A contemporary definition of “internet”

I want to start of by saying that, really, I don’t care whether we capitalize the word “Internet” or not. I’ve read some good arguments for both, but the fact that so many people rejoiced at the announcement probably means that we need to just embrace the lower-case ‘i’. I think the reasoning that people give for not wanting to capitalize Internet such as, not capitalizing Electric Light, betrays a technical misunderstanding of what the Internet is and how it works, but let’s be honest, pedantically insisting that everyone use a capital ‘I’ is not going to increase understanding.

The global Internet that we all use is a specific instance of an internet, but most people just hear gibberish when you tell them that and repeating gibberish generally doesn’t help anyone.

So how are most people using the word “internet” today? Real researchers could probably do a good job of quantifying this, but I only have my friends and a search engine, so I’ll speak from my experience.

The friends I’ve talked to view the Internet as a utility. It’s a generic service like water or electricity. In this line of thought, “internet” is not “The Internet,” but rather “connectivity to the internet.” This is what people mean when they say “I get my internet from Comcast” or “I can’t work at that coffee shop because their internet sucks.” This is what I’ll call the “service definition” of internet. It refers to network connectivity at layers 1-7 and usually to the big-I Internet.

Now someone might also say, “the internet sucks,” and be referring to the content on the Internet. “Not enough cat videos, too many think pieces!” “Internet” here, refers to any content or service that can be accessed through a network. Following the service definition of internet, “internet” is any content that can be accessed via an internet connection. This is what I’ll call the “content definition” of internet.

Closely related to the content definition is the “community definition” of internet. Here, “internet” refers to the people on the internet producing the content. This usage shouldn’t be too unfamiliar, just think about how we use the term “media” to refer to the physical media (papers, magazines, television) as well as the people who produce that content.

So I’ve laid out definitions of internet as a service, as content, and as a community. I think these definitions probably capture the ways most people talk about the internet today. Nowhere in these definitions is a distinction between networks, interconnections of networks, or the global system of interconnected networks (aka, the Internet). These are more cultural definitions than technical ones and I think we, as the tech community, should let the broader culture have this one. They, actually, we all need a way to talk about the internet as deeply-integrated part of our lives and culture and I think the service, content, and community definitions meet that need. Are they technically accurate? No. Do they rely on some ambiguity and synecdoche? Yeah, but many concepts do.

Interestingly enough, while the service definition of internet seems like clear lower-case material, the content and community definitions really seems like a proper-noun that should be capitalized. “We need to pay Comcast for internet so we can get on the Internet” is a sentence that would probably make sense to most people (though I imagine you would actually say “we need internet” or “we need to get on the Internet” interchangeably). It seems reasonable to me to refer to the service as internet and the global network as in the same way that we refer to soil as earth and the whole planet at Earth. But hey, I’m not going to pick a fight about that one. Let the cultural usage win on this front.

Aside from the loose way that people generally use “internet,” the big-I Internet strikes many people as dated. Multiple friends expressed to me that capital-I Internet feels like something out of 1996 when AOL was distributing CDs and magazines were writing headlines like, “What is this new technology called Internet?” and “Does your company need to be on the World Wide Web?” One friend said that “Internet” feels like a specific product name in the way that Dell and Windows are capitalized, branded versions of a lower-case computers and operating systems. Want to get online? You need a computer, software, internet, and a web browser; not a Macintosh, OS X, The Internet, and Google Chrome.

Again, I don’t strictly feel that way, but I’m a network engineer, so my feelings about networking terms aren’t representative of the broader population. For most people, internet is a service, a bunch of content, and a community of people and the capitalization of Internet just seems confusing and unnecessary.

For the technical community, there’s an internal conversation we need to have about the distinction between “internet: two or more interconnected networks” and “Internet: the global system of interconnected IP networks?” Personally, I think we should retire the small-i definition of internet. When was the last time you saw that term used outside of the first chapter of a technical networking book? More on this in another post.

Note: Hat tip to @wordsmith and @perardi for helping me think through this.

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