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Describing the Internet

at 8:00 am

How would you describe the internet? Is it a vast series of tubes? A superhighway? An organism? Where this gets difficult is that sometimes we lean toward more static descriptions of the information channels, like "tubes" or "web", while other times choosing descriptions that focus on the activity of the web, like "superhighway." (By the way, contrast the metaphor you thought of with those listed in this study from 2000, Making sense of the Web: a metaphorical approach.) I recently ran across two blog posts that are doing some more current thinking on this matter.

One came from Tim Malbon in a blog post titled, The Web as a Column of the Ocean. Malbon describes the current state of the web as comparable to the ocean, which has different levels based upon the life that thrives (or does not thrive) at various depths. Here's an interesting quote:

"At the very top, in the seething surface layer of the Epipelagic the Web is a boiling mass of life. A rising storm of thrashing users. An unimaginably massive number of interactions. The waters are hot. Currents flow fast. Waves crash and spume flies as millions of short messages rip back and forth across the surface. Links and people collide in a foamy chaos of tangling and untangling networks... This top layer - the scalding Photic cauldron of short messages and streaming data visualisations - is where it’s at. The top layer has become a lens for finding content further down. The surface is now where I look for new stuff, where I ask questions (search) and where I discover the vast Web of sites, pages, documents and content hanging lower down in the depths. This layer is connected to that which lurks below through trillions of filaments and capillaries."

The other example came from Mike Arauz's blog post, Visualizing The Network Structure of the Internet. After reading Malbon's post, I wondered, if the top layer is "where it's at," how do we manage to navigate it, especially since it seems to expand faster than the rate by which we can even hope to organize it. Arauz seems to answer the question here:

"This is why things that blow up and become hugely popular on the web do so at the top strata. Because there's so much mixing and overlap. However, the lower strata are crucially important. Because of their more narrow focus and secluded environment, they create a qualitatively different relationship between the explorer and their discovery."

This makes a lot of sense to me. It's in the connections between readers at the top that the filtering occurs. See, my big question was how, in the Epipelagic layer that Malbon describes, anyone actually finds anything. But the answer was in Arauz's post itself. Before reading it, I had never heard of Tim Malbon. But because I had already been connected to Arauz, I eventually found information by adopting his connection to Malbon. Arauz's description looks a bit like the structure of a fractal, in which each endpoint spawns more connections. With a structure like that, one needs only to be connected to a small group of people or sources in order to ensure that they receive a comprehensive sample of information. Of course, knowing who to connect to is not always that simple, but I think this "trickle out" approach works. At least, I've found it to work for me. What about you?

By the way, here's an interesting take on visualizing the internet from Kevin Kelly's CT2 blog:


Dave | June 2, 2009 9:06 AM
Speaking of visualizing the internet, here's an advertisement from AT&T, representing nodes and bandwidth. I saw this in an airport a couple of months ago, and found it both interesting and beautiful, in an organic-fractal kind of way.

Chris Butler | June 2, 2009 9:25 AM
Dave, Wow, I love that. We need something like it to hang in the office. Actually, how about a wire mobile representing the internet that we could hang from the ceiling???
Nolan | June 2, 2009 9:51 AM
This might be pedantic, but Arauz's post, the CT2 graphic, and the text of this post to some degree confuses the terms Web and Internet. While seemingly interchangeable, and perhaps it has slipped into common speech as such, these two objects are different and probably would help the discussion to separate them back out.

The Wikipedia article on the Internet ( sums it up well: "The Internet is a global data communications system. It is a hardware and software infrastructure that provides connectivity between computers. In contrast, the Web is one of the services communicated via the Internet. It is a collection of interconnected documents and other resources, linked by hyperlinks and URLs." If the Web was Disney World, the Internet would be the monorail.

But not to avoid responding to the semantic meaning of the post, I'll describe the Web with how I see it. Arauz's depth metaphor works well for me, though I tend to look at it more like panning versus mining for gold. The gold found panning is valuable in itself, but you usually throw out a lot of rocks to find them. Finding these specks of gold is an indication that there might be a lode nearby.

So for me, I spend time panning for gold on Twitter or reading the top headlines on Proggit or Hacker News. I see Twitter as being the "come pan for gold with your kids" attractions seen in the mountains, and the more focused aggregators as the more off-road, locals only mining creeks.

The occasional shiny rocks you get from these come-all creeks might point towards a fruitful mine. Getting something of value from these deep pockets of information may be more work as they can't usually be summed up in a Twitter message, but you take away so much more value.
Chris Butler | June 2, 2009 11:09 AM

Point taken on the semantics behind the terms "internet" and "web." What we're really talking about here, then, is describing the web, which is, in itself, a descriptive term. Of course, one of the obvious limitations of using "web" is that it tends to connote a two-dimensional image, rather than one which is clearly of a different spatial sense altogether.

The panning-for-gold metaphor works, too, although the connections from one site to another that Arauz indicates is probably more analogous to getting a verbal direction from a "local" to the panning site, than the act of panning itself.
Nolan | June 2, 2009 11:44 AM
To answer better of how I abstract the Web (which is not something I usually consciously think about), is to see it a giant interconnected spiderweb, with me sitting myself in the optimal spot of it for my consumption needs. Berners-Lee was dead-on, in my opinion, of his naming this structure, "the Web".

Though, I'm not sure if I see how the web doesn't work with a two-dimensional abstraction, as having the idea of all the pages of the Web laid out on a giant table with strings connecting them to each other seems to work well.

Here's one example of how it works in 2-D:

You're right with my analogy, though; it didn't really work as far as describing the web, but more of how I use the web, which was the correct answer to the wrong question.
Chris Butler | June 3, 2009 7:58 AM

I think this discussion really shows that descriptive terms for something like the web are likely to always be diverse given that our experience of the web varies based upon who is using it and why. Sometimes a more static description may fit as we envision the current "shape" of the web, whereas other times a more action-oriented term may seem more appropriate if we're actually sending/receiving information (e.g. "superhighway").

In any case, I don't mind getting a little pedantic for the sake of a good discussion... I searched for images of spider webs and came up with the following:

One reason I'm not completely fond of the web image is because a spider's web is pretty systematic in it's design, with concentric rows expanding out from a central point. Each row is connected in segments by the intersection of the expanding diagonals. Of course, we know that the web we're talking about isn't quite built in that way. The rate of expansion is much too fast to adhere to the same "design" standards. I often think of the shape of the web as being much more like a fractal, where points of information create "explosions" of information emanating outward. When I did a Google image search for "web," I actually came up with the following image, which is much more what I had in mind:

Web Design Bangkok | June 4, 2009 5:51 AM
I agree, on the surface the 2D representation from AT&T on nodes and bandwidth is a striking visualization of the internet in "an organic-fractal kind of way". But maybe it's more like MC Escher's Dragon. However much it tries to be spatial, it remains completely flat. In Escher's drawing he makes two incisions in the paper on which it is printed. Then it is folded in such a way as to leave two square openings. But in spite of its two dimensions, it persists in assuming it has three, so it sticks its head through one of the holes and his tail through the other. Still, it remains 2D.

And the spider's web doesn't help much as it's only a very crude visualisation of a highly complex system. So "why things that blow up and become hugely popular on the web do so at the top strata" doesn't make a lot of sense if it can only describe itself in its own fuzzy dimension.
Chris Butler | June 8, 2009 4:08 PM
Web Design Bangkok,

It's true- no visualization will be fully accurate, nor will any particular verbal description either since the web is corporeal in nature.


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