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The Web metaphors

Roxana Murariu
Originally published at Updated on ・6 min read

If you asked people in 1989 what they needed to make their life better, it was unlikely that they would have said a decentralized network of information nodes that are linked using hypertext.

Farmer & Farmer  

In the beginning, we could only understand the Internet and the Web through the lenses of metaphors. The Internet is derived from the words "interconnection of networks", thus a global network of networks. The Web or the World Wide Web is information accessed through the Internet. How can we better describe the distinction between the Internet and the Web? Using metaphors, of course.

The Internet is the infrastructure, whereas the Web is a service provided via that infrastructure. An earlier metaphor of the Internet was the information superhighway. Another metaphor for the Internet is the global village where everyone is connected, and we are brought closer together through cyberspace. However, the global village metaphor has its critics as this metaphor suggests the entire world is connected, ignoring the fact there still is a vast digital divide that prevents millions of people from accessing the Web through the Internet. 

Then, we surf the Web. The Internet can be up, online or down, offline. Websites invoke static sites, plots, or areas on the Web. Nevertheless, we can describe websites by using the book metaphor ("bookmark a webpage", "publish a site") or the home metaphor ("go to the homepage", "sign in as a guest"). Forums are boards ("post on a forum", "pin to a board") and applications are vehicles ("run a program", "the application crashed"). Blogging appeared as a metaphor for online logging or online diary(weblog). We can still find one of the first blogs here and the first webpage developed by Sir Tim Berners-Lee here

In web security, firewalls are systems or walls that block viruses or pop-up ads, and paywalls are methods that restrict access to content via purchases or subscriptions. Like I said in my article, The current state of the Web, currently, browsing the Web without using an ad-blocker or better browsers looks like shopping in the middle of a pandemic without a mask. 

How often did I not want to read an article only to feel trapped like the Romans in the Caudine Forks?   

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Metaphors are crucial for good design. Some of us, versed in the emoji language, do not think twice about the metaphors hidden behind emojis and icons. We understand the meaning in a heartbeat because we know we do not literally take a pencil and start editing on our laptops, nor do we put our computers in the bin. We think in metaphors. However, for a large population, emojis are nothing short of modern hieroglyphs. Thus, designing icons and emojis by using well-known metaphors is vital. 

  • Settings - ⚙️ 
  • New - ➕ 
  • Edit - ✏️ 
  • Save - 💾 (we would have to explain the floppy disk to our children) 
  • Delete - 🗑️or ❌ 
  • Notifications - 🔔 
  • Search - 🔍 
  • Comment - 💬 

Web metaphors are not only meaningful by using comparations but also practical by using real-life examples. Computer pioneer Grace Hopper coined the term "bug" for errors or glitches in a program. The story says that in 1946, operators traced an error in their computer to a moth trapped in a relay. They removed the moth and logged it as a cause for the program's glitch.

A page from the Harvard Mark II electromechanical computer's log featuring a dead moth that was removed from the device. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Metaphors tend to jump from the offline world to the online world as we don't sometimes have the vocabulary to express new software concepts. Just as well, software metaphors jump from the digital world to our analogue, concrete world.

Upload is not only the process of transferring data from one computer to another via a network. In the offline world, there is a tv series called Upload, where humans can "upload" themselves into a virtual setting.

The context switching term was initially used in computing to describe how multitasking operation systems run multiple processes. When switching between application, the computer stores the state of a process or thread, putting it on hold until we come back to it. In a future article, I will write more about context switching in modern life. While it is perfectly natural for computers to handle context switches with no performance loss, our human brains can't correctly handle context switching, affecting our productivity and well-being.

Another example of a technical metaphor we encounter in our life is the concept of asynchronous conversations. Asynchronous conversations involve a mindset shifting from synchronous conversations (we want such conversations to take place "right now") to delayed or asynchronous conversations where the participants do not communicate instantaneously. 

If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough. 

Albert Einstein 

Nowadays, this quote is reduced to a blend of acronyms and metaphors: ELi5, short for Explain Like I'm 5. Good metaphors are therefore crucial to provide simple explanations to complicated questions or problems. 

Future articles will discuss the mysterious cloud, the perils of living inside the walled gardens of social media, the uncertainty of a coming infocalypse, cognitive biases in software development, or our ancestral need to anthropomorphize software development concepts. 

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