‘A series of tubes’, or an impassioned tirade on how internet terminology gets mangled by people who don’t know what they’re talking about

Ever since the Internet ceased being a domain of IT professionals and started being a domain of the average citizen, we IT professionals are constantly having to deal with people who use internet terminology inaccurately.

A classical example is the US Senator Ted Stevens who famously declared in 2006 that the Internet was a ‘series of tubes’. He got laughed at a lot for saying that but, in my opinion, that statement was not his greatest sin. In fact, comparing the Internet to a series of tubes is quite a cute metaphor. But Senator Stevens also said this:

Ten movies streaming across that, that Internet, and what happens to your own personal Internet? I just the other day got…an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o’clock in the morning on Friday. I got it yesterday [Tuesday]. Why? Because it got tangled up with all these things going on the Internet commercially.

What’s happening here? He’s using the word internet vaguely: sometimes he means the Internet, sometimes he means e-mail. This is no longer a metaphor, it is a mistake: he is mistaking one concept for another. He probably didn’t even have a clear distinction in his head between the two concepts: to him, an internet was all and everything that took place on the Internet (or in the ‘series of tubes’ as he would have it).

Senator Stevens is of course not alone – far from it. It is very common for people to fail to distinguish between various Internet-related concepts. For one thing, many people believe that the Internet and the Web are completely synonymous, while in fact they are not: the Web is a subset of the Internet (other subsets include e-mail as well as other technologies most people have not heard of such as FTP and Gopher). I understand perfectly that that distinction does not matter to most people. And given that these days you usually access your e-mail through the Web, I can understand how people might find it difficult to even grasp what the distinction is about. But that changes nothing on the fact that the distinction exists and that it does matter in some contexts.

I remember an on-line discussion from years ago when a group of Irish translators were discussing whether the term website can safely be translated into Irish as suíomh idirlín (literally ‘internet site’) or whether it must always be translated as the more literal but less well known suíomh gréasáin (literally ‘web site’). Many participants failed to grasp the difference between the Web and the Internet and, even when the difference was explained to them, failed to appreciate that while the two terms may well be synonymous in popular usage, they are not synonymous is specialized usage. What matters is the context. In a popular, non-specialized context, by all means feel free to translate website as ‘internet site’ if you feel that that is a smoother translation. But in specialized contexts, in technical communication where accuracy is important, the terms are not synonymous and the more accurate one should be used.

Another example of internet terminology taking a beating from Joe Public is the term blog. A blog is a collection of blog posts but, confusingly, many people insist on using blog to refer to an individual blog post as well: ‘I wrote a blog about kitties recently’ and so on. Facebook is also a victim of the same trend: people say things like ‘the 100th member of our facebook will win a CD’ when by our facebook they mean our Facebook page.

I guess I should be ready to tolerate this. I do after all understand that popular vocabulary does not need to be as accurate as specialized terminology. I also understand that popular vocabulary is constantly subject to spontaneous development and is constantly being extended through mechanisms such as metaphor and metonymy. What’s happening to blog and Facebook nowadays is not all that different from what’s already happened to e-mail: people use e-mail variously to refer to an e-mail message, and e-mail address and the e-mail medium itself. The same thing happened to television and radio long ago: both are used to refer to the receiver as well as the medium. If you ask somebody to turn on the television, nobody would seriously think of sniping back at you ‘surely you mean the television set’.

So, when a friend tells me that she ‘wrote a blog about kitties recently’ and that she wants me to join her on ‘her facebook’, I don’t scold her with ‘surely you mean a blog post’ or ‘surely you mean your Facebook page’. I don’t consider doing that because, frankly, that would be a great recipe for losing friends and alienating people. But a little piece of me dies each time I hear an abomination like that. That didn’t use to happen when the Internet was still a domain of people who knew what they were talking about.


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