internet vs Internet and Internet Exceptionalism

In revising for exams, I keep on stumbling up against what seems like a relatively minor inconsistency: the capitalization of the word “Internet.” Some scholars do, some scholars don’t. After pouring over enough articles, the voice in the back of my head piped up loud enough and yelled, “Which one is right!?”

Now, if you’re a writer who’s friends with a sufficient number of grammar snobs, these things become hardwired into your internal style guide. I’ve been rapped on the knuckles enough to default to “Internet” with a capital “I”. A quick visit to the Wikipedia page on this issue reveals, however, that there’s actually a bit of a debate (yes, yes, I know, I’m citing Wikipedia. I’m aware this isn’t really legitimate, but aren’t you surprised that there’s a page on this? So leave me alone). The New York Times, Chicago Manual of Style, and AP swear by the capital letter. The Guardian, the Economist, and Wired do not.

You could argue that this is trivial. Since I’m writing about it, I clearly believe the contrary. Don’t worry–there is, in fact, a reason why. Wired put out an explanation of their decision to de-capitalize “internet” in 2004 (along with “web” and “net”). The logic put forth by Tony Long, copyeditor of Wired, is this:

“In the case of internet, web and net, a change in our house style was necessary to put into perspective what the internet is: another medium for delivering and receiving information. That it transformed human communication is beyond dispute. But no more so than moveable type did in its day. Or the radio. Or television.”

This is, essentially, the argument: that the internet is just another medium. It’s the same claim that John Turrow was making back in 2002, that the internet has migrated into the everyday.

Let’s continue this discussion by introducing a word I’ve never fucking seen before: capitonym. It’s not in the OED but Wikipedia claims it exists (though it has some doubts). I’m going to talk about the concept anyway. Theoretically, a capitonym is a word that, when capitalized, changes meaning. See herb vs Herb, march vs March, and may vs May for examples. We might argue that all words undergo some transformation in meaning when capitalized, though in some cases the transformation is less radical and more superficial. We may capitalize to confer Importance, to signify Otherness, or to create a Term for imminent use. Capitalization can also be political: danah boyd, in writing about her own decision to forgo the uppercase, argues that capitalization (in the case of names and pronouns) superficially empowers what might ultimately be thought of as just another adjective and signifies a sort of self-righteousness. She also provides us this choice Douglas Adams quote: “Capital letters were always the best way of dealing with things you didn’t have a good answer to.”

This leads me back to why I think this is important. We live in a culture that problematizes the Internet all the time. The Internet is ruining the youths! The Internet will lead to perfect democracy! The Internet will revolutionize currency! The Internet creates eating disorders! You’re undoubtedly familiar with these types of claims, and I won’t bore you with more of them. When we talk about the Internet in this way, we’re endowing it with an otherness. We treat it as an exceptional case. We are excused from probing too deeply into why any of the issues we’re discussing might occur because, well, it’s the Internet. And such logic tends to lead to a dearth of critical thinking.

Some believe that the Internet is, indeed, exceptional, and that treating it as such is the right thing to do. One might assume that I fall into this camp, frankly, as I’m off earning a degree in the Social Science of the Internet. Increasingly, however, I’m not so sure. To ignore the ways that the Internet is fundamentally different from prior forms of media is foolish; to assume that similar claims have never been made about a medium’s revolutionary capabilities, however, is similarly silly. Is the Internet really so different? When I chat on the internet as I would on the phone, does the internet warrant capitalization? When people use the Internet to organize mass social movements, surely it must. When the internet is used for reading or watching TV, though, what’s the call? When do we draw the line?

I don’t have an answer, other than to say that rote capitalization likely contributes to the types of simplistic dialogues about our technological future that I find most problematic: those that objectify the medium and refuse to burrow into the processes occurring with it and through it. My overall point is that they way we use our words can be exceptionally meaningful, whether we’re aware of it or not. Punctuate and capitalize with care.

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