By Steven Johnson
Anyone who was around for the early days of the World Wide Web, before the Netscape IPO and the dotcom boom, knows that there was a strange quality to the medium back then – in many ways the exact opposite of the way the Web works today. It was oddly devoid of people. Tim Berners-Lee had conjured up a radically new way of organizing information through the core innovations of hypertext and URLs, which created a standardized way of pointing to the location of documents. But almost every Web page you found yourself on back in those frontier days was frozen in the form that its author had originally intended. The words on the screen couldn’t adapt to your presence and your interests as you browsed. Interacting with other humans and having conversations – all that was still what you did with email or USENET or dial-up bulletin boards like The Well. The original Web was more like a magic library, filled with pages that could connect to other pages through miraculous wormholes of links. But the pages themselves were fixed, and everyone browsed alone.
One of the first signs that the Web might eventually escape those confines arrived in the last months of 1994, with the release of an intriguing (albeit bare-bones) prototype called HOMR, short for the Helpful Online Music Recommendation service.
HOMR was one of a number of related projects that emerged in the early-to-mid-90s out of the MIT lab of the Belgian-born computer scientist Pattie Maes, projects that eventually culminated in a company that Maes co-founded, called Firefly. HOMR pulled off a trick that was genuinely unprecedented at the time: it could make surprisingly sophisticated recommendations of music that you might like. It seemed to be capable of learning something about you as an individual. Unlike just about everything else on the Web back then, HOMR’s pages were not one-size-fits all. They suggested, perhaps for the first time, that this medium was capable of conveying personalized information. Firefly would then take that advance to the next level: not just recommending music, but actually connecting you to other people who shared your tastes.
Maes called the underlying approach “collaborative filtering”, but looking back on it with more than two decades’ worth of hindsight, it’s clear that what we were experiencing with HOMR and Firefly was the very beginnings of a new kind of software platform that would change the world in the coming decades, for better and for worse: social networks.