The Internet Will Not Be Lowercased

By: Charles Duan, Director of the Patent Reform Project at Public Knowledge and Very Serious Grammarian

Is the internet a series of devices and apps, or is the Internet a real place we go to connect? Image courtesy of Pixabay user jeferrb.

After long and considered thought, I have decided that I refuse to spell “Internet” with a lowercase i, and I could care less that the Associated Press has decided otherwise. [Editor’s note: I, on the other hand, live in constant fear of AP style editors and will be adjusting Public Knowledge materials accordingly. Just not this one.]

I realize that I’m on the wrong side of history here, that it is only a matter of time before the majority, then the predominant, then the unanimous choice is to name the global network in lowercase. But at least for me, the choice of capitalization is not just about orthographic trends. It is fundamentally about what the Internet is meant to be.

The AP’s decision to change the capitalization of “Internet” was just one entry into a debate that has run nearly as long as the Internet itself has existed. The primary arguments in favor of capitalization, other than longstanding tradition, are twofold: first, that the Internet is a specific noun referring to a single entity, thus meriting a capital initial; and second, that lowercase-internet identifies a generic type of technical network system, of which there may be many, as opposed to the uppercase-Internet, of which there is only one. Arguments, among others, for lowercasing the global Internet: that the network’s rapid growth has rendered it so ubiquitous as to be generic; and that capitalization is old-fashioned and pedantic — the “grammatical tyranny of the internet as a proper noun,” as the Verge put it.

Debating the capitalization of “Internet” is obviously small potatoes compared to some issues — one professor quipped that “things like the Iran nuclear deal and global warming beat it.” But it’s no surprise that the debate has been so heated, because capitalization is significant in the English language. The same word can take on different meaning depending on that first letter. There’s the white house down the street, and there’s the White House. Census takers may be interested in the constitution of the United States, but lawyers are much more interested in the Constitution of the United States. You might be amused or disgusted if I threw a clod of earth at you, but you would be in a science fiction movie if I threw some Earth at you.

What’s the difference between the capitalized and lowercased versions of the same word? The usual answer is that the capitalized word refers to a proper noun: a specific thing or place, a specific locus that the mind immediately associates with the word. A lowercased word, on the other hand, is mentally connected with a class of things, a generalized concept or matter. It is that distinction that seems to drive much of the debate over capitalizing “Internet”: whether it is more like a specific thing, or more like a general utility.

Problem is, the Internet isn’t more like one or the other, because there are two Internets: the technical internet and the place called the Internet.

The technical internet is a platform for carrying data between people and machines. It’s made up of fiber optic cables and routers; its languages are protocols like HTTP and TCP/IP. That internet is the analogue of the telephone system, the postal service, the plumbing: an enormous web of infrastructure, sitting at a layer beneath the ordinary contemplation of you or me.

But the Internet, as most people talk about it, is not mere subterranean infrastructure. It is a place, a locus, a meeting point of people, information, and ideas. Phrases like “look me up on the Internet” and “go on the Internet” reflect our mental model of the Internet not as a vast web of disparate machines, but as a single space, a bustling bazaar where people from all different physical places come together virtually. The Internet, the place, is built from the internet, the structure — in much the same way that the Earth, the place, is made of earth.

That distinction, between the internet as structure and the Internet as place, is becoming more important now. Because even as the wires and cables of the internet continue to be built out, the Internet is slowly eroding.

In its early days, the Internet and the World Wide Web were synonymous as a practical matter: accessing the Internet meant opening up Mosaic or Netscape and loading a web page. The fundamental innovation there was the hyperlink that allowed a reader to jump instantaneously across pages, causing information from all over the world to appear in a single computer window. That ease of traversing physically vast distances with the click of a mouse contributed to the sense that the Internet was this single meeting point of all information.

Web pages and hyperlinks still exist today, but the presentation has changed greatly. Big social networking sites fight to keep users from leaving to other sites: witness Facebook’s launch of an internal video service to avoid jumps to YouTube, and Twitter’s proposal for article-length tweets to avoid jumps to outside news sites and blogs. And more and more so, web pages themselves are being replaced by apps, standalone programs designed for a single service, not for rapidly jumping across all kinds of content and information. To the extent that apps like Facebook and Twitter link to outside content, that content is displayed in a cramped in-app window, a mere shell of the multipurpose general web browser.

This shift to apps turns the Internet, as place, into an unconnected agglomeration of individual and idiosyncratic locations. That’s a significant loss, in my mind. By being a single place, the Internet offered everyone an equal opportunity to present new ideas or innovative sites, and offered all users an equal opportunity to use them. Apps lock users into the services they are tied with, and they lock new creators out except at the whims of the businesses running those apps.

We’ve forgotten something important when we see the Internet merely as that loose collection of separate apps and services, rather than seeing the Internet as a phenomenon of interconnectedness.

So to me, the choice between the internet and the Internet is not merely about typographic preference or popular fashion. It is about whether we keep seeing the Internet as that bustling marketplace of people and ideas, or whether the internet fades into the background, merely propping up the apps and social networks that dominate the view.

And against all odds, I have to hope that the Internet does not become balkanized, that it is not reduced to being an internet of a series of tubes. I need to remind myself, and remind others, that the Internet is that place where we grew up, where we learned, where we shared ideas. It must remain a place for me. It must remain the Internet.