People use metaphors routinely to express their thoughts regarding the Internet’s nature and potential. In a study of editorials over a three month period, writers used metaphors of physical space, physical speed, salvation, and destruction to describe the Internet. We need to understand what these metaphors imply and how they impact the Internet’s future.
Consider the following excerpt from a popular Web design book:
Newspaper editors know the importance of putting the most important information “above the fold,” that is, visible when the paper is folded and on the rack. This principle applies to Web design as well. 
This passage intended to help new Web designers understand how to structure information on a Web site. In doing this, it compared the Web to a completely different medium, a printed newspaper. Most of the readers of the design book have read or at least seen a newspaper in the past. They could picture a newspaper folded and remember the large, important headlines that caught their attention.
The reader’s connection between the known (newspaper design) and the unknown (Web design) made the unknown more familiar. This practice, comparing two disparate ideas to gain understanding, is purposefully and effectively used by educators and technical communicators. However, people also engage in this type of knowledge–making by metaphor on a daily basis in their conversations; often this practice becomes a tacit part of their regular communication.
Lakoff and Johnson (1980) argued that our speech, thoughts, and actions are based upon metaphors. These metaphors are so entwined in our lives that they are invisible to us; however, since our conceptual system defines our reality, we only understand reality through metaphor.
We use these metaphors in a systematic way. When we uncover systematic metaphors, we gain insight into cultural practices and experiences. “Metaphors are thus not only descriptive; they may provide clues to the design intentions of those who use them, and, as such, they many help to shape the cognitive framework within which such actors operate.”  Social actors use metaphors for more than description or simple attempts to use imaginative language. Rather members of a community employ metaphors in norming ideas and in making “the imaginary become real or true.” 
The process of norming ideas occurs because metaphors provide what Lakoff and Johnson called entailments. These entailments structure a metaphor and give it extended characteristics, better transferring ideas from one concept to another. A given metaphor and its entailments might be the best or only way to convey ideas and experiences.
“Metaphors may create realities for us, especially social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self–fulfilling prophecies.” 
Metaphors allow individual experiences to make sense in larger cultural systems, and metaphor’s meanings and entailments vary by culture. Erin Cline (2008) emphasized the importance of looking at metaphors through the lens of culture. A metaphor’s meaning changes based upon its cultural entailments, so metaphors should be viewed with an understanding of culture and context.
Becoming aware of the metaphors used in a culture affords insight into the culture’s ways of thinking and being. “Metaphors … are lenses which refract current cultural beliefs and values. They not only provide a prism through which to understand consumption behavior but, in their use/instantiation by individuals, are creative ways of seeing.” 
Metaphors can open new ways to think. Metaphors, however, do not have to be automatically accepted. “[M]etaphors are contestable, and there are real political and cognitive issues at stake.” 
As cultural metaphors become tacitly understood, individuals and their communities can choose to accept or reshape metaphors, thus changing reality for that community. As we become aware of metaphors, we can determine the accuracy and appropriateness of them (Sims, 2003).
This article examines narratives written in mainstream public forums, pulling out the metaphors related to the Internet. An analysis of these metaphors reveals the way people relate to, understand, and experience the Internet.
Before using and understanding the Web, users must construct a metaphorical framework that helps them make sense of their experiences. Thus metaphors such as “the World Wide Web” or the “information superhighway” provide users scaffolding for grasping the Internet’s potential, functions, and interactions. “[T]o understand something as dynamic and abstract as the WWW is difficult or impossible without the aid of a metaphor for contrast.” 
While these common metaphors, like the information superhighway and even the Web, provide an initial structure to Internet experiences, they also “carry with them the entailments of government funding, teams of experts, and large bureaucracy.”  The entailments of these metaphors also mean they might fail to reflect the Internet adequately. Michael Kent (2001) claimed the metaphor of the Web is not applicable to the current form the Internet takes. His research provided a rational for the importance of uncovering metaphors and understanding their accuracy. Kent determined that the current metaphors shaping the Internet keep us from using it in educational and political venues.
As these Internet and computing metaphors, such as the Web, become embedded in our society, they in turn spawn new metaphors for understanding our experiences. For example, computer and Internet metaphors now determine our very sense of selves: We describe ourselves and others as binary; we describe our brains as hard drives or storage systems; we talk about thoughts as being coded in memory (Denny and Sunderland, 2005).
As Internet usage and access expands, these metaphors become more ingrained. These metaphors become a stable part of a culture’s discourse, and those using the metaphors often do so unconsciously. When invoking metaphors related to the Internet, people choose to invoke common metaphors or create new metaphors entirely depending upon their experiences. “Thus, it is important to continue to monitor the metaphors at work to understand exactly what work it is that they are doing.” 
Metaphors can influence our views of the Internet, both providing us with possibilities and limiting other possibilities. “They can help people comprehend the new, the unseen, the unknown; but they can also mislead, sometimes deliberately, because the kinds of experience they purport to connect may be incommensurate.” 
Maglio and Matlock (1998) tried to understand how users conceive of the Internet. They searched for consistent metaphors that people used to describe their Internet experiences and discovered multiple metaphor categories: Outside actions, trajectory metaphors, user as an agent, Web as the agent, container metaphors, information action, and miscellaneous.
Wyatt (2004) also examined the metaphors used to describe the Internet “in order to understand the perceptions and expectations of some of the actors involved in its shaping.”  She uncovered six main metaphorical themes in Wired: “revolution, evolution, salvation, progress, universalism, and the ‘American Dream’.”  These metaphors often promoted a form of social justice and global access, change, and equality.
The Internet represents a wide-spread technology with confusion surrounding the mechanisms, ethics, privacy, etc. associated with this technology. Thus looking at the way journalists, politicians, corporations, and others describe this technology provides us insight into its envisioned potential and uses. Recognizing and reflecting upon these Internet metaphors, and the ways they could potentially shape culture, should be an important practice for researchers.
Because of the importance of metaphor in presenting and defining experience, observing metaphors regarding the Internet is an important part of understanding users. People express themselves in metaphors in all settings, so researchers must select the setting that best reflects their research purpose.
To gather an appropriate corpus for analysis, I searched Lexis–Nexis search, looking for editorials with the term “Internet” in the title. I limited my search to editorials, as this genre offers opinions and narratives to and by a general public audience. I restricted my search to the three month period of September 2008 to November 2008, and I located 29 editorials. I excluded five artifacts, which were duplicates or marketing pieces, from my analysis. The remainder of the editorials consisted of letters to the editor, editorials by staff writers, and editorials by expert guests. These editorials represented a range of opinions and ideas across the United States.
The topics represented in the editorials varied considerably. They discussed social and economic issues, politics, gambling, censorship, voting, community projects, and the role of the Internet.
Semino (2005) mentioned both a top–down and bottom–up approach to metaphor analysis. This discussion resembled Black’s (1980) distinction between emic and etic viewpoints in research. In the etic viewpoint, the theory overlays on the object of criticism; whereas, in the emic viewpoint, the object becomes central. With emic criticism, the researcher allows the object to speak, rather than imposing a theory upon it.
Rather than approaching these editorials with existing metaphors and categories, I considered them from an emic viewpoint, discovering metaphors and determining how they naturally grouped.
Steger (2007) used an emic approach in his research when he focused on metaphors used in specific situations by specific individuals. His method for exploring metaphors in this localized context followed three specific steps: metaphor identification and selection, a general metaphor analysis, and text–immanent metaphor analysis.
To identify metaphors, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) provided three main types of metaphors: structural, orientational, and ontological. Structural metaphors refer to commonly used metaphors where one idea is used for another. Orientational metaphors relate to physical action, and we can locate the impetus for these types of metaphors in physical experiences. Other, less visible metaphors occur in this system when we take abstract ideas and thoughts and give them physical form, creating ontological metaphors. These types of metaphors provide us “ways of viewing events, activities, emotions, ideas, etc., as entities and substances.”  Viewing ideas as objects allows us to “quantify it, identify a particular aspect of it, see it as a cause, act with respect to it, and perhaps even believe that we understand it. Ontological metaphors like this are necessary for even attempting to deal rationally with our experiences.” 
After collecting editorials, I highlighted all of the metaphors relating to the Internet, rather than focusing on the metaphors surrounding the individual editorial topics.
Steger next suggested performing a general analysis of the metaphors. In the general analysis, the critic makes free associations, thinking of things that relate to that metaphor. Then the critic identifies the role of the metaphor and the various dimensions the metaphor suggests, as well as looks at concepts and idioms related to the metaphor.
Koller (2004) viewed this stage in the analysis as uncovering the conceptual metaphors for each of the expressions (such as “take no prisoners” is a business is war conceptual metaphor). She deduced conceptual metaphors based upon “informed intuition.”
While many of the metaphors I found fit easily into a specific category, others could have fit into multiple domains. I tried to draw on the surrounding text to guide my decisions. Returning to the narrative and finding context to make these decisions followed Steger’s (2007) final stage of analysis. However, as Semino (2005) related, “the distinctions between patterns that are discussed in different sections are often not clear–cut, as individual expressions may evoke more than one potential source domain.” 
Locating these metaphors provided an opportunity to explore deep–rooted cultural beliefs and values. Despite the wide range of topics discussed in the editorials and the diverse regions of the United States represented by the editorials, consistent metaphors emerged.
The primary (or conceptual) metaphors that were used repeatedly in the editorials were those of physical space, physical speed, destruction, and salvation.
Steven Jones (1997) discussed the tendency to view intangible ideas as tangible spaces. “We have a tendency to understand mainly in spatial terms, observing it as if visually, through the use of visual metaphors, as if it were indeed a highway being constructed through our backyard.”  The Internet is a physical space metaphors appeared in multiple ways, but these were not the only, nor even the most dominant, type of metaphors in the corpus.
Physical space metaphors included metaphors regarding transportation and physical structures. Each of these metaphors was rooted in a physical experience. In these metaphors, the Internet
has driven down the cost of government overhead
helps people better navigate the complex bureaucracies and unknown flight plans
can block traffic
creates fast and slow lanes
steers the public towards their preferred Web sites
Each of these metaphors linked the Internet to a familiar, physical experience. People drive cars in slow lanes, so slow connections on the Internet get compared to slow lanes. Other physical space metaphors related to physical structures. These physical structures included bridges, libraries, harbors, pathways, real estate, corners, luncheons, and even sewers.
Constance Porter (2004) presented a typology for virtual communities, discussing the importance of physical space to communities, “In a world where individuals maintain relationships with others in physical space, many virtual communities are composed of members who share a virtual space and, intermittently, physical space.” (Porter, 2004) The importance of space to communities came out in metaphor, creating online structures that remind us of physical structures used to form physically connected communities.
As this conceptual metaphor of physical space becomes implicit, Internet users feel as if their own personal and business reach extends. “Its structure supports both market and cooperative approaches to finding social resources in virtual communities. With more ease than in most real life situations, people can shop around for resources within the safety and comfort of their own homes and offices. Travel and search time are reduced. It is as if most North Americans lived in the heart of densely–populated, heterogeneous, physically–safe, big cities rather than in peripheral, low–density, homogeneous suburbs.” 
This description of the Internet physically moving people from suburbs to big cities emphasized the common–place idea of Internet is a physical space. This metaphor is so powerfully ingrained that Carter (2005) argued people join each other on the Internet in a real space, rather than a separate virtual space.
As this metaphor becomes transparent, we must address issues online that get addressed in physical locations. James Grimmelman (2006) discussed legal arguments regarding laws and legal approaches to the Internet. These arguments were based upon whether or not the Internet is a physical space:
“When we put on our ‘internal’ goggles, we see the avatars in a virtual space, engaging in virtual conduct, living virtual lives, and generally taking the metaphors and rules of that space seriously. When we put on our ‘external’ goggles, we see people at keyboards and bits flowing along wires. The virtualists and the realists here are disagreeing on which perspective is the salient one for talking about virtual worlds. Virtualists say that the internal perspective should predominate; realists prefer the external perspective.” (Grimmelman, 2006)
The more embedded physical space metaphors become in the United States, the more online activities (such as legislation) will resemble offline activities.
This metaphorical concept of physical space leads to another idea, mentioned in passing by Wellman and Gulia: “Travel and search time are reduced.”  This group of Internet metaphors surrounded physical speed. Time is an important characteristic of a culture. However, the Internet impacts how we perceive and live time.
“For example, tribal and peasant societies based their activities around seasonal times, so that an activity such as planting seeds would occur according to phases of the moon.” 
The Internet and its metaphors of speed allow a sense of simultaneous, global connections, potentially changing a culture’s relationship with time.
In the editorials, the Internet allowed issues to be “addressed in a more timely manner”; it provided “investment models faster than we can think”; without the Internet people “would have to travel around the world by relative stagecoach, compared to the current transport by bolt of lightning.”
Paul Virilio (1995) focused on changes to the concept of speed, arguing that speed and information have become synonymous due to the Internet: “Cyberspace, or, more exactly, ‘cybernetic space–time’, will emerge from the observation, popular with the press, that information is of value only if it is delivered fast; better still, that speed is information itself!” (Virilio, 1995).
Speed/time metaphors impact reality for Internet–based societies; however, not everyone views this impact positively. Bartram (2004) noted arguments that the “speeding up of society” harms social capital and erodes democracy.
While Internet research often focuses on the ideas of Internet is physical space and Internet is physical speed, these metaphors occurred less often in the editorials. Instead, the majority of these mainstream narratives discussed the Internet in terms of destruction and salvation.
Multiple metaphors compared the Internet to nature, usually comparing the Internet to phenomenon that caused destruction and death in nature. In these articles, Web sites were flooded, experienced a wave of hits, eroded revenue, acted like fast–flowing waters, and had comments poured on them. These metaphors all related to water, a moving, powerful, life–giving force. However, these metaphors particularly emphasized water’s ability to break elements down and cause destruction (erosion and floods).
Multiple metaphors gave the Internet negative human traits, emotions, and practices, painting the Internet as a villain or an enemy:
question is whether technology is our slave or whether technology enslaves
Are there times when IT and computers really are not your allies?
Internet is a possession that possesses us because it is too important to lose
threaten to supplant the mainstream media
Internet is destroying politics
the attacks didn’t stop there
Everyone should be concerned about Internet anarchy
The majority of the metaphors in the editorials were tinged with negative entailments and fell into the Internet is destruction domain. This conceptual metaphor included viewing the metaphor as a weapon:
Armed with PDAs
The Internet is the best way of knocking down those rumors and also the most effective way of spreading them
His campaign has fought back with a Web site
Republicans used a similar e–mail bombardment to attack Obama
target of an Internet veracity campaign
new Internet–based attacks
Whether by comparison to the raw, destructive power of nature or by comparison to physical attacks, weapons, and villains, these metaphors fit into a larger metaphorical system where the Internet is destruction. Metaphors of the Internet eroding society, of it attacking or assaulting, of it threatening, supplanting, causing anarchy all looked at the Internet as a destructive force.
In academia, Internet critics lament online destruction. Critics of the Internet and other forms of electronic communication often cite commodification as a problematic, destructive force on the Internet. Commodifaction replaces knowledge and fee ideas with advertisements and marketing materials (Rheingold, 1998).
Andrew Keen (2007) viewed the Internet as a destructive force that is decaying analysis and expert opinion, arguing the Internet replaces knowledge with superficial ideas and expressions.
Other critics implying an Internet is destruction metaphor site potential loss of privacy and opportunities for government control via the Internet.
“[H]igh–bandwidth interactive networks could be used in conjunction with other technologies as a means of surveillance, control, and disinformation as well as a conduit for useful information. This direct assault on personal liberty is compounded by a more diffuse erosion of old social values due to the capabilities of new technologies; the most problematic example is the way traditional notions of privacy are challenged on several fronts by the ease of collecting and disseminating detailed information about individuals via cyberspace technologies.” (Rheingold, 1998)
These personifying metaphors allow people to view the Internet in hyper–negative ways. By describing the Internet as enslaving, we give it malicious intent and capacities. It gains the sentient ability to use and abuse those in its power.
Other groups of metaphors countered the Internet is destruction idea with Internet is salvation metaphors. These metaphors allowed the Internet to perform saving acts. In these metaphors, the Internet
handles housing assistance cases
helps poor children
accepts some responsibility for the content posted there
stages incredible online revolution
transforms our health system
These metaphors characterized the Internet as both transforming and revolutionary. Instead of a destructive, villainous force, the Internet saved, empowerd, and enabled new opportunities. The Internet saved us from social ills such as poverty and poor health care.
Rheingold (1998) called this metaphorical construct a “utopian vision” and brought up the necessity of affordable computers, available Internet access, and decentralized networks to make this vision a reality.
Sherry Turkle (1995) discussed Internet experiences, bringing up many positive opportunities offered by the Internet:
“I have argued that Internet experiences help us to develop models of psychological well–being that are in a meaningful sense postmodern: They admit multiplicity and flexibility.” 
Other researchers argued the Internet empowers political activism, giving voice and power to oppressed people. Wall (2007) discussed ways this communication technology can change social movements and allow political outsiders to challenge insiders.
However, those promoting this electronic advocacy potential did not always feel the potential has been realized. Byrne (2007), for example, contended that participants in activist social networking sites do not take advantage of the opportunities afforded by these sites.
These opposing viewpoints might initially appear to form two distinct social systems. However, Lakoff and Johnson (1980) noted that conflicting metaphors fit coherently into a larger social system. Thus, Internet is destruction metaphors and Internet is salvation metaphors all cohered in a cohesive cultural system. This system expressed mixed feelings and concern regarding the future impact of the Internet. This conflict was evident in both mass media and academia.
The editorials included in this analysis offered a small glimpse at perspectives on the Internet in the United States. While the Internet was a secondary topic in most of the articles (with the primary topic focusing on politics, poverty, and other social issues), the editorial authors made arguments about the nature of the Internet through their use of metaphors.
These metaphors painted the Internet as physical space, physical speed, destruction, and salvation. Each of these concepts fit into a larger set of arguments surrounding the purpose and potential of the Internet.
When individuals chose the metaphors they used to describe the Internet, they also selected a filter for viewing the Internet. This result makes it vital for us to reflect on our metaphors and select them with care.
In these example editorials, the most–used metaphors surrounded ideas of destruction. If the Internet is destruction metaphor becomes the predominant schema for reflecting on online experiences, how might this impact the future of the Internet? Could this metaphor encourage censorship and oppression online? What other metaphors better convey the future and potential of the Internet?
Future research should expand this corpus of articles across a longer period and continue tracing it in the future. Additionally, researchers should look for regional and cultural connections to online metaphors, gaining insight into the events and attitudes that precipitate these metaphors in specific regions.
About the author
Rebecca Johnston is a graduate student seeking a PhD in Technical Communication and Rhetoric from Texas Tech University. She is researching online communities and culture. She worked as a technical writer and Web designer for Iomega and IBM. She has taught new media, Web and print design, and writing classes at Davis Applied Technology College and at Westminster College.
E–mail: rejohnst [at] ttu [dot] edu
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Newspaper editorials examined
Arkansas Democrat–Gazette, 2008. “Give ’em the botts old photos and the Internet” (29 September).
Brown Daily Herald, 2008. “Does the Internet possess us, or do we possess it?” (15 October).
Connecticut Post Online, 2008. “Internet leads to anarchy” (2 September).
DomainConsultant.com, 2008. “Financial crisis should benefit ‘Internet real estate’: DomainConsultant.com recommends domain names as investment hedge,” Market Wire (9 October).
Flint Journal, 2008. “Some Internet mobilizations smack of cyber–silliness”, (21 September), p. A13.
J. Gurwitz, 2008. “Don’t let Internet rumors turn up election incivility,” San Antonio Express–News (17 September), p. 9B.
G. Griscom, 2008. “Internet postings, other lies,” Chattanooga Times Free Press (Tennessee) (14 September), p. G1.
M.A. Hart, 2008. “Ask For Internet freedom on third OneWebDay,” Tampa Tribune (20 September), p. 15.
Journal–World (Lawrence, Kansas), 2008. “Drawing the line: It won’t eliminate terrorism videos from the Internet, but YouTube has taken a step in the right direction” (18 September).
E. Kamarck, 2008. “Look to the Internet to fight poverty,” Boston Globe (29 November), p. A11.
J. Kominicki, 2008. “Social networking on the Internet: In the future, we’ll all be famous for 140 characters,” Long Island Business News (26 September).
C.R. Larson, 2008. “Internet destroying politics [Letter to the editor],” The Salt Lake Tribune (24 September).
H. Lewis, 2008. “The dangers of Internet censorship,” Boston Globe, (5 November), p. A19.
T. Manthey, 2008. “Publisher sees failed business model: Giving away content on Internet sinking newspaper industry, he says,” Arkansas Democrat–Gazette (20 September).
Mobile (Alabama) Register, 2008. “An Internet sewer spill” (4 September), p. 8.
Monterey County (Calif.) Herald, 2008. “Internet voting flawed” (8 September).
News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington), 2008. “Spinning political deceit on the Internet” (19 September), p. B04.
Omaha World–Herald, 2008. “Competition, good Internet surfers could use innovation, new names in browser wars. Competition, good,” (8 September), p. 6B.
T. Ouzt, 2008. “Internet gambling [Letter to the editor],” Salt Lake Tribune (20 November).
T. Plate, 2008. “The Internet in the great meltdown,” Providence Journal–Bulletin (Rhode Island) (5 November), p. 10.
R. Ram, 2008. “Internet is key to improving efficiency, quality,” Buffalo (N.Y.) News (5 September), p. A8.
D. Roybal, 2008. “N.M. historian brings past to the Internet masses,” Albuquerque (N.M.) Journal (4 November), p. A5.
M. Shtender–Auerbach, 2008. “Post–Olympics challenge: Secure Internet freedom in China,” San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News (4 September).
Paper received 11 January 2009; accepted 14 March 2009.
“Salvation or destruction: Metaphors of the Internet” by Rebecca Johnston
is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Salvation or destuction: metaphors of the Internet
by Rebecca Johnston
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 4 - 6 April 2009
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.