think -- I don't know if this actually went down. We need somebody to actually research this at some point, but I feel like, in the early days of Dan Denny's conference (Front End Design Conf) that it was weird. It was like, "What is that?" in the very earliest one.

Dave: Front End?

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: Hmm.

Chris: Not that Dan invented it. Although, you know, Dan could use some credit.

Anyway, we haven't even introduced the guest yet, who is sitting right here. Jay Hoffman, Jason Hoffman: which one do you prefer for the show?


Jay Hoffman: Let's go with Jay. Hey, folks.

Chris: Jay Hoffman. Fantastic.

Dave: Hey.

Chris: Thanks for joining us, Jay. How's it going?

Jay: Yeah. Thanks for having me. Big fan.

Chris: Cheers. Yeah, you know our paths have crossed paths many times. You've written extensively about Web history, which we can't avoid talking about today. You do that on your own site and have a newsletter. On CSS-Tricks, there's a ten-part series that starts way back. I mean you literally did it in chronological order (as we were doing that together) and then, famously, spoken by Jeremy Keith too, who just took it upon himself to do the audio version of it. So cool!

Jay: Yeah, I owe a lot to Jeremy, actually. He was one of my -- I think he's in the first ten subscribers to the newsletter. So, yes.

Chris: Nice. Yeah.

Jay: Jeremy Keith, thank you.

Chris: Has an unabashed love for the Web, and he talks about old-time stuff and new-time stuff. I will mention this made me think about--

We just had Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer on the show the other day, and I was like, "You know what? I want to talk about some new stuff because y'all aren't dead." You know? Gees. It's like you're active workers in Web technology today, and I feel like it might get weird or old to be like, every time you're invited on something, be like, "Let's talk about the early -- the old days." You know?

You're like, "Why don't we talk about the new days too?" But in your case, I don't feel bad about it at all because you actively research and write about the old days.


Jay: And you know it's funny because you can't, I mean you just can't write about CSS without talking about Eric Meyer, and you can't write about Web standards or early Web development and design without Zeldman. And they have both sent me, graciously, corrections, which is another part about researching the Web that's pretty great is that a lot of people are still around and active, you know. But they are so essential, I think, to the development of the Web, and it's great to hear that they're continuing with that because they really were a guide, especially for Web standards. We wouldn't be here where we are with browsers without them. Yeah, absolutely.

Chris: Pretty cool, but you dig up other names. I feel like, in a way, everybody knows those fellas because they were active bloggers, and then in conferences and stuff. They are in the public eye.

But in your research, you don't really care if somebody was in the public eye or not. In fact, it's almost more interesting, the people that aren't. You know?

Jay: Yeah. I've been running the newsletter for five years or so, and somewhere about a couple of years in, I made it almost a mission to try to uncover who are the voices of the Web, who started creating the Web, that we don't really hear about as much. Like one of the ones that I stumbled upon, her name is Louise Addis, and she worked at Stanford in the early '90s. And she was responsible for the first website in the U.S., which was the Stanford Linear Accelerator.

Chris: Whoa!

Jay: And it's -- you know, I had never heard that name. There are like two interviews with her ever. She was very old by the time the Web came around, so she's sadly not around anymore. But yeah, I mean you stumble upon these names, and they were super critical to the early Web. But no one really knew what it was even at that point, so there wasn't a lot of mention.

We were talking about webmasters before. If we can trace it back to the first webmaster ever, I think it would be Louise. Yeah, there are some really interesting names and people that have shaped it.

Chris: That's fascinating. I'd love to put a year on that. Do you have that loaded into your brain at the moment?


Jay: Yeah, so it's 1992 is when. So, if we want to do it quick, in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee comes up with the idea for the Web. By 1990, he's starting to build browsers and the first website, but he's working at CERN, which they're responsible for--

Chris: There's some chicken or the egg there, right? You've got to have a Web browser before you can have a website.

Jay: Yeah.

Chris: But there's nothing for the browser to do if there's not a website.

Jay: Well, they were almost like the same thing, you know. The idea was clients and websites were going to be more integrated. He had a browser that could be used to create websites, which was kind of interesting.

Chris: Wow, the read/write Web, huh?

Jay: Exactly. But yeah, he was working at CERN. But it took until probably 1991 for it even to break outside of the hallways of CERN and into the general public and that's when it came over to the U.S., mostly through universities and stuff, like 1992, 1993.

Dave: Well, wasn't it -- I have the book over here somewhere... Weaving the Web, by Sir Tim Berners-Lee. But it was like him and his intern, and she just was kind of like, I guess, good enough at code. [Laughter]

Jay: Mm-hmm.

Dave: But he kind of came up with the idea and she kind of built the Web browser, and we don't hear about her that often. You know? [Laughter] It's probably like--

Jay: I'm sure you're noticing a pattern here a little bit.

Dave: Yeah. There are a few patterns that occur, but you know it's just--

Jay: Yeah, so Nicola Pellow is who you're talking about. Yeah, she wrote the first line mode browser, which basically the browser that Tim Berners-Lee created was for NeXT computers. Are you two familiar with NeXT at all?

Chris: That's the little Steve Jobs thing?

Jay: Yeah.

Dave: Yeah.

Jay: Yeah.

Dave: Yeah.

Jay: Yeah, Steve Jobs got booted from Apple, created his other new computer company, NeXT, and that eventually just went back into Apple. But not a lot of people used it.

Chris: What is a line-mode browser?

Jay: Yeah, so a line-mode browser was the first browser that anybody could use regardless of their platform, so that was extremely important, obviously, because a lot of people were using Linux at the time or Windows or early Windows at that point.

Chris: Oh...

Jay: So, it was text only. It's very, very, very basic. But you couldn't have built a World Wide Web with a bunch of people using NeXT computers, right? They were like these $5000 hunkering things. You know?

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Chris: I see, so this was the command line, or whatever you would refer to it as back then.

Jay: Yep, so it was extremely useful, and I think that's how a lot of people -- very early on, that's how they got onto the Web.

Chris: So, line mode it was, text only, and you'd hit it. It makes sense to me that it was academic in nature because there could be this information-sharing type of thing that I'm sure would appeal to a researcher, like, "Oh, my gosh. What did such-and-such researcher at some university have to say about particles, or whatever? I want to know! I want to share that information." You know?

That's true, right? It was academic in spirit at first.

Jay: Yeah, and I don't even know if we've fully shaken off the metaphoric document to this day, but that's how it was thought of and framed. It was a document that could be linked to other documents as a way of linking and sharing information.

Chris: Uh-huh.

Jay: So, it was much more about how can we distribute knowledge, how can we distribute information in a way that is cataloged and categorized. Yeah, that was kind of the grounding for the idea.

Chris: And cataloging and categorization was not the job of any particular website, right?

Dave: Yeah, that's not built into the system.


Dave: I'll go on record.

Jay: Yeah. Yeah. No.


Chris: No, so the amount of information on the Internet hit some crucial tipping point where it's like, "Well, crap. How do you find anything then?" Right? That was probably--

Jay: Yeah, I mean search engines came along pretty early. You know if we're hinting at Google, that was later. That was end of 1998, I think.

But one of the first sites that Tim Berners-Lee built was like literally just here's all the websites that exist organized loosely by categories that Tim had come up with in his head. So, I think there was that impulse right away. It's almost one of the--

Dave: [Laughter] Sorry. It's like beer, ninjas--

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: [Laughter]

Chris: I tried to write down all the burrito restaurants in my hometown and I can't even get through it.

Jay: Yeah.

Dave: [Laughter] Beer, burritos, ninjas--

Chris: [Laughter]

Jay: I mean that's the thing is it was on you to just email, like just send an email to Tim and let him know about a website, and he would roughly just put it in whatever order he thought. Yeah, absolutely. He can get it done in an--

Dave: I'm crying. Sorry.

Jay: You know.

Chris: Yeah.

Jay: You'd check your inbox in the morning and spend an hour on that. He would just do that and then get all the websites for the day that were created.

Chris: That's great. Interestingly, that's how Yahoo was originally famous, too. It was more of a directory than it was a search thing, right?

Jay: Yeah, and they just had an army of people. I think Yahoo was doing some automated stuff, but I don't even know how much it occurred to them that you could just automate a lot of this stuff. So, what they did was they basically got an army of people to just click around, find new websites, and catalog them, which was -- I don't know -- a really interesting project. It's almost like a shame that it went the other way (in some ways).

Dave: That would be my dream job in 1998, I think. I get paid to click on the Internet and find weird stuff and then put it in a category? That would be great.

Chris: I remember. This is like 2007 or something. Remember the Jason Calacanis guy?

Jay: Mm-hmm.

Chris: A little controversial figure in Internet stuff.

Jay: Yes.

Chris: But he tried to do that. He tried to bring the human-powered directory search engine kind of thing back to the Web with Anyway--

Dave: Oh, yeah.

Chris: That was weird. But there's money. Where does Yahoo get any money? Now, I'm asking. [Laughter] We're just peppering you with questions. Did they have ads for Pepsi Cola on there that early, or did that--?

Jay: So, here's the thing about -- yes. They had ads. And when you're doing everything manually, and you're curating, and the way that you're selling ads is the way that magazines used to sell ads. You would just call up a company and they would request an order, and they would put in a purchase for a large order of ads.

The appeal of Yahoo to advertisers was, are you a rock-climbing company? We'll put you in the rock-climbing category right up at the top. Here's an ad for it.

Chris: Yeah.

Jay: So, the curation actually lent itself to advertising really well and that's how they made a lot of their early money, for sure.

Dave: I'm not saying it's right, but that was the doorstep to the Internet. That was like, "Okay, Internet. What's on here?"

I mean I remember I moved to Japan in 2003, right? So, Google is now cool.

Chris: Five years in, it probably was really cool.

Dave: All of Japan still used Yahoo, and they would even just like -- Yahoo was the Internet provider, like the broadband Internet provider.

Chris: What?!

Dave: Yahoo was -- it is still to this day, I think. Yahoo was -- they called the Web "going on Yahoo," and advertisements were like "Go to this URL." It was like, "Search on Yahoo for this and click the first result."

It was just wild, so I don't know. But it was very much the doorstep into the Internet. You walked in. That's a great place to put your ad, I guess. [Laughter]

Chris: Yeah.

Dave: "Hey, this is the doorstep." Okay, great.

Chris: I like the inherent targeting. It reminds me of podcasts. I mean today, if you want to advertise to Web developers, you can advertise on Web development podcasts. Thanks, ads.


Jay: I think, keep in mind, the numbers were far larger back then because their metrics were much more imperfect. Right? So, they can give you vague stats on who was coming based on server logs. But in the same way that magazine circulation is largely inflated (and that's how they sell ads there), the idea was more or less the same with the Web. So, Double-Click, who eventually Google bought, that made ads go down to like one cent per thousand views, that was much, much later.

Chris: Hmm.

Jay: They're selling large deals. They have entire sales teams that are going out and trying to find the right fit for the right content. It was much more like that.

Chris: Interesting. There was just more money in it because people didn't know. There was no way to measure it? Oh, that's fascinating.

Jay: Right. Just think -- I think, how much money are they going to throw at a billboard? A lot at any given time. To them, that's no different than putting an ad on the Web.

Chris: It's no different.

Jay: I mean they were called billboards for that reason.

Chris: Stan, how many eyeballs are we going to get on this? Be like, "Hey, Sue, what do you think? Like a billion, a bill?"

Jay: Yeah. I mean just how many people are on the Web.

Chris: "That's a billion. Sue says it's a billion." [Laughter]

Jay: It was probably everybody that's got a browser, and that's--

Chris: Pretty much everybody.

Jay: Yeah, for sure.

Dave: Well, and then I'm there refreshing, so I jack up the page counter. You know?

Jay: [Laughter] Right.

Dave: Yeah.

Jay: So, the advertising model has drastically changed from now to then.


[Banjo music starts]

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[Banjo music stops]


Chris: Well, the questions I asked -- we can keep going into history because this is fascinating, but you've done a lot of this research. You've had the newsletter for five years. You published this. You've organized this information. Obviously, you have a lot of it right at the tip of your brain.

I asked you when we were lining this up, like, you know, what are the bigger takeaways. Now that you can see the whole picture, like you have it in your mind probably better than anybody else on earth does. What are the insights?

Jay: Yeah. Yeah. It's a great question. I think -- I had this thought that if I ever write a book [laughter] specifically about this, what I would try to do is take one day or one week that are ten years apart and just take a look a look around at what's happening that day or that week (on the Web) and use that as a basis of comparison. And when I do that, when I think through that, the dates that come to mind are 1995 late fall -- late summer, early fall of 1995, and then ten years later in 2005.

The reason I picked those dates is because, in 1995, what you have is the release of the first version of Internet Explorer, which R.I.P., you know.

Chris: Okay. Yeah.

Jay: They had a really great run from 1995 until now. And it's the Netscape IPO happens. Within two weeks of each other, those two things happen.

And then when you flash forward to 2005, that's the Web 2.0 conference. It's the first time that it's really talked about in larger circles, so the idea is coming around a little bit, but that's really where it comes out into the world is in 2005. I think right there gives you such an interesting picture of what the trajectory of things were because I think, in 1995, that was when things picked up speed. As soon as Netscape IPO'd, people were like, "Oh, my God. There's value here."

Chris: Hmm.

Jay: People rushed onto the Internet following that. All of a sudden, it went from this tool we're talking about, like very fun, but mostly for academics, to a thing that you can sell cars on. Right? I mean that happened in essentially four years, between 1995 and 1999. Prior to the dot-com bubble, there's this massive rush to the Web.

Then in 2005, they tried to reinvent the Web again as a place of community and trying to lower the barrier of entry and make it less--

I mean there's still sort of a commercial element, but I think the Web intentioned version of Web 2.0 was to try to give back some of that data and that ownership to people and make it a much more distributed community-driven place. I think that's an interesting trajectory for the first, let's say, decade or two of the Web. Then if you look 2005 to 2015, there's probably all sorts of interesting things there too.

But I do -- it is interesting to think about these things in arcs or these longer arcs, like what was the -- what drove people to the Web as it continued to grow, essentially?

Chris: Fascinating.

Jay: Yeah.


Chris: 2005, a big year. Was there anything in particular you had in mind about 2005?

Jay: Yeah, I think 2005 probably would have been the year that Flickr -- I don't know if it came out--

Chris: Oh... But it was big. Hmm.

Dave: Yeah, Flickr,

Jay: Delicious was a big one at the time.

Dave: Delicious. Yeah.

Jay: I think what was interesting -- I think what's cool about -- so, Web 2.0, I think, gets wrapped up in this idea that it was Ajax and the page never needs to refresh.

Dave: Right.

Jay: When we think about Web 2.0, we're like that's what it was. In fact, I think the article on Ajax, that was 2005 as well. But--

Chris: Oh...

Jay: That was just the technology. I think the idea behind Web 2.0 was that it was going to be this API-driven Web where everything talks to everything else and you keep your stuff in little warehouses around the Web. It's like I put all my bookmarks in Delicious, and I put my pictures in Flickr, and they can all talk to each other. Then I'll have kind of like a complete social graph of my entire life that maps one-to-one onto the Web as well. That was the dream of Web 2.0, which veered hard in different directions.

Dave: I mean I was scrobbling my iTunes plays onto, you know?

Chris: [Laughter]

Jay: Yeah, and that's a great advantage. But you know what's funny? Yeah, it's a joke, but also I think it points to the big myth of Web 2.0 was people don't want to scrobble. We do. Everybody on this call does, and probably a lot of people listening, but once it hit mainstream, it's like people didn't want to futz around with APIs. They didn't want to futz around with, like, how does this thing connect to this other thing? And so, things started to centralize after that, really.

Chris: Yeah, it's because people actually, in their heart, want centralization. [Laughter] Sorry.

Jay: Yeah.


Dave: Sort of. Yeah, well, it does seem like -- I've heard this--

We said before the show, we weren't going to talk about Web 3, but I've heard it in the context of Web 3. It was like, what's good about Web 3. We'll just leave it at this. It's like it decentralizes. It decentralizes payment auth, you know, different things.

I've heard people go, like, that is exactly what Web 2.0 was. [Laughter] But like you said, Web 2.0 just gets stamped with Ajax, and that's what it was. But Web 2.0 was really about, "Hey, create your stuff here. You get a login. User-generated content." You know?

But then it quickly changed, kind of. I don't know. I would love to hear your thoughts, but Facebook and Farmville, that lethal combination. [Laughter] I don't know.

Jay: Yeah. I think what happened was, yeah, I really -- without being too grandiose about it, I think you can lay most of this at the feet of Facebook and be pretty accurate in that.

Chris: [Laughter]

Jay: They come around in '05-ish and--

Dave: What do you call this movement? Is it the great silo-ization? You've got to have a cool name for it.

Jay: So, it wasn't conscious is the thing. I think Facebook booted up with the intention of delivering on Web 2.0 goals. Then by the time they got big enough that, you know, once they moved out of just colleges and they moved to the general public, and by the time you're talking about 20% of all people on the planet being on Facebook, which is by 2010 or so, they just slammed the door on Web 2.0.

They're like, "We're not doing that. Our new goal is to keep everybody on our site as long as possible." And everybody else, I think, shifted in that direction too because that's where the money went. That's where all the VC and stuff went.

It's almost like the de facto goal of websites these days is, how can we retain users for as long as possible?

Chris: Hmm.

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Jay: And how can we bring them back? But that actually doesn't have to be, and it wasn't the stated goal of version of the Web that came before this. So, I think 10, 15 years later, essentially, we're still reckoning with what Facebook and other centralized platforms did, and that's where the backlash comes from.

The backlash is understandable. Why is Facebook going everything, you know, Google or any of these companies own everything about me. But the solution, I think, is we don't know yet. But I think that's more or less what happened. But that was a decade ago and we're still dealing with it now.


Chris: Here's a little interesting overlay to all this because I went to a meet-up on Tuesday night. My coworker Robert did a little presentation on the history of ECMAScript and TC-39 and stuff. Interesting to see, so we called out 1995 - a big year - IE, Netscape IPO. That's wild, and IPO. Wow, okay.

Jay: [Laughter]

Chris: And then -- but that's 1995, in which that JavaScript wasn't even really a thing, really.

Jay: Yeah.

Chris: ECMAScript 1 was '97, two years later. Then they're actually doing good, like there's progress. ES 2 the next year, ES 3 the next year, and then it kind of, in a way, fizzles out, so that's 1999. There's almost a ten-year gap before we get ES 5 because ES 4 died, which was evidence of their fizzing out.

So, between '99 and 2009, a little bit of a similar gap here, and it wasn't until 2009 where we get ES 5, which is like when JavaScript really gets clearly good, useful, and stuff. It's just interesting.


Jay: There are a couple of actually really interesting things that happened in that time, which points to why that gap exists. The first was -- [laughter] let's go back to IE and talk about, you know, I think IE has become the butt of a joke and the reason that it did, it was, and the reason for that was because that was the period of time that the IE team was basically disbanded and Microsoft abandoned the project, more or less. They gained 90+% dominance over the browser market and then just kind of walked away.

Chris: Yeah. "Well, that was easy." Stretches arms.

Dave: Good job. Mission accomplished.

Chris: Yeah. [Laughter]

Dave: Yeah. [Laughter]

Jay: Yeah, exactly. They got sued for it. It was a big deal, but yes, exactly. They didn't -- they caught their own tail, and then they didn't know what to do when they did, so that was definitely in there.

Then, simultaneously, there were conversations happening inside of the W3C, which creates the standards of the Web, so HTML and CSS are maintained by W3C (for those that don't know). There were some conversations there happening where a contingent of the W3C wanted to go all in on XML. I don't know if you guys have been developing long enough to have XHTML in your backgrounds, but--

Dave: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Jay: That's where that came from.

Dave: Strict.

Jay: Yep.

Dave: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah. For a while, we just assumed that was the way and that we'd get XHTML 2, and that also looked kind of good. Then it just kind of imploded or something.

Jay: Yeah, so there was one contingent that wanted to basically go all in on XML and one that wanted to go more all in on HTML and what would eventually become HTML 5.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Jay: And so, there was a split. W3C split off and half of them went one way and then another organization was formed to maintain the--

Chris: Is that the WG or whatever?

Jay: Yeah, that's the WHATWG.

Chris: That's the split? It's literally still split.

Jay: It's still -- yeah. [Laughter] It's still split, but they actually work together these days.

Chris: Whoa!

Jay: But yeah, that's what happened is that people, you know, they were like, "We need to go--"

Their point was that we need to move in the direction of basically application development. We need to be creating software with the Web.

Dave: This doesn't sound relatable at all. Keep going though.


Dave: Yeah. This sounds very foreign.


Jay: And then the other side was like, "We need semantics. We need better definitions for websites," so that was the crux of the argument. Yes, it's very relevant.

Chris: Who was who? Which one was the application side?

Jay: The application was like the WHAT Working Group and HTML, so that's why it was like, "Let's extend HTML to do more."

Chris: I see. Yeah, yeah. Okay.

Jay: The video tag was supposed to be the start of something not the end of something, but you know that's where all of those things came from. Then W3C was like, "No, we need an XML definition for every possible piece of metadata and then the Web will be more readable to machines, and it can be more easily categorized."

But I think we know which one won. HTML is the dominant technology these days. I don't know for better or worse. That's an interesting one. Yeah.

Chris: It is because, on the surface, it's easy to compare them and just be like, "Oh, XML is the one that wanted you to close tags," or whatever.

Jay: [Laughter]

Chris: HTML didn't, but that's a very trivial difference. It was more about the philosophy than it was about specific semantics.

Dave: Yeah, like machine-readable versus human readable, basically, or machine consumable. Yeah, interesting.

I just added an XSLT style sheet, XML style sheet to my RSS feed, which is a weird thing you can do. And it's interesting because--

Jay: Wait, who sees that, though?

Dave: Now everyone sees it if you click my feed.

Chris: Well, yeah.

Dave: Yeah.

Chris: You link to it. You know you make it your own business to link to it.

Jay: Oh, that's interesting. Okay. All right.


Dave: But what's interesting is I have taken a thing for robots, the RSS feed--

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Dave: --the greatest technology of all time--

Jay: Agreed.

Dave: But then I have now made a human-readable version of the XML, and it's weird. I don't know. It's the other way. That's the future that could have been, I guess. You know? We have these really garbage formats, and then we just style them.

Chris: There was a weirdly very popular article on CSS-Tricks. Dave, you just described styling in XML thing, which feeds are almost always XML, right? Isn't that the case?

Jay: Yep. Yeah, they're a derivative of it.

Chris: There are JSON feeds, too, but nobody uses them. That's unfortunate.

Dave: Yeah.

Chris: The popular article I'm talking about was you know how you can configure a server to just be like, "Well, if there's no HTML there, just puke out the contents," you know, the files and crap that are just sitting in there. What does the browser -- what does that look like to a Web browser?

In a way, it's up to the Web browser, but it's kind of up to the server too. The server has some influence on, "Ah, I guess I'll serve a page that basically looks like this." You can convince a server to apply CSS to that (if you'd like) through headers and then style what that looks like. If you have--

It's a way to style an FTP site, essentially, like, I can't be bothered to actually build a website that reads the directories and all that. I'm just going to put files in folders and essentially make a styled website that allows people to troll through it without having to style any of the pages with HTML or anything.

It's really strange but common. You know?

Jay: Yeah.

Chris: Websites would do it that were like music archive websites or something. It was interesting.

What makes me think about this RSS feed, it's called "Really Simple Syndication," the last S being my favorite one of them. The idea is, take some content that's on this website and just give it away. Here it is, you know. There's not really a good way to charge for an RSS feed. Otherwise, it's not really a feed. It's just a locked-down format sitting behind a paywall kind of thing. If it's RSS, it's pretty much open. That has some real Web 2.0 vibes.

Jay: Yeah, for sure.

Chris: It's essentially an API to content.


Jay: Yeah, I think it's almost like the last message of Web 2.0. I think it's based on--

The APIs that I was talking about before, like how they were going to connect to each other, was going to be XML because JSON was not super popular at the time or probably just coming around, honestly.

Chris: Yeah, 2009 really was the first, it looks like, for JSON being kind of solidified.

Jay: Yeah.

Chris: That's late.

Jay: Yeah, that's late. That's late to the game, so XML would have been the way that everything connected, and RSS was the way to do that, as you were saying, for just every day, ordinary sites.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Jay: Flickr's API would have its own XML definition, but RSS was like that for the masses.

Chris: Right. Right. Right. I think I recall, back in the Flickr days, it was popular for a while. It probably helped -- I think Rails helped make it popular and stuff, too. When it made a data endpoint like that, you could ask for JSON or XML. There was a pretty long period where APIs were just like that, like, "What format would you prefer it in? We can do either."

Dave: Yeah, you just change the extension. I think Rails had that as a default feature.

Chris: Yeah, exactly.

Dave: You just type .xml on the end.

Jay: By day, I'm still just a developer, and I have plenty of legacy feeds that I work with, with clients and stuff, where it's just like, "Wow. Okay. You guys are still using the 2001 SOAP definition, or whatever."

Chris: [Laughter]

Jay: [Laughter] We're just going to figure that out. This stuff still powers things.

Chris: XML is almost dead. If I was tasked to interface with something over XML, I'd be like, "Oh, what?!" I'm going to have to literally research an XML parsing library because that is almost bygone knowledge.


Dave: How do you--? You're a Web developer by trade. I feel like I remember you have a journalism background or something. is that a part of you or no?

Jay: I have a background in history and research.

Dave: History. Okay.

Jay: Yeah, I went to school for it (and film). I did some pretty major research projects and thesis projects in both of those areas. [Laughter] And then -- I don't know.

This is probably pretty common, you know, but I made websites on the side during college to make money, and then that continued to be the way to make money, and that's how -- that's what I followed.

But almost as soon as I started doing that, I was like, "I want to do this history of the Web project," and so I probably had been thinking about it for like a decade. And it took many years just to even make the first stuff with it, for sure.

Dave: No, I mean I just want to say it's so well researched, every article, and it feels like you have just endless content. I don't know.

I'm looking at this one. The first thing that was ever sold online was a pizza, right? [Laughter]

Chris: Oh, seriously? That's amazing.

Jay: Hacker News had some words about that. Provocative. It's online, but it's really the Web. I'll just make that disclaimer right here.

Dave: Oh, okay.

Jay: The first thing sold on the Web was pizza.

Dave: On the Web. Okay.

Jay: Sorry, Hacker News.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Dave: I'm sure people sold all kinds of services [wink]--

Jay: [Laughter] Yeah, exactly. Yes.

Dave: --over Use Net and stuff like that. Yeah.

Chris: Hmm. I see. I see.

Dave: But yeah. This is from a Web form, but anyway--

You research things. It's well done. If I was to do this, it would be like, "Hey, here's a thing I found. Cool. Like and subscribe." You know? But yours is very well researched to the point Evan Williams and Boing Boing and Morning Brew are citing your work. I think that's really cool.

Jay: Yeah, it's been -- I mean, yes. I appreciate that. I think research is a part that's fun for me. I wouldn't do it if it wasn't.

Then the posts are a symptom of the research more so than anything else. So, that's the part that I never wanted to -- that was my favorite part about just in history and being in that kind of field and academia was just that approach and research approaches and things.

I've been really fortunate that, yes, people have shared my work and also people have reached out to me. I've gotten to talk to a lot of people and to journalists and to all sorts of people about the early Web or just evolving technologies and stuff like that. So, people are really gracious with their time with me, I have found, which is just so fascinating and interesting, and that has helped a lot. But a lot of it is just digging through Web archive, essentially.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Jay: I click on a link. I find a link. That link is dead. So, now I hop into the Web archive and find the dead version of that link, like the last time that it existed.

Chris: Yeah, I was going to ask about that because it almost feels like a history that people would be like, "Oh, why is this so hard to tell?"

Jay: [Laughter] Yeah.

Chris: Because it's the Web, isn't that automatically -- shouldn't that be easy to find?

Jay: Yeah.

Chris: But it really isn't. Right?

Jay: It really isn't. Yeah.

Chris: And so, thank gosh for the Internet archive because your average link that's just a couple of years old has (in my experience) a very high chance of being dead.

Jay: Yep. Yeah, extremely high chance, which means it's also not findable through search, so that's often the hardest part is just finding that first jumping-off point. What is the blog post that Zeldman wrote in 1997, that actually still has a live URL?

Chris: Oh, yeah.

Jay: There are a couple of people that are holding it down and really still preserving their original URLs, so they're crawlable, and then I just hop off.

Chris: For sure. Google has no incentive to make that stuff searchable. Once it's off the Web, they're like, "We're not going to help you get there."

Jay: Oh, exactly. Oh, yeah.

Chris: Yeah.

Jay: To Google's credit, they have some tools for I can actually search everything that came just before 2000, let's say, or something, and they make that pretty easy. But yeah, if it's not indexable on the Web, then they have no interest in it. But yeah, maybe somebody wrote a post about Web 2.0 in 1995 or in 2005, which contains 25 links and every single one of them is dead, so now I'm just hopping through each of those links and just discovering, like, can I find a version of this and what other links do I get from there?

Chris: Hmm.

Jay: Which is really interesting. Is the Web doing what it's doing best, which is just linking out to various things? It often works, for sure.

Chris: Right, and then it's like who said that. [Laughter]

Jay: Yeah.

Chris: Hopefully, it's obvious, right? But not every one of those links probably has an About page.

Jay: Right. Yeah, totally, or what do they do. I mean, although, you'd be surprised how many real pioneers of the Web just have regular old LinkedIn pages. You know what I mean? Because they're still working. They're still just doing the thing.

Chris: Oh, I suppose. Yeah.


Jay: Yeah, I mean digging this stuff up is really hard, and the part that interests me the most these days is what we were talking about at the beginning, which is just who are the people that haven't really been talked about in this history. I need to get that on record because, in the next five years, they might just disappear entirely. I might be able to find some smidgen of a mention, but they're going to be gone completely. So, part of me is like, I know enough now to know that I'm a historical record that is used in certain places when people do this kind of research, so I need to take that seriously, basically.

Chris: Very, very interesting. Speaking of those old time people that just have regular old LinkedIn pages, there's Hakon. Did I say it right? Hakon Wium Lie.

Jay: I think so, yeah.

Chris: Yeah, who was--

Jay: Inventor of CSS.

Chris: --credited as one of the inventors, yeah, indeed, which was not a day-one innovation of the Web, especially not in 1995, right? It took a couple of years, at least, to even have it be a glimmer in the eye of the Web.

Jay: Yep. Yeah. I think, yeah, for any of the ShopTalk Show listeners in particular, I think that's interesting that you say the Web, and it's almost the order of it is HTML and then CSS and then JavaScript, like in our heads, you know, in some loose hierarchy.

Chris: Yeah.

Jay: But that's not the order it came in. It was actually HTML and then JavaScript actually came a little bit earlier, and then CSS.

Dave: Yeah, so it's like a Vue component. [Laughter] Sorry...

Jay: Yeah. [Laughter] That's how they got their order, actually.

Dave: Yeah. Yeah.

Jay: It was just historical.

Dave: It's historic....

Chris: That's unbelievable. I love it.

Jay: We can set the record straight now. That's the proper order of things is just in historical order.

Yeah, yeah. So, I think, yeah, CSS was like 1997. There were plenty of thoughts about it prior to that and proposals going around, and there are some really interesting articles about what those proposals are. But yeah, it's very interesting because if you were building in like 1993 or '94 or '95, you were just kind of like, "Well, whatever the browser says a heading 3 is, maybe I can use some tables," which people used, or center tags, or little font size tags and stuff like that.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Jay: There was some flexibility there, but by and large it was whatever the browser says, that's what we're going to do. That was early Web design, essentially.


Chris: Right. Okay, so let's home in on this. This would be interesting because there are plenty of people we've talked to. I'm sure you're perhaps one of them - or whatever - that said, "When I started Web design, we used tables for layout." And I've always found that funny and interesting. It's just kind of an old-timer thing to say.

But I'm like, I've been around the Web a long time and I didn't. I did not start laying out websites with tables only because generally started with WordPress and I don't think WordPress ever went there. I think, by the time they were relevant, they were doing everything with other CSS. It didn't mean the layout mechanisms were great. What it meant to leave tables was using floats and crap, which now is regarded with almost just as much disdain as tables.

Jay: [Laughter] Yeah.

Chris: It's been an interesting thing. But let's say you said that. When does that mean you started? If you were laying out stuff with tables but still obviously had CSS because we're not talking about people who were designing websites in '96 and '97. Maybe we are, but there was a longer period.

Jay: You're probably talking about, yeah, 1999, 2000, like early 2000s when that is still, yes, CSS is around, but it's important to remember that CSS 1.0 was not the CSS of today.

Chris: [Laughter]

Jay: You know?

Chris: No. Right.

Jay: There was very little things there. It was really just about some font stuff and some color stuff and things like that, but certainly, nothing that addressed layout. Yeah, I mean even--

Let's see. You know I think, in the late '90s, that would have been the most popular way. There's a book. I forget what the book was that actually advocated for table-based display. [Laughter] It was the book that set everybody on that path to begin with.

Dave: I'm trying to find -- remember this guy's name. Was it Dave Weiner? Was that who it was? No...

Chris: He's the RSS guy, right?

Jay: Yeah.

Dave: But he wrote an article, "The Web is Broke and I Broke It," or whatever.

Jay: Yes, he recently wrote that.

Dave: To apologize for his--


Chris: Oh, interesting. I feel like this was much later than that. Not to confuse the issue, but there was a Rachel Andrew book, I think, that kind of reinvigorated some use of tables, you know, speaking about their virtues. But it wasn't necessarily tables. It was that you could use CSS to emulate table layout.

Jay: Well, that was the work that came -- you know I think Rachel was part of that work that came directly after, which was like we now need to actually go back and erase three or four years of knowledge that we've just been--

Chris: [Laughter] Right. Right.

Jay: --making best practices at the time, in some circles, were like, "Just use table-based layouts because they work. They are reliable."

Chris: They do work.

Jay: And so, I think Rachel was definitely a part of that effort of, like, "No, we need to go--" I mean she remains part of that effort but, even at the time, was reversing that a little bit.

Chris: For sure.

Jay: Yeah.

Chris: No wonder she's -- almost historically, you could be like, "I wonder why--?"

You know Rachel is so involved with Grid. I wonder if it's because it's like, "Well, I spent so much time thinking about layout (in the past) that now that this is actually good, I'm going to make damn sure the Web uses it." [Laughter] You know?

Jay: It's worth a shout out for Rachel. She has a site,, where she is actually working on some of this stuff as well.

Chris: Oh, nice.

Jay: It's an interest of hers, and we've gotten to chat a few times. But yes, absolutely. I think, yeah -- [laughter]. It was a big project. I mean you guys had Jeffrey on.

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Jay: I think he was part of that work, too. It's just like, "We need to really educate an entire community, like retrain them." And so, I think, when you hear people say, "Oh, I used to do table-based layouts," they not only remember that part, but then they remember having to unlearn and relearn a whole new methodology within three years, essentially. Yeah, it was a big shift, for sure.


Chris: Yeah. It's interesting what the mistakes were, not so much in the technology itself but how you told people to use the technology. Yeah, interesting.

I know Eric has some light regrets about his reset, which is still just almost certainly the most popular one in use. Not the fact that the reset exists but that it had an outline zero or outline none in it.

Jay: Right.

Chris: Which had some accessibility issues. Wow! [Laughter] Yeah. I wonder. I should ask him to his face (one of these days) like, "Why not do it? Why not do a Meyer reset 3.0?"

Jay: [Laughter] Yeah. Yeah.

Chris: You have so much brand power behind it. Just do it. Maybe he just doesn't want to. Maybe there'll be some new mistake that he then has to atone for in ten more years. [Laughter]

Jay: Maybe he can do it. You can just do it in like five lines now, right? Right? I think we're getting better with those things.

Chris: That's true. There is some little, small one, but I saw a big-ass beefy one the other day, and I looked all the way through it. I was like, "I largely agree with this."

Jay: [Laughter]

Chris: It's doing lots of stuff, but I think a lot of this stuff is very sensible and is much longer than the Meyer reset was. Anyway, wow. We have gone on a weird thing here.

Jay: I think it's fun.

Chris: You wrote one thing -- yeah, it certainly is -- about fads and trends and things. But I didn't quite know what you meant. What did you have in mind when you were thinking of fads and trends that have died during this history?


Jay: Yeah, so I think what's interesting is that it's easy to -- even something like React has a huge community now. It's probably going to stick around. But even fads that feel that seismic actually do come and go, and then you never hear about them again. People kind of forget that they existed.

One example I have is -- I've done so much research into this -- this idea of push technology was going to transform the Web. The idea was there was a company with hundreds of millions of dollar valuation that the whole idea was that they would have a screensaver that updated with news and websites can push live news updates to your screensaver.

[Laughter] Then the business model fell apart because they were like, "Nobody sits in front of their screensaver," but nobody even thought about that part. They just were--

Chris: Oh, yeah. That was the point is that you're not there.

Dave: Right.


Jay: So, yeah, their business model fell apart there, but there were other ideas. Microsoft really led some of this, I think, too. The idea was that--

Dave: That was a Safari feature. That was a feature of Safari.

Jay: Was it?

Chris: Which must have been--

Dave: Your screensaver would show news or something. I remember--

Jay: Yeah, it was a big idea. It was this idea that you weren't going to visit websites, like websites were going to come to you in some way, and there was a whole ecosystem and large, huge, huge, huge companies that came around to support this. It's actually hard to find information about it these days, but people were betting the future on it.

Dave: Oh, yeah. Safari RSS Visualizer. I think when Safari got RSS mode, then the screensaver could hook into that and yoink that in. Yes. Weird. Anyway, but it's not surprising that somebody created a whole business about it.

Jay: No, for sure. The company I'm talking about is PointCast, and they were around for a while. But yeah, so that's one that it was literally seismic. Wired had articles about how this was the future and everybody needs to go all in on push technology. It literally evaporated within two years. That's one example that was bouncing around in my head, for sure.


Dave: Speaking of stuff that evaporated in like two years, any other examples?


Dave: I don't know. The dot-com crash, right? That absolutely shaped the Web, right?

Jay: Yeah.

Dave: What's the story there? Why did that happen? Tell me why, so I can avoid it.

Jay: [Laughter] How much time do we got, few more minute?

Dave: Yeah, a few more.

Jay: Yeah, the dot-com crash. I think that was going to be (and may still be at some point) the next chapter that I'm writing. Then it just veered me off into so many different directions that I had to take some time with it. But you know, essentially, the commercial potential of the Web was realized all at once, and there was -- [laughter]. It's so hard to say all this stuff without just mirroring exactly what's going on right now, but a rush of venture capital came in to try to capitalize on it without actually stopping to think about what the underlying value of all these companies were.

So, one of the biggest ones was this company Webvan, which is more or less this idea that you can-- It's like Amazon, honestly. You can just buy anything from Webvan, and they would ship it to you. But this was prior to the logistics operation of Amazon being in place or this being more common.

But they never actually stopped to think about how they were going to do it, so they kind of stored things in warehouses, but they kind of didn't, and it was more about how can we build this cool website than it was about the actual hard stuff. And so, all these companies kind of rushed to fill this gap.

Literally, companies would change their names to add .com to their name just to get an extra $100 million or a couple hundred million dollars from VCs.

Chris: Hmm.

Jay: It became that easy to gather all this capital together. Then it became very negative. You had to convince other people to rush in and invest in these things too.

Dave: Is that like a market saturation, like a surge of websites now very niche, very, you know, this is the blog for dogs, this is the--

Jay: Mm-hmm.

Dave: Not just the grocery store. It's the petfood store. You know? I don't know.


Jay: I think what happened there was eBay became successful, and Amazon was actually already successful at that point. And so, what people can do in a pitch meeting was to be like, "Amazon, but for pets," or "eBay, but for cars," or something. You know?

Dave: Because Amazon was still for books back then, kind of, right?

Jay: Amazon was still -- no, they were ticking up, but they were successful enough that you can point to them as an example, but they weren't the giant you would necessarily have to take on.

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Jay: They were still just a competitor, so I think that became a shortcut is, "What we're going to do is we're going to create Amazon but for every possible niche interest," and that's how they got money. Yeah, there's this whole culture that grew up around it where, again, very similar to today, you've got William Shatner shilling out Priceline because they wanted to create excitement around these companies and it works.

The economy literally wasn't able to sustain it. It was just too much money flowing into this one spot which had no business model. These companies were making very little money, if at all.

Dave: Mm-hmm.

Chris: Doesn't it feel good, in a way? It sucks when people lose their jobs and money disappears and stuff, but when it crashes, sometimes they call it a correction because it's like the market is coming back to reality. Right? Isn't that--?

Jay: I mean... yeah.

Chris: In a way, if you had a business that had a real actual business model where the value of it was correct, you'd probably be okay.

Jay: Yeah, and some companies did survive, and I think the ones that survived had that. You know my pushback on that is, like, this is exactly the same time that 401(k)s were becoming a lot more popular and people were getting into day trading, like on individual levels, and so there are lots of people that lost houses and 20% of their savings. People just lost.

Chris: Right, because they were just investing.

Jay: They were just investing.

Chris: They had nothing to do with the company.

Jay: Yeah.

Chris: Oh, interesting.

Dave: I personally know a dellionaire who got rich from Dell (here in Austin). They bought the biggest house you could closest to downtown. You know?

Chris: Mm-hmm.

Dave: Then just squandered day trading. You know? Just lost their shirt, and so that was the thing back then. You'd make money. You day trade.

Chris: It'll just be forever, right, that companies have a value that's not exactly attached to reality. You know? Have you seen Linktree? It's insane.


Jay: And if I could connect it real quick, one interesting thing is I've talked to people that were around right there, like right in 1999, and you don't know it now. Everyone now would say, "Oh, it came out of nowhere and everyone thought it was going to keep going up." But if you talk to enough people from that time, they knew, and people knew it, and it was almost like an open secret at the time.

It was all about how can I stay in long enough to make money but get out right at the last minute. Again, I think some of that is happening now. There was skepticism then, I guess is my point, and it's healthy skepticism, I think. Yeah. Plenty of people have talked to me about that, though, and just being aware of it and pulling out money early, for instance, and stuff like that.

Dave: Legal disclaimer: This is not financial advice.

Jay: Yeah.


Dave: This is ShopTalk Show.

Jay: It's on my Twitter bio. No problem.


Chris: Oh, my God. I need to -- I don't know. The Chris Coyier investment strategy should be like pennies buried in jars out in my back fricken' yard because nothing I've ever done in the history of having disposable income has panned out well at all. I should almost be anti-advice.

Jay: I'm with you.

Dave: I've got a bookshelf full of Mongos. I'm pretty sure that's going to pay off.


Chris: Yeah.

Jay: Still hoping these Beenie Babies are going to turn around.

Chris: Yeah. [Laughter]

Dave: That'd be really good. Well, man, this was super educational. Wow!

Jay: Happy to hear that.

Dave: The first one, first episode of ShopTalk ever like that, so we appreciate you coming on.


Dave: I guess, yeah, I mean this is -- I'll say, just capping this, it's

Jay: Mm-hmm.

Dave: Wonderful resource. I think weekly-ish news, right? A weekly-ish newsletter.

Jay: A couple of weeks, yep. Yeah.

Dave: A couple of weeks newsletter, and I feel like every single one has a nugget of gold, so thank you for writing that.

Jay: Thank you.

Dave: But Jay, for people who aren't following you and giving you money, how can they do that?

Jay: Yeah, so, that's the place that's got my Twitter, too, which is @jay_hoffman. I'm not super active there, but I am there.

As I said, I'm the director of development at a Web agency. It's Reactive, so if you're interested in building a website or anything like that, you can let us know.

Yeah. Other than that, The History of the Web, sign up, please. Yeah, the first and third Tuesday is my schedule right now. I try to get a post out with some plans, I think, for some time in the near future.

Dave: Awesome. Well, thank you. Thank you, dear listener, for downloading this in your podcatcher of choice. Be sure to star, heart, favorite it up. That's how people find out about the show. Follow us on Twitter for 16 tweets a month, @ShopTalkShow.

Then we have for videos. And, of course, join us in the D-d-d-d-discord at

Chris, do you got anything else you'd like to say?