Should you capitalise the i in internet?

For many years, the question, ‘Should you capitalise the “i” in “internet”?’ has been a contentious one. Is the internet a singular ‘thing’, or is it more an abstract concept? Is the internet new and unfamiliar, or has it now become ubiquitous?

Certainly in the mid-1990s I would agree that there was a case to be made for capitalising the ‘i’ in internet, but now in 2013, it’s fair to say the argument has moved on. The internet is no longer solely the domain of the IT community – it is something we all have a part in, and something we can all (in the developed world at least) access as easily from our smart phones as we can from our laptops and desktop computers. Even the very young are now as familiar with the world of ‘online’ as they are with other technological wonders such as DVDs and Sky TV. Like it or loathe it, technology has become a fundamental part of our 21st century culture, and the way we interact with this technology, both in the way we use it and the way we talk about it has changed drastically from 10, 20, 30+ years ago when computers and computing technology was very much the domain of the ‘nerd’ or the ‘geek’.

On the changing nature of the English language

Language is important. It constitutes who we are; it defines us as human beings, and binds us to codes of behaviour and manners of being. Though we often do not notice the subtle influences of ‘discourse’ on our everyday lives, it is there nonetheless, and the debate over whether or not we should capitalise the ‘i’ in ‘internet’ is an important one. This is because it reflects the subtle, yet incredibly powerful relationship between language and the self. It shows us not only how language is an important element in defining and shaping power relationships, but it also shows us on a more generalised level, how language and culture are linked. Just as we no longer commute to work on the voiture omnibus, but the bus, so as we become more familiar with the internet, and the internet becomes ubiquitous in modern society, it makes logical sense that its users should adopt a less formal, less ‘distant’ attitude towards the use of the word.

The philosophical argument

No discussion on the use of the word internet would be complete without mention of the philosophical argument that to many, held as much sway in the mid-1990s as it does today. Is the internet a single ‘thing’? Indeed, has it ever been a single ‘thing’ or is the definition more abstract than that? After all, the constituent physical parts of the ‘internet’ are certainly not the same as they were on the day of inception. Furthermore, as the internet is essentially data facilitated through a giant network, the internet is in itself, constantly in flux; it is always changing, never the same. One could argue then that as such the internet is much less a thing, than a concept, as much in the way that ‘love’ or ‘hate’ are abstract nouns, so the internet too, is abstract in its definition. You don’t capitalise the word Love as a matter of course; nor should you therefore capitalise ‘internet’ either.

Of course voices in the IT community argue that the uniqueness of the internet is justification for a capital letter alone. But as we have already seen, this is not 1995 – the internet is not a new concept anymore. Nor, taking the abstract approach, can it be defined as a single entity as such.

Interestingly, another word that occupies a similarly strange, multi-faceted, hard-to-define position in the English language is the word God. Even with the word God, some would even argue against a capital letter – but then that depends on your own philosophical position. Do you believe in / honour / worship God, or do you take a different line that would perhaps put less reverence on the use of the word?

And thus, we reach the crux of the issue. This oft-repeated argument from within IT circles has, very much, the whiff of the devout about it. This is why debates on the subject always stir up such passion – because people believe (sometimes even fanatically) that the internet deserves unique respect. For this reason, there will always be some people out there who will continue to use a capital on the word internet, just as there are still people who call the radio the ‘wireless’ and hark back to the better days of yore.

And finally…

From a purely practical perspective, there is no reason at all to capitalise the ‘i’ in internet. Indeed to do so would be to imply that you as an author are separate from the internet as thing – that you don’t understand it, or perhaps that you are uncomfortable with it. Of course all language should be considered in context, and if you were writing a technical presentation for a large IT company, you might be advised to use a capital. However, for everyday use, and even for most professional uses, a lower-case ‘internet’ is most certainly the preferred option.

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