Researching Web Metaphors, Part 1

Assignment 1, by Zach Tomaszewski

for CIS 703, Fall 2003, taught by Dr. Elizabeth Davidson

Theory of Conceptual Metaphor

In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (1980) put forth the thesis that metaphor is not simply a matter of language, but a matter of thought. They claim that metaphor is rife in normal language and is not simply a matter of occasional poetic expression. Due to this pervasivness, if we assume that language is an indicator of the nature of our conceptual system, then much of our conceptual structure is actually metaphorical in nature.

Lakoff and Johnson give the example metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. When we speak normally and literally about arguments, we use the language of war: we take positions to defend; we attack our opponent's position; we either fortify or abandon weak positions; we choose different strategies and lines of attack; we eventually win or lose.

Metaphors are a systematic, partial structuring of one concept (the target) in terms of another (the source). It is a partial structuring since complete equivalency would mean that the two concepts are identical. In the above example, WAR is the source domain. ARGUMENT is the target domain. Elements of the source and target domains can be mapped to each other through the metaphor. For example, here is a partial mapping:

Source: WAR Target: ARGUMENT
DefendProvide evidence or reasons to support belief
AttackReveal weak arguments given by the other arguer
Victory/WinConvincing others of the validity of your belief
Surrender/LoseAccepting the other arguer's position as the most viable

When we comprehend one concept in terms of another, the metaphor highlights some aspects, while downplaying or completely hiding others. For instance, when we think of arguments as conflicts, we downplay the cooperative aspects necessary to have any kind of conversation, such as speaking in turn or working together towards a common resolution. We are led to believe it is most desirable to convince our opponents that our view is correct, rather than working together to a common ground.

Lakoff and Johnson explore further the nature of metaphor, such as the different types of metaphor--structural, orientational, and ontological--as well as how our metaphors form a coherent conceptual structure.

Metaphorical Understanding the World Wide Web

I believe that we understand the World Wide Web through a number of conceptual metaphors. Many of these metaphors describe the abstract nature of the Web or its ramifications for society. These include thinking of the Web as a highway, a net, a tidal wave, a library, a communal memory, a marketplace, a village square, an ocean, or an alternate plane of reality (cyberspace). Each of these metaphors highlight some aspect of the web, while downplaying others. See Tomaszewski (2002) for more on these metaphors.

While these "social" metaphors are important, I'm more interested here in what I call "functional" metaphors for the Web. By this, I mean those metaphors that shape our understanding of how to actually use the Web--what links "are", how web pages are related to each other, how we describe out interaction with web sites, etc.

I believe that the two primary "functional" Web metaphors are THE WEB IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS and THE WEB IS A BUILT SPACE. Other "functional" Web metaphors may exist. Again, Tomaszewski (2002) explores these metaphors in more detail, such as how these metaphors may shape our understanding of web site structure and affect our navigation and use of the Web.

Researching Such Web Metaphors

There are a number of constructs involved in such a metaphor theory of the Web. There are different types of metaphor, such as structural, orientational, and ontological. There are the specific individual metaphors, and their relationships within our conceptual framework. Within a metaphor, there are the source and target domains of each metaphor, and the mapping between those domains.

In researching the extent to which the stated "functional" metaphors--THE WEB IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS and THE WEB IS A BUILT SPACE--are actually utilized by Web users, these specific metaphors would be independent variables. Levels of use by subjects would be the dependent variable.

Operationalized definitions of the independent and dependent variables would be as follows:

IV: A certain metaphor DV: Level of use of that metaphor
utterances that use that metaphor spoken to a Web user while working on a Web task reaction times, task performance success, or reported level of comprehension by the Web user

In a less structured and more exploratory experiment, we could simple count the number of utterances that rely on a conceptual metaphor made by a subject during a surfing session. Or we could count the printed "utterances" in literature about using the Web that rely on a certain metaphor. These techniques would give us an idea of how frequently used these metaphors are, especially relative to each other. These counts would form a sort of scale of frequency of use.

Using such studies, we could determine which metaphors are more or less prevalent among web users. We could also, by looking at printed materials, determine which metaphors are becoming more or less prevalent over time.

Of course, there are a number of factors that could introduce error. Web users may vary in their use of metaphor depending on their familiarity with the Web. Not all users will have the same proficiency with English. Frequency of utterance may not necessarily indicate frequency of mental use.

These errors could be reduced by controlling for the level of English and Web use proficiency in the subjects. Also, frequent verbal use of a metaphor should correspond to high proficiency in tasks based on that metaphor, demonstrating that frequent utterance does correspond to frequent mental use.

Works Cited

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Tomaszewski, Zach. "Conceptual Metaphors of the World Wide Web." <> Last edited: 15 May 2002.