The Network of metaphors

This piece originally appeared in my column ‘Reality Bytes’ in issue dated 12th Aug, 2002 of the Free Press Journal, an English daily published from Indore, India. Some text has been borrowed from a Research Paper on the subject by Lee Ratzen.

The World Wide Web is indeed too deep to be explored in its entirety. It’s a myth that the Web eliminated all hiding places. Moreover web means different things to different people. We often subconsciously use metaphors to describe it. It’s our ingenious way of explaining the unfamiliar using familiar terms.

Windows Internet Explorer
Image via Wikipedia

During my recent cyber-journey I was surprised to discover many such metaphors being used and fashioned regularly. Some say web is spatial as space, some personify it, some use it as a figure of speech, and others add a touch of poetic embellishment. The Information Super Highway that we refer to cannot be measured in miles for contractors to prepare estimates using cheap adulterated construction material for their next government tender. The popular forums could not be located on your city-map and the metaphysical online-community you vow on is not even comparable to your friendly neighborhood mohalla. Still we use these terms. Waves or no waves, we begin our surfing and enter a site though we never see the door to the mansion.

I was surprised to note that people had actually done systematic studies on these metaphors. They had pondered deep into the psychological side of the use of the metaphors while talking to different people of different background of gender, job profile and expertise at usage of Internet. Data was also collected using online survey and research papers. Thankfully, the results were not entirely boring and I could pick-up some interesting inferences. So here I am sharing some of these with you.

Studies showed that the metaphorical dimension we give to the Web portrays our own innate feelings. The way we describe something affects the way we perceive it and the way we perceive it can affect the way we use it. No wonder then that the paradigm of the computer desktop inspires you to tidy-up the desktop on your machine; you remove the unnecessary shortcuts, get rid of the boring icons and use those downloaded ones. Now the desktop resembles your physical approach towards your own wooden, physically existing tabletop. So what, if your desktop has windows. How many times did you feel like Amundsen using your Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer?

If the metaphors we use reflect our personality, does our skills and gender play any role too? Studies show it does. Metaphor images seem to change as skill level develops. Thus, while the novices are more likely to perceive the Internet as a bottomless pit or an impenetrable maze, even a wide endless road or a locked library, the experts will modestly nod in disagreement. They see Web as a community, a haven of free speech or still better, a huge library. And they have their reasons. I personally regard Internet as an Ocean of information, since it’s deep, inviting and immense, with many areas still unexplored.

Studies suggested that novices tend to use finite, tangible, delimited, closed, delineated metaphors for the Web while Experts use more metaphysical, intangible, open metaphors. This may indicate the lack of comfort level of the novices to conceptualize something amorphously vast and the significant ability of Experts to do so. This difference in conceptual imagery may have ramifications for the development of future Web services to target audiences.

Talking of gender, Men and women project different self-perceptions of themselves as Internet users. Even in real life men tend to prefer absolute addressing (4 MG Road) while women tend to prefer relative addressing (Second house on the right). The way people navigate in a foreign environment may affect on-line information retrieval and future Web search engine design. The fact that more women than men use the highway metaphor may be based on the observation that highways are fundamentally regarded as neutral in sexuality as opposed to ships or planes.

Whatever metaphorical way we refer to the web, information remains the dominant theme associated with them. All of us tend to describe it more often as an information source rather than as an information conduit (as in highway). Other prevalent themes are that of a Library and a Network. If you ponder a while, you would agree. Web seems a lot like a dysfunctional library, with books scattered all over the floor; an un-catalogued library; a library with its lights turned off. Still we fail to notice the conflict; our image of chaotic information access belies the structured way a library presents its information.

Obviously some user metaphors will defy simple explanation and indicate a more pragmatic approach. The Internet-as-Spaghetti may suggest an image of entanglement but it is difficult to imagine the Internet as a bowl of pasta. The Mayajaal that the Internet is referred to may be reminiscent of the spell it has cast on young mind. Also it would not be entirely correct to neglect the parents who term it as a jungle. Today they are less worried about the wrong company their teenage son might be in than the amount of time he spends in his cybercloset all night. To the bandwidth troubled cyber-habitual web is a virtual dead end street. For the government, Web is a cooperative chaos while for the job seeker it renders a new dimension. To the spiritually inclined the sheer power of Web lets him bow before its omnipotence. Some tend to go overboard and equate Web with the almighty himself. To them God is the distributed, decentralized system.

Whatever we call it, Internet has grown big. So big that it provides humanity a new window through which to look upon the infinite. It’s the epitome of both good and evil. It provides for free exchange of ideas, information and imagination. It can, on the other hand, be a tool of isolation and a peddler of the ideas, which live in the darker regions of ones mind precisely meaning that it reflects the true nature of humanity in all it’s diversity. Metaphors simply reveal this resemblance. That doesn’t mean that we’re stuck with the same metaphors forever. Metaphors evolve, as does language itself and new metaphors will be created every now and then.