Ideas

The ‘Form’ Element Created the Modern Web. Was It a Big Mistake?

The web was born to publish documents—in particular, physics papers from CERN, the great laboratory where Tim Berners-Lee, the very first web developer, was employed to do smart information things. But technology evolves … Actually, forgive the digression, but technology doesn’t evolve. Everyone says it evolves, but true evolution includes a whole lot of death. Not all software survives, of course (I’m typing this in Google Docs, not on a Xerox Alto), but as anyone who has investigated the Windows control panels can tell you, there’s a lot of decades-old code in our systems. If people evolved like technology, you’d be 6,000 lizards, 30 chimps, and a couple Neanderthals all glued together with an anguished human face stretched across it as a “visual refresh.” </digression>

Anyway, the World Wide Web may be the most proudly agglutinative technology in history. After a few early tweaks and changes (e.g., removing the <blink> tag), HTML has almost never thrown things away, so that every subsequent version of a browser can work with all the web pages that came before. In its earliest days it grew <img> tags to become visual; it grew <table> tags to become tabular—and more than 25 years ago (version 2) it added the <form> element, making it interactive.

It is the <form> element, and the lesser elements that comprise the form, like <input> and <textarea>, that let you put little text boxes and credit card numbers and password fields into the page, along with a variety of drop-downs and checkboxes.

I have argued many times, to the despair of anyone within range, that the <form> element was a pivot point for the entire technology industry. It is what changed the web from a read-only medium for physics papers into a read-write medium for anything. But lately I’m not so sure I think that was a good idea. Perhaps the <form> element was a terrible mistake, the original sin of the web industry. We weren’t ready. Nearly every problem we face on the internet—in society—comes back to this one HTML element.

Point to anything driving us all to distraction and you’ll find <form> at the root: Elon Musk’s tweets, for example, and his bid to buy Twitter? Well, obviously the Twitter text box was born as an HTML form (even if it is now a highly dynamic custom JavaScript thingamajig). But that’s today; <form> also made Musk’s first fortune at PayPal, by allowing people to set up accounts and pay. Jeff Bezos is another one: Amazon without the <form> element is just a big catalog.

What forms enable are transactions. Transactions of all kinds—commercial or social—can be consolidated into platforms, and platforms are where you find your margins. And margins are what yield your fortune, and that’s how you get power. Freakin’ forms. Twitter’s many disasters, Amazon and its global megapower, Facebook’s wall, Google’s search box (and the ads that followed), the Netflix password you share (that they don’t want you to share now that their subscriber numbers are tanking), every forum conversation, every eBay bid, every web-based banking system that logs you out after 10 minutes, pretty much all of Salesforce, every blog post, every leak and hack—all of it comes back to <form>.

Who could have known?

“Well that’s not our problem today,” you might say. “The real problem online is that giant companies are creating enormous machine-learning models that inherit tremendous bias, and they are using that to guide the future of the web.” Exactly: The data they are spidering, all that text, all those photos, comes from people uploading stuff via forms.

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