A history of metaphors for the internet (2023)

When I wrote about thisweb surfing competition, it got me thinking about different metaphors for the internet. Surfing seemed like an odd one, an artifact from a very particular time in the mid-1990s when people used terms like “information superhighway” and “cyberspace” unironically. Where did these metaphors come from, and where did they go? Have any persisted, and have new ones taken their place?

The more I read, the more it seemed that these old metaphors hadn’t died out at all, though their meanings had changed. No one says “information superhighway” anymore, but whenever anyone explains net neutrality, they do so in terms of fast lanes and tolls. Twitter is a “town square,” a metaphor that was once used for the internet as a whole. These old metaphors had been joined by a few new ones: I have a feeling that “the cloud” will soon feel as dated as “cyberspace.”

From the web to virtual villages

  • The Web - 1990: Tim Berners-Lee decided to call his system of linked hypertext documents “The Worldwide Web” instead of the “Mine of Information” or the “Information Mesh,” which he also considered. Later, it would be crawled by “spiders,” though the spider metaphor never really caught on.
  • The Information Superhighway - 1991: Popularized by Al Gore as he pushed to expand and improve the national networking infrastructure, at the time used primarily by researchers. The information superhighway, in contrast, had stronger commercial associations. It also carried with it the assumption that it’s a public work and that activity on it could be regulated.
  • Virtual villages, cafes, flea markets, and parks - 1993: Tech journalist Howard Rheingold published The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier, likening the message board he was dialing into to a “virtual village.” Like other people trying to convey the communitarian aspects of the internet, he also likened the subcultures and groups to cafes, flea markets, Hyde Park, and other public gathering places.
(Video) A History of Spam on the Internet

“Information is fairly formless, so almost everything we do online we do with some kind of metaphor,” says Judith Donath, who studies interface design at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Moreover, because information is formless, the metaphors we use to describe it are particularly powerful — they’re what gives it form, telling people how a service ought to be used. Software metaphors can be both verbal and visual. Donath cites email as a particularly entrenched example. The mail metaphor made sense initially but locked us into a cumbersome system of folders. There’s no reason an email couldn’t exist in multiple categories, as in some sort of tagging system, other than that it would “break the metaphor,” she says, which is what Google eventually did with Gmail.

The 1990s saw a boom in sweeping metaphors for the entire internet, mostly because it was a time when people who were very excited about the internet were trying to explain it to people who didn’t understand it at all. That’s when you get your “internet superhighways,” “infobahns,” “global villages,” and “coffee houses with a thousand rooms.” But these metaphors weren’t simply clumsy attempts at communicating what the internet was — implicit in each of them was a vision of what the internet ought to be.

Take “cyberspace,” the founding spatial metaphor popularized by William Gibson in 1984’s Neuromancer. Going online wasn’t just sitting down at your computer and transmitting signals through a network; it was jacking into another dimension, leaving your physical body behind and entering a utopian space of pure information, one that was typically visualized as buildings literally constructed from neon data. Cyberspace became the chosen metaphor of the libertarian and countercultural strains of the early internet. As the media began to drum up internet panic, it became a scary place, full of cybercriminals cybersexing, but it was still an alternate dimension of total freedom.

These days, “cyberspace” still has these anarchic associations, but now the term only comes up in conversations about securing it. Government officials are pretty much the only people using it unironically. “Cyberspace is real,”then-President Barack Obama declaredin 2009, announcing a new cybersecurity effort. “There will be no dark spaces for dark acts any more,” said Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden, at the2011 London Conference on Cyberspace.

Cyberspace and a series of tubes

  • Cyberspace - 1996: Compared to the highway metaphor, cyberspace came to represent a more anarchic vision of the internet, an imagined virtual region separate from the physical world. “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” wrote John Perry Barlow in “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” The media often treated it as a scary place, warning of cybercrime and cybersex, and depicting it as a landscape made of neon numbers.
  • Fast lanes, slow lanes - 1997: Tim Wu coined the term “net neutrality” in 2003, but in 2006, he used an extended highway metaphor to explain why it was good. “How would you feel if I-95 announced an exclusive deal with General Motors to provide a special ‘rush-hour’ lane for GM cars only? That seems intuitively wrong,” Wu wrote inSlate. The fast-lane metaphor continues to be the primary way net neutrality is discussed, at least by those advocating for an open internet.
  • A series of tubes - 2006: “The internet is not a big truck,” said Sen. Ted Stevens in a fumbling attack on net neutrality. “It’s a series of tubes.” Stevens was widely mocked, but he wasn’t wrong. The truth is that “tubes” is probably a more accurate description of the internet — of its physical nature, anyway — than most of the metaphors discussed here. The internet is certainly more tubes than clouds.
(Video) "2001: Art History with Metaphor"

Compare cyberspace to the other major metaphor of the ’90s: the information superhighway. Al Gore popularized the term as he pushed for the expansion of a national computer network, at the time used mostly for research. The highway was the perfect metaphor: it’s a big state-funded infrastructure project that will facilitate commerce, not an anarchic frontier. Like the railroad, which this 1993article from The New York Times compares it to, it will conquer and develop the frontier. The “metaphor of the Internet as the information superhighway was chosen deliberately to demonstrate the utility and everyday nature of the Internet over the utopian vision of cyberspace that had informed its early development,” write professorsCornelius Puschmann and Jean Burgess.

This metaphor, too, has political implications, as the information scientistPeter Lymanpoints out. If the internet is a highway, then that implies the government should regulate what people do on it. The highway is also designed for moving private property to market, implying that the information superhighway is for moving and selling information, now understood primarily as intellectual property — not for freely copying and distributing data.

Interestingly, the highway metaphor has also flipped. Where cyberspace is used to describe a place that governments must bring under control, the information highway is invoked by activists trying to keep it free.Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality,” used an extended highway metaphor in 2006 to explain why people should care. Since then, fast lanes, slow lanes, and tolls have become the default language of the net neutrality debate, at least among those who support it. What started as a metaphor for regulation and markets ended up as a symbol of freedom.

When I started looking into metaphors, I thought I’d mostly be chronicling antiquated terms. I was surprised to find it still alive in the net neutrality debate. I was even more surprised when Donath pointed me toward all the other — newer — metaphors that might not initially seem metaphorical.

(Video) The Web Is Not The Net

Facebook itself is a metaphor, she says. It uses the analogy of the freshman lookbook. It uses friendship as a metaphor to describe any connection. It uses a newspaper to describe its feed of events, which creates a tacit expectation that, like a newspaper editorial board, it will curate what you see. Twitter, on the other hand, is a “global town square” where anyone can be heard.

“So much of the internet has been branded,” says Cohen, “what’s interesting now is what different brands end up with as metaphors.”

Clouds and town squares

  • Clouds - 2006: Amazon launches Elastic Compute Cloud, beginning its domination of the remote computing industry and the ubiquity of “cloud” everything. Cisco wants to turn its routers into data-gathering hubs, allowing computation to be done more locally. Naturally, it calls its system“fog computing.”
  • The Stream - 2009: “The stream is winding its way throughout the Web and organizing it by nowness,” wroteTechCrunch’s Erick Schonfeld. Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Google Reader, and other services were adopting reverse chronological real-time feeds. Metaphors are often both verbal and physical. Email uses the metaphor of mail, for example; it also uses the interface of folders to organize it.
  • Town square - 2011: With the Arab Spring, Twitter, in particular, was described as the “global town square,” a semi-public space where people could be heard and organize protests. Dick Costolo ran with the metaphor, saying that Twitter’s ability to both broadcast and have back-and-forth exchanges had brought back the Greek Agora.
(Video) Pictorial Metaphors for Information (What is Information?)


`;yearObject.appendChild(timelineObject);});timelineContainer.appendChild(yearObject);});timelineContainer.classList.remove("empty");timelineContainer.parentNode.classList.remove("my-40");var timelineHeight = timelineContainer.getBoundingClientRect().height;var lastTimelineObject = timelineContainer.querySelector(".year-object:last-child .timeline-object:last-child");var lastTimelineObjectHeight = lastTimelineObject.getBoundingClientRect().height;var line = document.createElement("div");line.classList.add("line");line.style.height = timelineHeight - 20 - lastTimelineObjectHeight + "px";timelineContainer.appendChild(line);});});

The internet is everywhere now, so it’s harder to use totalizing metaphors that describe it as a separate space. The division between physical space and the internet posited by “cyberspace” —digital dualism, as Nathan Jurgenson calls it — was always dubious, but it’s especially hard to maintain when you use Google Maps, Yelp, Uber, and other apps to navigate and interact with the world. People stumbling into things while looking at their phones is both a measure of them being “elsewhere” and a measure of how present the internet is in the physical world.

But ethereal, obfuscating metaphors persist. TheAtlantic’s Rebecca Rosentraces “the cloud” back to the way early network engineers symbolized the unknown networks their systems hooked into. Largely thanks to Amazon, which launched its Elastic Compute Cloud service in 2006, the term is now used to describe any remote data storage and computing. The cloud is weightless and intentionally vague: your data is up there somewhere, in a better place, where you can forget about it. It’s in sharp contrast to theindustrial realityof remote servers, which are gigantic,loud, and require tremendous amounts of energy.

“Big data” is often referred to as a torrent, a flood, or an ocean — a natural resource that must be harnessed. Rowan Wilken, a professor at the Swinburne University of Technology, worries that the metaphor obscures the fact that this data is often created by users.

“Almost anything about the internet is going to have metaphors that help you understand it, because otherwise it’s formless,” Cohen says. “And they’ll all have political implications.”

(Video) Mind Your Language: Thought, Metaphor and Imagination


What was used as metaphor for Internet? ›

Cyberspace is the most widely used spatial metaphor of the Internet and the implications of its use can be seen in the Oxford English Dictionary definition, which denotes cyberspace as a space within whose boundaries digital communications take place.

What is the history of metaphor? ›

The English word metaphor has its roots in Old French, Latin and Greek, dating back as far as the late 15th century. The French word métaphore is practically identical. The Latin metaphora means "carrying over" while the Greek metaphero combines the terms "meta" - between - and "phero" - to bear or carry.

What are 3 famous metaphors? ›

Famous metaphors
  • “The Big Bang.” ...
  • “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. ...
  • “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ...
  • “I am the good shepherd, … and I lay down my life for the sheep.” ...
  • “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” ...
  • “Chaos is a friend of mine.”

What are 3 common metaphors? ›

Common metaphor examples
  • Life is a highway.
  • Her eyes were diamonds.
  • He is a shining star.
  • The snow is a white blanket.
  • She is an early bird.
Jan 12, 2021

What are the 8 metaphors? ›

In his book, Images of Organization, Gareth Morgan lays out eight metaphors for an organization: machines, organisms, brains, cultural systems, political systems, psychic prisons, instruments of domination, and flux and transformation.

Who first used metaphors? ›

In the Western philosophical tradition, Aristotle is often situated as the first commentator on the nature of metaphor, writing in the Poetics, "A 'metaphorical term' involves the transferred use of a term that properly belongs to something else," and elsewhere in the Rhetoric he says that metaphors make learning ...

What are the 7 deep metaphors? ›

According to the Zaltmans, there are seven deep metaphors: balance, journey, transformation/change, container, connection, resource, and control.

What are 5 common metaphors? ›

Other examples of common metaphors are “night owl”, “cold feet”, “beat a dead horse”, “early bird”, “couch potato”, “eyes were fireflies”, “apple of my eye”, “heart of stone”, “heart of a lion”, “roller coaster of emotions”, and “heart of gold.”

What are 10 metaphors? ›

10 Metaphor Examples for Kids
  • “A Heart of Stone” Without a doubt, this is one of the best metaphors you can use with children. ...
  • “That Place Is a Zoo” ...
  • “It Is a Melting Pot” ...
  • “The Apple of My Eye” ...
  • “The Snow Is a White Blanket” ...
  • “The Tears Were a River” ...
  • “The Stars Are Dancing” ...
  • “You Are My Sun”
Mar 10, 2022

What is a creative metaphor? ›

A creative metaphor is an original comparison that calls attention to itself as a figure of speech. Also known as a poetic metaphor, literary metaphor, novel metaphor, and unconventional metaphor.

What is 1 type of metaphor? ›

Similes, hyperbole, antithesis, idioms, and metonymy are all types of metaphors as they use the practice of comparisons between two 'things.

Is the cloud a metaphor for the Internet? ›

In the simplest terms, cloud computing means storing and accessing data and programs over the internet instead of your computer's hard drive. (The PCMag Encyclopedia defines it succinctly as "hardware and software services from a provider on the internet.") Ultimately, the "cloud" is just a metaphor for the internet.

What is a metaphor for technology addiction? ›

Of course, technologies have provided all sorts of metaphors and images for people to describe their physical and mental states: run out of steam, go off the rails, recharge your batteries, biological clocks, body as well-oiled machine, tuned in or out, switched on or off.

What is an example of a computer metaphor? ›

There may exist other metaphoric mappings that are made with a computer, but the four metaphors “A COMPUTER IS A PERSON”, “A COMPUTER IS A FACTORY”, “A COMPUTER IS AN OFFICE” and “A COMPUTER IS A CONTAINER” have occupied the majority of our conception about computers, because we have mapped more elements of these four ...

What was the internet inspired by? ›

Internet was based on the idea that there would be multiple independent networks of rather arbitrary design, beginning with the ARPANET as the pioneering packet switching network, but soon to include packet satellite networks, ground-based packet radio networks and other networks.

Why is the symbol for Internet a cloud? ›

It's called 'cloud computing' because when engineers diagram their corporate networks, the symbol that represents the "internet" is a cloud. The cloud was used as a symbol because it represents a fuzzy area outside of the control of the company's IT people. The internet is like the "vast beyond" to them.

What was the word cloud used as a metaphor for historically? ›

Tracing the etymology of the term cloud is difficult since the cloud metaphor was widely used by early internet designers to denote the wide-area routing and switching infrastructure between network nodes.

Is dark cloud a metaphor? ›

And yet, in Indian literature, dark clouds looming are a metaphor for joy, for they indicate the arrival of the monsoons after a long hot dry spell, maybe after a drought. Dark clouds are translated as ghanashyam.

What is a metaphor for social media? ›

Social media is like planting a tree - "I liken social media marketing to planting a tree. It calls for a plan, patience and persistence over a sustained period of time.

What is an example of a metaphor about technology? ›

"Technology is like a steamroller: you can either drive or become part of the road. There is consequential pressure on educators to become technology-savvy.

What is the best metaphor for addiction? ›

The cobra effect has been used as an analogy for addiction and mental health. In this analogy, mental health problems such as depression and anxiety are the 'problem', much like the cobras. Substance abuse is the 'solution', analogous to the bounty.

What are any 10 metaphors? ›

10 Metaphor Examples for Kids
  • “A Heart of Stone” Without a doubt, this is one of the best metaphors you can use with children. ...
  • “That Place Is a Zoo” ...
  • “It Is a Melting Pot” ...
  • “The Apple of My Eye” ...
  • “The Snow Is a White Blanket” ...
  • “The Tears Were a River” ...
  • “The Stars Are Dancing” ...
  • “You Are My Sun”
Mar 10, 2022

What is computer metaphor in psychology? ›

The computer gave cognitive psychologists a metaphor, or analogy, to which they could compare human mental processing. The use of the computer as a tool for thinking about how the human mind handles information is known as the computer analogy.

What are the three types of Internet? ›

Internet Connection Types: WiFi, Broadband, DSL, Cable.

How was Internet created without Internet? ›

The first workable prototype of the Internet came in the late 1960s with the creation of ARPANET, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. Originally funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, ARPANET used packet switching to allow multiple computers to communicate on a single network.

What is the brief history of Internet? ›

January 1, 1983 is considered the official birthday of the Internet. Prior to this, the various computer networks did not have a standard way to communicate with each other. A new communications protocol was established called Transfer Control Protocol/Internetwork Protocol (TCP/IP).


1. Internet metaphors
(Helen Hodson)
2. Legends Solved By Recent Discoveries
3. 6.4 More Metaphors on the Role of Media in Society
4. Most people will skip this video...
5. Technical Terms: The Internet and the Web (#1691)
6. Video The Magic of Metaphors
(Gary Tomlinson)


Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Ouida Strosin DO

Last Updated: 27/09/2023

Views: 5537

Rating: 4.6 / 5 (76 voted)

Reviews: 91% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Ouida Strosin DO

Birthday: 1995-04-27

Address: Suite 927 930 Kilback Radial, Candidaville, TN 87795

Phone: +8561498978366

Job: Legacy Manufacturing Specialist

Hobby: Singing, Mountain biking, Water sports, Water sports, Taxidermy, Polo, Pet

Introduction: My name is Ouida Strosin DO, I am a precious, combative, spotless, modern, spotless, beautiful, precious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.