I’ve been doing a lot of work on virtual ethnography lately, and I was reading a recently-published book titled “Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method” edited by Annette Markham and Nancy Baym. What was most interesting was the following footnote on the first page of the introduction:
“Internet” is often spelled with a capital “I.” In keeping with current trends in internet studies, we prefer the lower case “i.” Capitalizing suggests that “internet” is a proper noun, and implies either that it is a being, like Nancy or Annette, or that it is a specific place, like Madison or Lawrence. Both metaphors lead to granting the internet agency and power that is better granted to those who develop and use it.
I cannot disagree more. First off, as someone who considers myself part of the emerging ‘Internet studies’ field, I did not know that this was a “recent trend” and had difficulty finding confirmation outside of this volume – although that can be forgiven, considering that we are at a very fragmented, even pre-paradigmatic point. (Readers: If you’ve seen this trend before, please comment!)
However, my most basic and linguistic objection is that the Internet satisfies the general conditions for being a proper noun: it refers to a unique entity. While I do believe that the best category for the Internet is place-based, we capitalize far more than beings or places – which are the only classes that Markham and Baym give. However, we don’t need to go into the whole ontological debate about whether the internet is a being, a place, an organization, a nation, a brand, an ideology, or any other class of entities that we capitalize. There is only one Internet, and we can cleanly divide between on-line and off-line in the abstract – even if it becomes a lot murkier in practice, as with God and the Third World.
Given that the famed lowercase scholar danah boyd is one of the authors in the edited volume, I next thought that the editors may be taking from both boyd and feminist author bell hooks, who explicitly defy standard grammatical conventions in order to to make a political and/or philosophical point (they claim to de-capitalize their names to draw attention to their works and not themselves). So I think it is better to focus not on the correct grammatical rules of Standard English, but the core motivation that they give: does capitalizing ‘Internet’ give it a kind of agency and power that we should instead attribute to the Internet’s developers and users? I would argue that capitalization does give the Internet agency and power – and that this is a well-needed move. Or to be more specific, this move does not magically give the Internet a power or agency it previously did not have, but rather acknowledges that the Internet’s technological infrastructure does things beyond what its developers and users intend.
In fact, one of my biggest frustrations with the proto-discipline of ‘Internet studies’ is that many scholars pass over the important roles played by the material technology upon which all of our interactions are mediated. Now, I’m certainly not advocating a return to the technological determinism that was all the rage in the 60’s and 70’s. However, I do believe that the 80’s and 90’s have left us in a state where many of us are too wary of swinging back to Martin Heidegger and Lewis Mumford in order to seriously examine the materiality of the technologies that support the communities and practices we study. A large amount of research in Internet studies focuses exclusively on human/social behavior in technological spaces, with only a few token gestures towards the way in which the ‘tubes’ fundamentally transform our interactions. I think this is because we spend most of our time demonstrating that technology is socially constructed, leaving ourselves blind to how society is also technologically constructed.