Conceptual Metaphors of the World Wide Web

by Zach Tomaszewski

for LING 440, Spring 2002, taught by Ben Bergen


The World Wide Web (WWW) has become a pervasive part of our lives. Many of us deal with it every day, from checking the weather forecast to ordering merchandise to taking classes online. Web sites vary from huge corporate intranets of thousands of pages to personal home pages of a only single page each. Web pages can be simple documents of black text on a white background or complex and colorful pages of navigation links and Java applets.

But, though we may use this medium everyday, how do we understand it? What conceptual metaphors do we use to conceive it? By a conceptual metaphor, I mean what Lakoff and Johnson (Lakoff 1980) mean: not simply a poetic use of words, but actually thinking and talking about one thing in terms of another.

I believe there are a number of conceptual metaphors used to think about the Internet. Some of these metaphors shape how we see the WWW as a social medium, and some of them give us clues on how to use it. Of these latter functional metaphors, there seems to be two dominant metaphors: WWW IS A SPACE and WWW IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS. I will briefly examine a number of social metaphors, but I will focus primarily on these two functional metaphors.

In researching this paper, I looked through a small number of popular works related to the WWW, Internet, and "cyberspace" in general. These included technical Web specifications, introductory books on the Internet, Web site design books, cyberpunk and other science fiction, and scholarly articles on WWW metaphors. Though the number of works examined was too small to make this an empirical study, the qualitative findings where very interesting.

The "Fact" of the Matter

The WWW was invented in late 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee working at CERN in Switzerland. He wrote the first drafts of the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) specifications (Berners-Lee 1998).

HTML tags are used to structure text into paragraphs, lists, and tables. The most important part of HTML is the link, which labels a certain string of characters as a reference to another resource. That resource can be nearly any computer file on the Internet: another HTML document, an image, a Word document, an executable file, etc. The ability to include images in HTML documents was probably the second most important element to contribute to the growth of the Web.

HTML documents are sent over the HTTP protocol, which runs over the TCP/IP protocols that are fundamental to all Internet transfers. To view an HTML page, you need a program called a browser to display it. Whenever you type in a URL address or click on a link to another Web page, the browser sends an HTTP "GET" request for that page. The pages are not physically connected in any way; one page simply provides the reference to another. This is much like how one academic paper may reference another. The two papers are not physically linked but only referentially linked. To get the cited paper, you need to go the library and "GET" the article from the shelves, perhaps with the aid of a librarian ("browser"). If the article is now out-of-print or otherwise unavailable, the citation is still relevant, but the resource is not there. This is like a 404 "Not Found" HTTP error code--a "broken" link.

This description is as near as I can come to the unvarnished facts of the matter. However, as you can see, I have used a number of conceptual metaphors here: documents, sending files over a connection, pages, referential links that can still be broken. In some ways, these entities and actions might be more "realistically" described simply as certain magnetic states on computer hard disks or as electric fields moving along a phone wire. But just as the technology of the Web relies on the pre-existing Internet architecture, which in turn uses computers as its base, we have inherited the metaphors of computers. Files and documents are the names we use to refer to certain entities on a computer. HTTP actually defines the process of retrieving a Web page as GET and returning information to be POST (Feilding et al. 1999). So when working with HTTP, these are the commands you actually use, not simply a metaphor for your actions.

Social Metaphors

There are a number of metaphors in use that affect how we view the WWW (and the Internet has a whole) with respect to society. Different metaphors give us different clues to the Web's primary nature, as well as to how do we should feel about it, regulate it, and respond to its growth.

As Sally Wyatt (1998) points out, "[h]ighways, railroads, webs, tidal waves, matrices, libraries, shopping malls, village squares and town halls all appear in discussions of the Internet." I have found a few more metaphors in my own readings. We can look briefly at each of these in turn. I will then discuss some of the ramifications below.

highway, railroad, super-highway
Highways are constructed to get us to a destination. The focus is on speed and direct access rather than on a scenic or enjoyable journey. They are part of a national infrastructure, and, as such, are supported, maintained, and controlled by a central authority. They are essential to interstate commerce. They are public mediums of transportation, provided you have the requisite to use them--a car, a bus ticket, or a train ticket.
tidal wave
This casts the Web as something huge and unstoppable. It is moving quickly and will break over us all very soon. It may overwhelm us completely. If not, it will at least change the social landscape we know.
webs, matrices, nets, links of a chain
Webs and matrices involve a number of intersections or points held together by a common structure. Matrices are more ordered. A web can be a trap. (Since the move The Matrix [1999], so can a matrix!).
library, information archive, collective memory
Libraries are primarily information depositories. The information stored there is generally authoritative. Most nations have national libraries that are a depository for every work published in that nation. They also have a catalog and trained professionals to help navigate the masses of information. It can be a family-oriented, community center.
marketplace, shopping mall
These are places where a number of businesses are located together. Shopping malls are usually clean and ordered; market places are usually diverse and slightly chaotic. They are the centers of capitalist societies.
village square, town hall
These are the centers of small democratic communities. All participants have a chance to have their say here. They can also be sources for local news and gossip.
ocean, sea of information
Primarily from Ghost in the Shell (1996), this implies an undifferentiated substance of great depth. There is both the possibility of life and the possibility of drowning. (Whether the term "surfing" comes from this metaphor is debatable.)
Metaverse (Stephenson 1992), cyberspace, "consentual hallucination" (Gibson 1984)
From cyberpunk fiction, these are terms used to describe a virtual, online world. Characters often spend an equal amount of time, if not more, in these alternate realities rather than in real life. The events in the alternate reality can be more important, as well as have powerful repercussions on, normal life.
frontier, progress, future
This aspect of the Web was pointed out by Bjørn Sørenssen (2002) in his paper on the WWW IS A SPACE metaphor. Progress is often thought of as expansion into new regions: across the continent, off the planet, or into the new cyberspace. When thinking of the Web as a frontier, we think of pioneers facing hardships, preparing the way for those to come. We think of it as a source for new resources. It holds the possibility for a better life than where we currently are.
layers, architecture, pile of protocols
In his keynote speech at the recent WWW2002 conference, Tim Berners-Lee (2002) stressed the importance of building a sound architecture for the web. He emphasized adhering to the standards because each technology is built on those before it: the Semantic Web on XML on HTTP and URLs on TCP/IP. This presents the Web as a structure methodically built according to some design plan. It requires cooperation and adherence by all the builders or else the whole structure may break and collapse.

Like all conceptual metaphors, these are viable ways of viewing the Web. Yet each of these highlights some aspects while hiding others. If the Web is an information super-highway, government control seems natural--regulating, overseeing, building "on-ramps" for the impoverished (Stephenson 1999). But it hides the fact that the Web was not built by a central authority, but rather built site-by-site by thousands of contributors. While the Web may be a libary-like depository of information, the resources there did not have to undergo the scrutiny that published works do. The sources are not cataloged, there is no human reference person available, there is no selection policy, and the Web is not always family or community-centered. If the Web is primarily an online marketplace, then business issues are paramount and the Web is primarily a capitalist venture. If the Web is a village square for an online community, then social dialog and change are the focus. Of course, this image hides the fact that there are millions of people using the Internet all across the globe, separated by time zones, languages, and cultural differences. It is not necessarily a small, cohesive village meeting.

Mark Ackerman (1994), in his paper "Metaphors Along the Information Highway," provides an interesting insight into the effects of these metaphors. He explains that there are two classes of metaphor used to explain technology. First, there are those metaphors in which the limitations of technology are hidden by attributes of human or social phenomenon. For example, if the Internet is thought of as a "collective memory," the fact that all events or experiences are not instantly stored online (as they are instantly stored in our memories) is obscured.

Second, there is the class of metaphors in which the social or human aspects not possible through the technology are obscured or hidden. So if the Web is a "virtual community," those aspects of community not possible on the Web may be hidden. We may "forget" that face-to-face interaction and physical contact are important aspects of social interaction. Ackerman warns that this second class is more dangerous than the first. If we are unwary, those aspects not possible to invoke through technology may disappear even from our normal use of a word. For example, we may come to think of all communities, even offline, only in terms of those attributes shared by online communities.

Sally Wyatt (1998), in "From Metaphor to Reality: Images of the Internet and Change," points out that there are two ends of a spectrum: that the Web will bring a utopia or that it will bring a dystopia. The features of this change are revolution, evolution, salvation, progress, universalism, and the American Dream. In the utopian view, the Internet is another step forward in our evolution as human beings. It will fundamentally change how we work, how we play, and how we interact with others. It will allow new businesses and new ideas. We will form new communities that span the globe, based on common interests and ideals, rather than simply on geographic co-location. This move, like mechanization before it, is part of human growth--all countries, if behind now, will eventually catch up and join us in the online world.

The opposing view, of course, this that the Internet will bring a dystopia. The Internet is just another tool, not a revolution or fundamental change of any kind. Instead of salvation and unity, it will alienate us from the people around us as we spend more time online, interacting only as disembodied avatars. The technology could lead to greater control and espionage by the government, and less individuality and humanity for us all.

These are extreme views, but it is easy to see how each relies on the social metaphors of the Web we have examined there. The difference between a frontier and a tool, between a online community and a chat room, between a public highway and an ocean, all influence what we think about the Web and where it will take us.

Functional Metaphors of the WWW

Now that we have seen some of the metaphors that shape how people see the Web's effect on society, let us look at those that shape our understanding of the medium itself. These metaphors give us clues as to how we should actually use the Web. These functional metaphors exist at the level of the Web as a whole, at the level of a Web site, and at the level of individual Web pages.


The metaphor that the WWW is a space is relevant grounding to the notion of the Web as an alternate reality or as frontier. It is also of some importance if the web is a community, a marketplace, or a highway. From a W3C article on URLs (Connolly 2002): "The Web is an information space. Human beings have a lot of mental machinery for manipulating, imagining, and finding their way in spaces. URIs are the points in that space."

This metaphor is the source of many of our terms related to Web use. We navigate or explore the Web space. We follow links from one place to another. We get lost, wander, try to go straight there, though the navigation might be tricky. We type "addresses" or "locations" into our browsers (rather than names or resources). We start our explorations at our browser home pages. Some of use may have our own web sites (often also called a home page), which is our little part of the Web space.

Even the oft-used term "surfing" uses this conceptualization. When surfing, a surfer mostly relies on the waves to carry him forward, though he does have a choice in which wave he catches. In the same way, a Web surfer chooses to follow only one of the links available to her on a certain page, rather than actively seeking a certain destination. Both types of surfing are passive forms of transportation involving occasional choices and that rely on the nature of medium over which the surfer is traveling. And both must occur in some kind of space.

According to Webster's dictionary (Guralnik 1980), the relevant definitions for space are:

1a) distance extending in all directions; the continuous expanse extending in all directions...within which all things exist...
2a) the distance, expanse, or area between, over, within, etc. things
b) area or room sufficient for or allotted to something
c) the area available or used on a page [space for an ad]
5.) Math. a set of point or elements assumed to satisfy a given set of postulates.

Mapping this to the web results as follows:

Space WWW
set of points assumed to satisfy a given set of postulates all allowable URLs
point or place
(particular area, region of, or spot in space)
a certain URL or webpage
distance number of clicks from one URL to another
direction back or forward along a trail of viewed webpages
(sometimes thought as up and down, or back and forward)
things/objects in space content of pages: words, images, documents, files

I would guess that this metaphor has its source in PERCEPTION IS CO-LOCATION. PERCEPTION IS CO-LOCATION also applies to TVs, radios, good books, fantasy, etc. When we can clearly conceive of a location or event, we may speak as if we were really there. Some example expressions: "Did you see the WTC bombings [on TV]?", "Cable brings porn into American homes [since seeing pornography on TV is equivalent to being present during the act]", and "Go to the moon [through a book], at your library." PERCEPTION IS CO-LOCATION is very likely a primary metaphor, since when we perceive an object clearly, the majority of the time we are also located in the same space as that object.

When We're on the web, we see one Web page. We then take an action, such as clicking the mouse on a link, and then we see another. Often, this new page is unrelated to the first. It is not as simple as turning a page. It is probably the richness of a Web experience that gives precedence to this space metaphor over the document-based one discussed below.

One interesting thing is that we talk about things being "on" the Web or "online", rather than "in" it. Does this give any clues to the nature of WWW IS A SPACE? I think not. I think this too came from technologies that present an image--we say something is "on" the TV or the theater screen, rather than "in" it. Same with the radio--I heard it on the radio, not in it. Printed materials, such as newspapers or books, more frequently contain their content rather than support it, eg. "I read it in this book." It seems acceptable to use either "in" or "on" in reference to contents on a computer, though there may be some preference for "on." Though Web content is not usually "in" the Web space when we talk about it, I think this preposition comes from our experience with other image-providing technology, rather than any notion of the Web space itself.

Computers, and their associated conceptual metaphors, also have prepared us for a "we're moving through a space" experience. The Page Up and Page Down keys move the human viewer "up" and "down" on the page; they do not move the page itself. The text actually moves up the screen when you press Page Down. Same with the arrow keys. We don't move our documents; we move ourselves with respect to them. If we are the ones moving when we see different parts of our digital documents, it is not so hard to believe we are also the ones to move when we switch from one document to another on the Web.

Though we do make physical motions--mouse clicks, key presses, etc--to move through the Web (Sørenssen 2002), I do not think this is, in itself, the source of the WWW IS A SPACE metaphor. Instead, it is the apparent motion that results from our actions that produce this impression. Indeed, we could surf the web through voice command and never move at all, and I think we would still have this conception.

Also, many Web sites use the WWW IS A SPACE metaphor as an aid in their design. So they may name each Web page after a room. Thus, their main page may be entitled "The Entry Way", links related to automotives may be in "The Garage," and cooking links are in "The Kitchen." (Sørenssen 2002) I see such Web pages extending WWW IS A SPACE, not generating it.


The second major functional conceptual metaphor of the WWW is that of a collection of textual documents. The word hypertext implies just this--a kind of super text, true, but still just text. Other expressions related to documents are bookmarking a favorite page, browsing through pages, or using a browser. The main page of a site is traditionally called index.html, and it is intended to list all the other pages available there. Often they are listed in topical categories or other hierarchies, much as we do with book records in a library catalog.

The two basic assumptions of WWW IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS is that 1) everything (or nearly everything) on the Web is part of a Web page and 2) every Web page is essentially a text document. We'll examine these assumptions later when we look at the WEB PAGES ARE DOCUMENTS metaphor below.

The conception of the WWW document collection can vary. Often we think of the Web as a rather unorganized mess of pages, with only a few links holding them together. However, at the Web site level, we expect, or at least hope, that pages are organized in topical categories. Directories like Yahoo! and Dmoz Open Directory classify sites topically and so provide some order at the WWW level (WWW IS A HIERARCHY OF DOCUMENTS). But they only include a percentage of the Web.

Since the appearance of search engines, a third conception--besides unorganized and topically structured collections--has appeared: that the WEB IS A DATABASE OF DOCUMENTS. As such, you can search it by submitting queries. Each document has a unique URL, which can be equivalent to a database key. However, databases have a number of attributes that the Web does not share: all the records are of the same type; it is a closed system, rather than a dynamic one; the index used for searching covers all items in the database; the data is well-structured so you can perform exact searches.

The clue for the source of WWW IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS is that, at the beginning of the Web, everything on the WWW was a text document! Additionally, nearly everything could be reached through first web server. So, like other Internet technologies of the time, such as gopher, a hierarchical system of menus and choices lead to nearly every document in the system. With the addition of early search engines, this small set of documents could also easily be treated as a database. As the Web grows, we continue to realize that the decentralized, "messy pile of documents" might now be a more accurate depiction of the collection.

By looking through three books that describe the Internet to new users published over the last decade, we can see the change in conceptual metaphor from WWW IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS to WWW IS A SPACE. The Whole Internet (Krol 1992) explains that clicking on a hypertext link "expands" the link to provide further information. You can traverse the network by moving from one document to another in this way. All browsing starts at, though you can set your home page to another page.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Internet (Kent 1994) explains that there is no "top" to the WWW. You can move around in a document, or to another document, following a trail of linked words. You can return to where you came from if you go down the wrong trail.

Internet: The Complete Reference (Young 1999) explains how to follow a link from document to document. There are a number of Web portals--sites that want to serve as your entry point to the Web. A "home page" is like the front door of a Web site; also, it is a term often interchangeable for the site itself--if someone says, "That link is on my home page," it may be on the first page of their site or one of the other pages linked to from there.

There are a few changes over time evident in these descriptions. Early on, the Web is a rather centralized, document-based system. Clicking on a link "expands" it to reveal more information. After a number of years, however, the view is of a decentralized space filled with documents. There are many portals to this space, and many homes within it. Clicking a link moves the viewer to a new space, rather than expanding a new document in the existing space.

Time has provided us with a greater richness in online materials. We have images, vector graphics, animations, Flash sequences, even VRML virtual reality scenes. Even "simple" Web pages now strive to provide a sense of location. When you read a book review at Amazon, there is a strong sense of branding. With the additions of interactivity, such as shopping carts, a Web page ceases to be simply a document. It becomes an experience. You can actually buy the book, rather than just read about it. When interacting with a document reduces your bank account and results in a book arriving in your mailbox, it is more informative to say you went to the Amazon online store than to say you interacted with an Amazon document. For this reason, I think we will continue to see an increase in the use of the WWW IS A SPACE metaphor over the WWW IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS metaphor. URLs will not point to documents, but to resources and data objects (Feilding et al. 1999). Besides only the content of a page, there will also be navigational aids and sense of the space.

Functional Metaphors for Web Sites

A frequent metaphor for Web site designers these days is one of a built environment. Books describe site structure, mappings, architecting, and finding paths through the different site areas. (Rosenfeld and Morville 1998; Kahn and Krzysztof 2001) These notions surely come from the WWW IS A SPACE view.

In my own research on the parallels between information architecture and wayfinding (Tomaszewski 2001), I produced the basis of the following mapping:

Features Important to Wayfinding Web Site Features
main entrancehome/index
edges undefined(?)
districts sites and subsites

These mappings are not very useful with the bulk of Web site design. This is because most Web sites still rely on organizing information (documents) into hierarchies. Web design and information architecture books still focus mainly on labels, taxonomies, ontologies, classification, search, indices, and browsing (Rosenfeld and Morville 1998).

Whether this need to organized documents into categories is forced on designers by the traditional computer file system, or whether it is an inherent human need to organize things (which is more likely), these techniques have lead to a WEB SITES ARE HIEARCHIES view. This view is basically just an extension of WWW IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS to a Web site level. It is still the dominant view, rather than WEB SITES ARE BUILT SPACES. I think this is because Web pages are predominantly still thought of as documents. As they become more like spaces, then WEB SITES ARE BUILT SPACES should gain more importance.

Functional Metaphors for Web Pages

We certainly view Web pages primarily as text documents, much like printed pages in any book or magazine. We talk about headings, titles, paragraphs, footers, tables, fonts, margins, line-heights, borders, divisions, and more (Lie 1999). From a view of newspapers, where all the most important headlines should be able the fold on the front page, some experts claim all important (indeed, maybe all, period) information and links should be above the "fold" of the browser--the bottom of the screen seen without scrolling (Nielsen 2000). Scrolling is also a document-based activity, though it is a metaphor inherited from other from other document manipulations done on a computer. This is all strong evidence for a WEB PAGES ARE DOCUMENTS metaphor.

This last metaphor is much more dominant than an opposing view of Web pages as spaces. URLs might be much more permanent (a problem pointed out by Berners-Lee [1998]) if people thought of their designation as a place for content, rather than as the document itself. As mentioned above, one of the assumption of WWW IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS is that nearly every thing on the Web is a document. This becomes less true every day as the number of Flash animations, scripts, Java applets, and other online applications increases. As the Web progresses into a Semantic Web (Berners-Lee 1999), even the assumption that the majority of files on the Web are meant to be part of a document loses its validity. I think that Web pages continue to become more interactive and less document oriented; as they do, they will be thought of more in terms of spaces. URLs will point to places, not pages.


In one view, the World Wide Web is simply a number of computers and telephone cables and Internet protocols. But, as we have seen, even this view involves some basic conceptual metaphors. As we begin to look at the WWW as a force within or on society, the number of metaphors increases. They all aid in a view of the Web as either a good or bad force on humanity, that it will either free us or enslave us, that we should embrace it, regulate it, watch it, ignore it, or fear it.

In contrast, there are relatively few metaphors that shape our understanding of the Web medium itself. Since it started as primarily a small number of linked text documents, the WWW is seen as a collection of documents. Through the Web's brief history, the view of this collection has been of a single hierarchy, of a database, or of an undifferentiated mass. However, through the influence of cyberspace fiction and the social metaphors of the Web as a space for community, business, or information transfer, the conception of the Web as a space has gained prominence. This notion is beginning to "trickle down" to the level of Web site organization. However, I do not think that it will change our notion of Web pages until Web pages become more interactive and space-like. Until that time, both functional metaphors--WWW IS A COLLECTION OF DOCUMENTS and WWW IS A SPACE will have their respective applications and interplay on the World Wide Web.

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