Web eras simplified: Web 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, and beyond

In my previous article, the terms “web 1.0” and “web 2.0” appeared. For those who had never seen these words before, it brought up the question of “what do those words mean?”. There are different explanations out there for each term, some more similar than others. Though the debate regarding their exact definitions is complicated, they can also be broken down into more accurate descriptions.

It should be said before anything else that different people have different ideas as to what exactly these terms mean, which elements they define, and even some controversy as to if they should be used. There are no “official” explanations for every term, but there are differences that can be easily explained.

The terms in short

Web 1.0: Refers to the “early web”, typically between 1991 and 2000. This was a time when pages were mostly static without a lot of interactivity, and typically used simpler designs.

Website for the movie Space Jam, a web 1.0 site.
Official website from the movie Space Jam. Created and designed in 1996, the site still stands as is today. Its simplicity and time of launch classifies it was a web 1.0 website

Web 2.0: Circa 2001-2010. A time when web pages were becoming more advanced in their designs and features. This era began the rise of user-generated content through platforms such as blogs and social media.

Wikipedia front page, a web 2.0 site
Front page of Wikipedia. Not social media-heavy enough to be considered web 3.0 standard, but emphasizes enough on a combination of user-created content and advanced design to classify it as a web 2.0 example.

Web 3.0: 2011-Present. Also known as “Semantic Web”. Pulls from metadata to improve website functionality. Content sharing amongst users makes up a large part of everyday internet use. Highly based on social networks rather than individual personal websites.

Dropbox website, web 3.0 design
Website for Dropbox. A minimalist, clean design set to Web 3.0 standard. The service itself is based on sharing user content.

Visual evolution

The way websites are designed and laid out have changed a lot since the creation of the world wide web. Thanks to advances in coding and markup languages, creators are able to do more with their designs to compliment its content.

Websites from web 1.0 were typically simple. Users didn’t have much to work with outside of markup languages HTML 3.2 and CSS 1. Layouts, for the most part, weren’t anything fancy. You had a web page, you’d arrange your content and graphics, and that was that. Aside from convenience, other reasons for simplicity was to work within boundaries such as bandwidth, due to the fact that slow dial-up internet is something more people dealt with at the time.

Official Nintendo website in 1996
Screenshot of the Nintendo.com as it appeared in 1996. Small graphics with few links on a plain design.
Raptors.com in 1996
Official Toronto Raptors’ website as it appeared in 1996. Five graphics, a handful of links in the navigation bar, and not much text in general

As the web 2.0 era began approaching and the Internet’s popularity grew, designs started seeing an upgrade. Elements such as Adobe Flash started being incorporated. HTML and CSS had updated versions, and the implementation of other markup languages such as Javascript, XML, and AJAX allowed for dynamic web pages. Designers would go beyond the idea of simplicity and made pages look cleaner and sleeker, which enabled more content to be organized on a page.

nintendo.com in 2003
Screenshot of nintendo.com from 2003. A major upgrade from its 1996 design, complete with more sections, more high-quality graphics, and interactive content
Screenshot of raptors.com from 2004. Also an upgrade from its 1996 design. More features and graphics, plus multimedia inclusion.

Web 3.0 in terms of design isn’t much different from Web 2.0, but minimalistic designs have become common. This has to do with a mixture of mobile optimization, and “focusing only on the essentials.” What “essentials” means in this case, are things that don’t require users to click on too many things to find information. Websites for apps often do this, and this is also commonplace in modern social media. This isn’t to say that websites are scaling down completely. Many websites still provide users plenty of things to click on, but modern minimalist designs have found their place.

nintendo.com in 2016
Screenshot of nintendo.com today. Aside from the massive Flash feature menu, the site is minimalistic and clean, yet still provides everything viewers want to see
raptors.com in 2016
Screenshot of Raptors.com today. Flash heavy, but not bursting with content either. Sections are organized within the top menu bar. Social media links are also included at the top of the website.

Differences in features

By this point, you’re probably wondering where evolution of websites went beyond design. A good example for this is with user interactivity. For many web 1.0 sites, having a “guestbook” was a common feature, where people could leave their e-mail addresses and a small message for the webmaster. With blogging in the web 2.0 era, we saw the creation of comment sections. In web 3.0, comment sections are still the norm, but we also have the ability to interact with others immediately. Social media features such as Facebook Timelines or Twitter mentions and direct messages make it easier to not only communicate with someone else, but also add more content such as photos and videos where necessary. Further research into digital information using metadata is what develops web 3.0 further to improve its performance for users.

A web 1.0 guestbook
A guestbook from a web 1.0 site. Based on leaving a message rather than direct communication
A web 2.0 comment section
A web 2.0 comment section on a food blog. This allows for users to reply to one another, though responses might not be immediate.
A Twitter widget on NASA, a web 3.0 feature.
On nasa.gov, a Twitter widget off to the side. This implementation of social media in web 3.0 allows tweets from NASA to stream live into the website. This also allows viewers to interact with the tweets whether or not they’re browsing the full Twitter site.

Labelling dispute

People like myself will typically use the “web point o” terms to describe and simplify eras in the world wide web. Others will use them to describe the way the web functions. Web 1.0 is widely accepted as a retronym for early web as a whole. When it comes to web 2.0, some of the most prominent people in the industry disagree with term’s usage. Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term, has said that even he was unsure as to what the term ultimately meant. The most common criticism of the term has to do with the fact that it has no specific definition, therefore allowing many different opinions of what it could describe.

Web 3.0 debated

In terms of describing the modern web era, web 3.0 is an appropriate label based on how we’ve built upon web 2.0. Web 3.0 is not a word that comes up much, mostly because the term Semantic Web is more widely accepted. Web founder Tim Berners-Lee coined the term to describe development. In his 1999 book Weaving The Web, Berners-Lee described his vision for Semantic Web.

“I have a dream for the Web [in which computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web – the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A ‘Semantic Web’, which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines.”

As far as Berners-Lee’s idea is concerned, Semantic Web has less to do with design and all to do with its functions. Semantic Web uses artificial intelligence to take advantage of all the information contained in a website; Its content and how its users interact. Using this information, predictions are made based on found data to improve the way the web works.

What about Web 4.0?

What’s next after web 3.0? We don’t know! It could have a name like web 4.0, it might not have a label at all. There isn’t much prediction out there based on trend as to what the next era will bring. In this day and age, the internet is always growing, so anything is possible, we will just have to wait and see.

How do you define Web 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and beyond? Share your opinion in the comments.

Author: The Netstorian

Internet culture enthusiast and creator of The Netstorian.

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