The History of The WWW Subdomain, and Why We Don't Use It

By: Shy - [11/15/2022]

This website along with many other modern websites, does not use the WWW subdomain. If you somehow don't know WWW stands for WORLD WIDE WEB, or maybe it is some kind of numerology for 666 or something... Regardless, the term world wide web is pretty much a nonsense phrase that shouldn't even be used. In order to understand why you must also know the basic history of the internet and the domain name system. Firstly the world wide web is NOT the internet, the internet existed long before that term was put into use. The first true incarnation of what we now know as the internet was ARPANET. Most people know about this, or at least have heard of it but most don't really understand how and why it is related to the modern internet.

Arpanet was an ARPA (now DARPA) funded project that linked many different computer networks via gateways(an "IMP"), this is a major simplification but it provides the basic thought process for how the modern internet works. At each "SITE" an "IMP" would be placed, this is like a modern internet modem, it provided the routing of traffic from one site to another. These sites are not "web sites" but actual physical locations, mostly universities. By 1969 the arpanet was in operation and used its own host to host communication protocol, now referred to as the NCP. Some applications of this network were TELNET (teletype over network), FTP, DTP, CYPNET (early form of file transfer), and surely many other experimental projects.

(An interesting note, The Soviet Union actually had a national network project conceptualized before the arpanet, however this soviet project never actually got off the ground because it couldn't get funding. The end goal for their system was to enable a fully interconnected society that did not use money, instead the "computer" would be in charge! How horrifying!)

Early software implementations usually included their own list of mnemonics for hosts as well as their addresses, which at the time were very different from modern IPv4 addresses. It is assumed that some of this early software actually did make use of the mnemonic input rather than direct address input. BBN (the company who ARPA contracted to build arpanet) would publish a site status list which was a list of what was connected to each IMP. In 1971 the first form of email was sent over the network, using the same user@host scheme we still use today. It is unknown if the host was an actual address or a software resolved hostname.

Later, the Stanford Research Institute's Arpanet Network Information Center (NIC) began officially publishing the full list of hosts on the network. This was the first official host name registry for arpanet. Computers would download this list via FTP to get addresses for each host on the network. The hostnames were things like "BRL", "UCB", and "UCLA-CCn". Eventually this list would grow far too large to be kept up to date or even stored by smaller hosts on the network. This led to the need for a new system, thus the hierarchical domain naming system (DNS) was developed. Arpanet transitioned to this new system slowly at first, early on all hosts on the network had .arpa appended to their names. The host "UCB" would have become "UCB.ARPA". In 82(?) a list of top level domains, including .mil .org .edu .gov and .com was submitted and approved. Arpanet began its official transition to the DNS system in 83 and it was finished in 88.

(The concept of what we now call subdomains was outlined in 1984. Although a subdomain is technically any domain below another in the hierarchy, and there can be many sub-sub domains; the MIT example in rfc920 is a perfect explanation of the typical modern subdomain use case.)

(while rfc documents do show the evolution of various internet systems, it must be understood that in many cases the things talked about in these documents were already being implemented or tested well before the rfc was published.)

Another thing to consider is that the concept of subdomains may be partially inspired by usenet. rfc850 was written in the time period after .arpa was adopted, but before the switch to the DNS system was fully in progress. Usenet (and bbs) has been in wide use since around 1980 and uses various "sub-networks", things such as net.general, talk.bizarre, and btl.all. While these are completely different from the hierarchical structure of the DNS, the concept of splitting networks into sub-networks carries over into the subdomain concept and there was likely some cross pollination.

The Arpanet was still considered a government network even in 1990. The main usage of the network (now mostly called the internet) at this time was ftp, email, usenet, gopher, and telnet. A single domain could host a number of services and it was common to use a subdomain to differentiate the services. Things like mail.whatever.tld, ftp.whatever.tld, and eventually WWW... The following year the "world wide web" was released to the public. This consisted of a client - server software package. The client being a "web browser" and the server being a "web server". The term "web" is where the confusion began. The only thing web-like about the "web" is MAYBE the "web" of one way links to different unknown "web-sites" or "web-pages". Clearly the name was inspired by the high-philosophy of Ted Nelson's 1960's Project Xanadu, which was intended to be a fully interconnected world wide system (a real web) containing all works of mankind, allowing editing and creation within this system seamlessly. Instead the "world wide web" that we got is simply a fancy (nextstep ui was very powerful) and networked version of the many pre existing hypertext browsers that had been in development since the mid 80's. (The mosaic browser which would later become netscape, was already in development in 89.)

The so-called "web" is actually the "hypertext transfer protocol" or HTTP. Just as things like ftp and smtp has clients that can access other computers running services for those applications, so does the http. A "web browser" is nothing more than a client which requests a hypertext document from a "web server" which is nothing more than a program that distributes said hypertext documents. In modern days the web server and especially the web browser has experienced major scope creep and can obviously do much more than this simplification.

(WWW hypertext documents were in the form of the hypertext markup language file, the .html file descriptor was not even required either, these files were commonly called WWW files. Hypermedia was always part of the concept as well, images, video, text, and even games would fall under the concept of hypermedia. The modern overreach of web assembly and various other "features" is a bad solution seaking a problem. Adobe flash was a perfect example on how hypermedia should have been implemented, a standalone embedded file within the hypertext document that is being processed and displayed by a standalone external application symbiotically with the hypertext browser.)

The phrase "web" alone has infected consciousness so much that now everyday people think that the "web" is the whole internet. I suppose it doesn’t help that a web and a net are very similar things in real life. The real question is, what else would you call an internet hypertext browser? How about A HYPERTEXT BROWSER!? I actually do not have much of a problem with the phrase "web" but I think "world wide web" is nonsense, there is nothing world wide about the http, except its adoption. The terms web-page, web-site, are acceptable due to the nature of hypertext and the semi-web-like interlinked hypertext documents. ShyStudios follows proper interlinking structure on the website, where you can return to the previous page or the main home via links on the current page without needing to use browser history functionality (the back button).

The true www subdomain usage origin is also a mystery. The first website was info.cern.ch. However the page detailing the world wide web project was allegedly going to be hosted at www.cern.ch, and allegedly there was a mixup between the two pages. The www page was hosting the homepage and the info page was hosting the world wide web project details. This sounds like a likely story, however I can't find any proof of it anywhere. I cannot even find proof that www.cern.ch existed before 1995, and by then the www subdomain was already in popular use. Looking at info.cern.ch, we can see a list of early websites, and NONE of them use the www subdomain. The most commonly used subdomain at this time was info.

The wikipedia article on pre 95 websites makes it seem like the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was the first website to use www, however the source given is directly contradictory, I have found no record of that website using www at that time. The phrase "WWW" WAS used quite a lot around this time in 92, but still I cannot find any records of what the first www subdomain site was. I do have records of the cern mail domain starting to use www3.cern.ch in late october 92. Besides info, MANY websites at this time also used the home or web subdomains. It is possible that cern had the first www subdomain, maybe if someone had access to historical dns records it could be proven. What I do know is that the www subdomain began to be used primarily by universities sometime before June of 1993. It almost seemed as if many universities began using the www subdomain at once.

By late 93 the www subdomain was starting to catch on outside of education, many european websites were using the www subdomain. More .com websites were starting to appear, and these also did not typically use the www subdomain. No one actually knows how or why or exactly when but eventually the fad of using www. was fully in swing by 95 at the latest. I see a few possible reasons for the www subdomain popularity boom. One might be some popular at the time software automatically added www to domain names. Another might have been a requirement from a popular name registrar. Finally, around this time the phrase "world wide web" started to get mixed up with the concept of the internet as a whole. The internet was becoming accessible to a much wider range of people. People likely thought www was required or some kind of standard. The "web" and "world wide web" was becoming a buzzword and Having a www subdomain was trendy! Everyone latched onto this trend and now about 30 years later, many websites still use it. Surprisingly there are even groups who vehemently wish for all websites to use the www subdomain.

If an organization is large enough it is logical it would possibly want to use subdomains to split services among different machines. The Web server could be placed on the web subdomain, the ftp could be on the ftp subdomain, and so on. Another good use case is splitting a website into different languages like how wikipedia uses its language code subdomains. ShyStudios does use some subdomains but they are for internal use and are not for publicly facing services. A big reason people advocate for the use of the www subdomain is exactly as I just described, allowing a small site to "grow" using subdomains. This is quite a flawed concept because there is nothing stopping you from using any arbitrary subdomain for expanding your website, why limit yourself to the mid-late 90's fad of www? Why not use the clearly superior web subdomain to specify the web server? But once again these names are completely arbitrary, one could host an ftp server at www.website.com and an actual web server at ftp.website.com the subdomain is not the protocol. In fact many ftp servers DID host hypertext documents in the early 90's! It is very possible in the future ShyStudios may grow, and the need to split into multiple different servers would be real. I could have these articles on a blog subdomain, the bbs on the bbs subdomain, and maybe a webstore on a shop subdomain. That last one is extra important because it allows for a secure server independent from the others just for taking payments.

One semi-legitimate technical reason for using a main site subdomain is "COOKIES". I say semi-legitimate because the issue is actually with the design of how cookies work, the issue could be resolved if client software could be directed to handle cookies differently. When using no subdomain as ShyStudios does, all cookies stored on that main domain will get sent to any subdomains, as cookies are sent with every single request. What this means is if you have a large website storing a bunch of cookies and those cookies are for example.com and you are loading images from static.example.com, every single request (from what I understand) to that subdomain even though you are just loading an image, is also sending all of your example.com cookies which need to be processed by the web server. Yet some very large websites like twitter, who do store their static images on subdomains don't seem to have much of an issue with this. The only cookies that shystudios uses are on the BBS, to keep your username and to undo the last post. From what I can tell my cookies are only sent if you are visiting the bbs, not the rest of the website.

The main "argument" for using the www subdomain specifically boils down to: "people are too stupid not to type the www". and "people are too stupid to know that its a website without the www" Maybe this was true in the late 90's because of the www subdomain fad, but today most people don't even type urls. Most websites I go to are via my new tab page or by typing in the first few letters and the rest will autocomplete. I know that MOST computer luddites simply type the website into google first and then click the first result. Why are modern websites still catering to the 90's www fad? Most people who discuss this topic regardless of their position on subdomain usage, will insist that you force rewrite your url to the single choice you desire so that if someone types the wrong one they will still arrive at the correct website. Rewrite meaning that when you visit www.coolsite.com it forces you to visit coolsite.com instead. Why stop at the www subdomain though? Why not start rewriting every possible misspelling of your website or any other random subdomains? How about w, ww, and web? The www subdomain is ONLY treated like this because it was popular, and just because something is popular doesn't mean it is good or right or true. You will never see people advocating to rewrite an info subdomain. Visiting info or web.google.com will NOT bring you to the google homepage despite google using the www subdomain. But do you know what does? google.com does!

Url rewriting is ONLY truly necessary for websites that USE the www subdomain because the vast majority of people today, in the rare event that they type a url, are not typing out www, because it is well understood that it isn't needed. This ONLY works because all www subdomain sites url rewrite to their www subdomain. Pretty much no site exists on both the non-www and the www subdomains at the same time because that actually makes them two different websites. If you advertise a website with a www subdomain the vast majority of visitors are going to omit the www, whereas if you advertise a website without the subdomain (or with a non www subdomain) very very few people are going to intentionally add www themselves.

So why does ShyStudios not support the www subdomain at all? There are two main reasons, #1 aesthetics/branding and #2 to reduce unnecessary technical configuration. I'll start with the latter. If I were to allow visitors to www.shystudios.us I would need to configure the www subdomain records, then create a new server that rewrites the url to the main one. While the configuration isn't actually that complex, why would I bother taking the time to configure my website to function for those who intentionally visit the wrong url? Typing in the www is not a common "mistake" that people make like they do when excluding the www. Aesthetically shystudios.us without any subdomain just looks perfect and is what our branding is. I somewhat understand the argument for www when using weird uncommon modern TLDs like xyz or io because just writing sitename.xyz does not instantly let someone non tech savvy know it is a website like a .com .us .net .org or any other common TLD would. www is also prettier than http:// so www.website.uncommontld is a lot better than http://website.uncommontld when written down. Though when I really want to make super duper sure people know in print that shystudios.us is a website I do include the http://.

So should YOU use www or not? (jordan peterson voice) WELL THAT DEPENDS!! It depends on how you plan on structuring your website, and plans can always change. ShyStudios was never intended to be more than a static info page but continues to grow with more and more features. If you actually want your main site to use a subdomain, then I suggest using the web or info subdomains over the www subdomain. This eliminates most issues with using or not using the www subdomain. It will be up to you if you want the main url to rewrite to your subdomain or not, personally I think it isn't needed when specifying a non www subdomain. If you are a small static site and you use a standard TLD then the use of www or any subdomain is entirely an aesthetic choice. You can always switch in the future, but just remember that search engines may not like that. If your site doesn't rely on search engines then you can just do whatever. The main thing to remember is do what YOU want, not what other people want you to do.