The Form of the Web Browser and Its Social Effects

  • 2008–2011
  • Georgetown University
  • M.A. Thesis

Abstract

While academics and journalists discuss how particular web applications (e.g. Google, YouTube, and Facebook) and hardware forms (e.g. smartphones) affect culture and behavior in networked societies, they pay little attention to the role browsers play as a common platform and interface for these applications and hardware. When we surf the web, we use browsers, and this thesis’ two case studies provide a starting point for analysis of how the form of the browser, expressed in its interface and underlying technologies, structures people’s experiences of the web. By studying browsers as technological artifacts, this thesis reveals how the experience of the web is structured by browser makers. Through the social construction of technology (SCOT) theoretical framework, I broaden the definition of browser makers to include executives at technology startups and established firms, standards writers, graphic designers, and government regulators in addition to software architects and engineers.

Drawing from lectures, interviews, email archives, court proceedings, and journalism from the browser wars, I describe how two technical achievements of the early modern web – Netscape’s implementation of HTML’s table element and the invention of JavaScript – gave rise to uses of the web as a design medium and a computing platform. Browser programmers’ proprietary modifications to HTML perpetuated the metaphor of the page by encouraging documents on the web to be treated as two-dimensional canvases. By adding support for images and grids in HTML, browser programmers allowed graphic design practices to exist on the web and accelerated its adoption for commercial uses. This advance preceded actions by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) on the development of graphic design for the web, created de facto standards for web design, and minimized the authority of the W3C and IETF in shaping the web. The idea of the browser as a computing platform followed Netscape’s development of JavaScript, a vivid example of how a market strategy to compete against Microsoft’s “natural” monopoly in operating systems motivated the design of what would become the world’s most popular programming language and the foundation for interactive applications on the web. While JavaScript is now a standard and an essential part of the web, its formalization as Ecma standard E-262 is a case of a de facto standard being submitted for adoption by a standard-setting body in order to create a competitive advantage.

These are just two of numerous conventions that came to constitute the form of the browser, and web browsers either adopt or respond to these standards. Through analysis of how these features and languages became conventions and web standards, this thesis provides a platform and interface for discussions of how the web affects the people who use it.

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Presentation at Georgetown University, 5 April 2011

This thesis was submitted for consideration for the Master of Arts degree in Communication, Culture and Technology at Georgetown University. I defended my thesis in a one-hour presentation on 15 April 2011 to Dr. David Ribes and Dr. J.R. Osborn. They awarded the thesis a high pass.

If you have the time and inclination, you can download and read my thesis (PDF, 462 KB).

To glimpse the scope I had envisioned for my research, you can see an early diagram of data codes and concepts (PDF, 70 KB).