June 6, 2016

There’s no “I” in “internet”


The Internet / the internet. (Image via ComputerWorld.)

The Internet / the internet. (Image via ComputerWorld.)

“Others are doing it, so we think we should, too.”

This is the explanation that New York Times standards editor Philip B. Corbett offered when the paper announced it has joined the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal in dropping the capital “I” in the word “internet.”

This rationale seems sort of un-New York Times, given the thoughtfulness they’ve applied to other style rules (such as the possible adoption of the gender neutral honorific “Mx”), but “the truth is, we want our rules for spelling, punctuation and usage to be largely invisible,” Corbett writes. The goal of the writer, the editor, the copyeditor, the proofreader, is to facilitate comprehension. To get out of the reader’s way.

But this downshift from uppercase-I to lowercase-i “internet” suggests something more than an aesthetic accommodation.

In his terrific “Elegy for the Capital-I Internet,” published this week by The Atlantic, Ian Bogost reminds us that the word used to be capitalized to distinguish the global Internet from other, smaller networks of connected computers, which are now pretty much irrelevant. He also suggests that “lowercase-i internet eliminates the implicit deference that the initial cap once conferred, no matter if that reverence arises from esteem, awe, terror, or disgust,” and argues that the Internet is (or at least was) a proper-noun kind of place, in the sense that “places are real when they persist without concern for you.” Think about that.

The change, while essentially typographic, still feels meaningful. “Now it’s just the internet,” Bogost closes. “And like kleenex and googling, like asphalt and automobiles, it disappears into the background, wholly ordinary.”



Taylor Sperry is a former Melville House editor.