e-learning,  history,  metaphor

What’s in a name? Early internet metaphors

My friend and all round good chap, Rajiv Jhangiani, dropped me a message asking for my favourite current metaphor about the web for a talk he is giving. This set me thinking about some of the early labels we used for the internet and the web, and what they tried to convey. If you are old enough, cast your mind back to the late 90s when the web (and wider awareness of the internet more generally) was still new, and we were trying to understand what it was, and what it could do. Metaphors are very powerful in this respect as they provide a bridge from the familiar to the unfamiliar. The “desktop” metaphor for computer interfaces for example helped people navigate things like file structures, deleting files, opening up applications, etc. It wasn’t perfect, for instance, you didn’t really delete files by putting them in the trash, but rather just allocated that memory space to be rewritten (and confusingly you had to eject files in the early Macs by dragging the disk to the waste bin). But for widespread adoption, this kind of metaphor was essential over Unix text interfaces (despite what the Unix geeks say).

With regards to the internet it had various terms and labels, and some associated with education which have their own uses and connotations. Let’s look at some and their relationship to education.

The Information Super Highway – originally coined to refer to the whole media ecosystem of satellite, cable TV and the internet, this term later became synonymous with the internet. It has two main positive implications: the access to vast quantities of information; and the the speed with which such information can be accessed. We take this for granted now, but being able to access information sources such as digital repositories instead of visiting libraries (or requesting photocopies) opened up new possibilities for education. Maybe we didn’t need to provide everything, but learners could find their own resources? The whole (rather cliched now) shift from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘Guide on the side’ role for educators is predicated on this fast access to lots of information. And it wasn’t fast by today’s standards, but still a ten minute download was a heck of a lot faster than a three week inter-library loan request.
A negative, or missed, aspect is that, although we can travel on highways, the metaphor implies a more broadcast, receptive model. The information on the super highway comes to you, but there is little suggestion of the more social, interactive nature of the web.
Still, it did sound very cool. One of the first elearning conferences I attended was called “FLISH – Future Learning on the Information Superhighway”. That made you think of a bright, exciting future. Maybe that was a negative implication also – it sounded too utopian and the sort of thing that would have more hovercars and fewer nazi trolls.

Infinite library/lecture hall – another phrase that cropped up in the late 90s was the idea of the infinite lecture hall or library. The appeal here was that physical limitations were removed, and the suggestion was that these were the only thing capping numbers. It is this model of lectures streamed to thousands that concerned writers such as David Noble and his Digital Diploma Mills. The idea got a glow-up with the advent of MOOCs – the M stands for Massive after all. It is getting another go around with the advent of AI and ChatGPT delivered education.
It is of course, a very content delivery model of education, and despite all this information being freely available, the validity of the human educator has remained remarkably persistent. But as with the Information Superhighway, it is the access to content that is emphasised here, not the participation.
But before we dismiss it completely, it did open up education and access to a lot of people who were prohibited from partaking otherwise. I always found Noble’s writing very elitist (even before the advent of the Internet, the Open University was demonstrating that many of his assumptions did not hold true). Open Access publications, access to libraries, datasets, etc have all been a positive for education, so this metaphor was not entirely sinister, even if it missed some of the significant aspects of the internet, and education.

Bulletin Board – I wrote about Bulletin Board Systems in 25 Years of Ed Tech. The metaphor here is of the cork bulletin board people that people could pin notices to for others to read. These might be images, notes for someone else, invitations, requests, notifications, etc. The Bulletin Board analogy also worked well for the dial up nature of the internet in the mid to late 90s. People could come online, post or access what they need, and then log off, just as you might pass a physical bulletin board at a specific time and place, but not be interacting with it continually.
The aspect of the Bulletin Board that really took off was discussion forums. The metaphor breaks down here a bit, but you were essentially posting a message on a public board. The BBS is the first of the metaphors we’ve considered that emphasises the dialogue, user content driven nature of the internet. Social media can be seen as direct descendent of the BBS, but not one which you would have predicted if you just had an Information Superhighway perspective.

The world wide web – ok, this one is a bit obvious, but also so commonplace now that we don’t see it as a metaphor any longer. Arising from Tim Berners-Lee’s work at CERN, the web metaphor emphasises the decentralised nature of the internet, and the interconnectedness of it. The world-wide part is the real deal breaker here, as with the information superhighway, it means access to documents, ideas, data, discussions, anywhere in the world. I will repeat: Anywhere in the world! It is hard to relate how much my mind was blown when I watched my first web cam slowly relay an image live from Hawaii.
The web is partly a technical metaphor to relay the decentralised network of servers. But I also think it has messy, more organic implications than the Information Superhighway. It will develop and evolve in unexpected ways, taking advantage of local contexts. An information superhighway is what the large media corporations want so they can control access, a web is what we little spiders build.

You may have some others from those early days. I think what these reveal is that all of them are true to an extent. This demonstrates the danger of metaphors, no single one captures all that you need. It also highlights the complexity of the internet and our relationship with it.


  • Alan Levine

    Also worth a mention is the telegraph, aka the Victorian Internet (and book thereof). And then the metaphor that inspired the early internet wizards, Vanevar Bush’s memex.

    The highway metaphor is hard to unravel from it’s metaphor-ness from the popularizing (aka the magazine cover) and the use of it by Al Gore. That was definitely an influence on one of my first web pages from maybe 1994. I compared it to something I saw in the place I lived at the time in Scottsdale, AZ, where a new fancy highway that had been announeced, for years was only visible as a few isolated overpasses sitting in the desert (if you go there now, the highway is just every day infrastructure). That felt like the tension between the promise of the highway and what was visible. I found a shred in the Wayback Machine – and yes, it was stated there as a metaphor!


    I found a 1994 set of web slides when I was talking about “Highways, Webs, and Rodent Holes” https://mcli.cogdogblog.com/show/webshow/ and Slide 2 is a list of metaphors.

    And then there were all the “surf” metaphors for the web.

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