Amazon History

Following on my earlier post, here are two additional examples of practitioner web histories, both concerning The first is an idiosyncratic, twenty-part insider’s account of Amazon in the late-1990s. The second, a more targeted piece by a designer unconnected to Amazon, documents what is probably the company’s most important contribution to the look and feel of today’s web, the tab navigation. (Thanks once again to Jeremy for the tip on the latter link.)

Web History from the Grassroots

While professional historians are just gearing up to write the history of the web, developers and other web industry people are already busy at work. These people seem especially aware of their history and are eager to write it down. Jeremy over at ClioWeb turned me on to Roberto Scano’s amateur history of web accessibility standards this morning. And we’ve found a bunch of similar things in research connected with CHNM’s forthcoming Mozilla Digital Memory Bank, for example, Firefox lead engineer Ben Goodger’s Where Did Firefox Come From?

I can think of a couple explanations for this phenomenon. The first is the fact that most of these people maintain blogs, and it seems a relatively short leap from reflective and retrospective journaling to intentional historical authorship. Another is that these people seem to share a keen sense of change over time, even if the period they’re talking about spans only a few years. The speed at which the web has grown and the dramatic ups and downs it has experienced in little more than a decade seems to have reinforced this sense in them. Reading their work sometimes can make a traditional historian feel like he’s entered a sort of time warp, in which 1999 or 2000 represents the distant past. Mozilla community members, for example, tend to think of people who started working on the project during the Netscape days (i.e. 1998) as old timers. (One of the first things we’ll do when we launch Mozilla Digital Memory Bank is publish the oral histories Olivia Ryan and I have been collecting from Mozilla community members, and you’ll be able to hear some of this for yourself.) Scano even quotes Genesis in the introduction to his account, writing: “In the beginning… Let us take a wayback machine to travel back in time to the last century….”

This is fascinating to me, especially the ways people conceptualize and mark out time based on their own experiences of change, and I’d love to see other examples of histories written by web practitioners as people come across them.