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Happy 25th birthday, World Wide Web

The World Wide Web is celebrating a birthday today. On March 12, 1989, the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee launched the web.

Dalhousie social media lab shows how much the online world has changed since 1989

Anatoliy Gruzd shows 'star configurations' of Ukraine tweets. (CBC)

The World Wide Web is celebrating a birthday today. On March 12, 1989, the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee launched the web.

Mike Smit, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University's School of Information, says the web has changed a great deal in that time. 

He says 25 years ago, the web was about connecting documents; today, it's about connecting people. 

At Dalhousie's Social Media Lab, Anatoliy Gruzd and his colleagues track the world — live. 

Streams of social media flood in, creating beautiful fireworks and laser shows of information. 

"Here you can see from a particular announcement of the Russian Federation allowing to use the military force in Ukraine and then, even though the conflict is still going on, people on the web are shifting their interest," he said, showing a graph that tracks tweets by the hour. 

The touchscreen at the centre of the lab looks like a Jackson Pollock painting, but it shows the connections among tweets about the unrest in Crimea. 

"A lot of news agencies would have Twitter accounts, tweeting breaking news and people re-tweet to their friends, and that's where we see what we call star configurations," explains Gruzd, the lab's director. 

"Different colours represent different audiences for the different news agencies. Somewhere inside that dense network of conversations, you can see the actual protesters."

It's not just data for him: Gruzd is from Ukraine, which has been embroiled in a revolution since November.

"It gives me a feeling of being present and know what's really happening, second by second," he says.

A web built for you

The high-tech lab is long way from the web's early days. 

The internet predates the web. The internet is like the roads and bridges that connect our communities. The web is the cars and houses we put on the roads. 

Michael Shepherd, the dean of Dalhousie's computer science department, helped create a proto-electronic newspaper for the 1995 G7 summit in Halifax. 

"Prior to the web, you weren't connected around the world. You were building your data bases, doing your work — it'd all be on one server," he explains. 

Now, Marshall McLuhan's "global village" is a reality. Shepherd said communities gather online in a post-physical world based on common interests, not common geography. 

Shepherd sees the web getting to know us in the future. It will learn our interests and channel information our way. 

"I think that there's going to be more personalization of the way we use the web. The type of information that we pull down from the web will fit my profile," he says.

Early pioneers of the internet wanted fast news. They also wanted to connect with people around the world.

Back in the social media lab, Gruzd said that will likely continue. But as Twitter was impossible to foresee back in 1989, it's impossible to guess what we'll be using in 2039 when the web turns 50.

"The notion that we still want to be able to access information, access news, share our images, store our personal records — we still will need those things. The question is, how's it going to be done?" he asks.