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A Network by Any Other Name

Bill Thompson

Last month Wired News, the online service that grew out of Wired Magazine, decided that it was going stop using an upper-case 'I' when it talked about the internet. At the same time Web became web and Net became net.

According to Tony Long, the man responsible for their style guide, the change was made because 'there is no earthly reason to capitalize any of these words'. In fact, he claims, 'there never was.'

Wired is hardly alone in deciding to do this. Few other news sites, newspapers or magazines, off or on line, use 'Internet' and 'Web' any more. The Guardian style guide announces that 'internet, net, website, web, world wide web' are 'all lc' without feeling any need to justify, explain or expand upon the policy.  And anyone who reads BBC News Online will know that it's been their policy to bring both internet and web down a peg or two for many years.

Those who argue for a lower case net make two main points. First, there is a general tendency in English language journalism (or should that be 'english language'? Not according to The Guardian, it seems) to get rid of as many capital letters as possible because they are deemed to distract the reader. Using 'internet' and 'web' simply looks better.

And second, there is the widespread view that since capital letters are used solely to distinguish proper nouns — names or titles — it is not appropriate to use one for the network that links our computers together or the publishing system that runs on top of it. Hence Wired can say there was never any reason to use Internet.

Forgive me for saying, but those who choose 'internet' over 'Internet' are as wrong as those who would visit london, meet the queen or go for a boat trip down the river thames. The fact is that the Internet is the name of a specific collection of networks, while internet is a generic term for two or more connected networks. The two are as distinct as planet Earth and the earth around your begonias, and they should be distinguished in print.

This isn't just pedantry, although I'm happy to admit to wanting to be careful in my use of language. It's also about history [ISOC, Wikipedia], about understanding where one of the key tools of our modern life came from and appreciating its true nature. Because while the Internet is certainly an internet, it is not just any old internet: it's the one that was created in January 1983 when the research network ARPANET and the Computer Science Network (CSNET) were linked together and everyone started using the TCP/IP protocol suite that we still have today.

The difference between the Internet and any other internet is therefore quite fundamental and, I would argue, worth recognising. It may be unfortunate that Vint Cerf and the other network pioneers chose to name their network after its most distinguishing technical characteristic rather than give it a proper name, but that doesn't allow us to disregard the distinction.

There are words that can be used in both ways without a capital — atmosphere, for example, is used both in a generic (some planets have atmospheres) and specific (the atmosphere exerts a pressure) sense without capitalisation. But we built the Internet, we didn't just notice it around us, and it was named with a capital letter by the people who created it.

As a journalist I know that if I talk about a Biro then I had better be referring to one of the pens made by the Biro company, and if I mention someone sitting in a Portakabin then it had better be one of Portakabin's products and not just any old temporary office. But I can hoover my floor with any brand of vacuum cleaner, because the term has lost its significance and no longer refers only to a cleaner made by Hoover.

It's the same with the Internet. If we let it lose its special status then we lose a connection with our online history, one that I want to retain. Wired News and the BBC may decide otherwise, but some of us will not forget and will not give up the fight — whatever the sub-editors do to our copy after it has been emailed over.

Or should that be e-mailed?

By Bill Thompson, Journalist, Commentator and Technology Critic. More blog posts from Bill Thompson can also be read here.

Related topics: Internet Protocol

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Comments

Re: A Network by Any Other Name Chris Linfoot  –  Sep 10, 2004 1:54 AM PDT

Or is it "Emailed"?

Just kidding.

Yes, I agree. I always use uppercase when writing about the Internet for precisely the reasons you so eloquently describe and I will continue to do so regardless of what others choose to do.

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