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Surfing the Information Superhighway: the changing face of Internet language

It’s common to associate the Internet with all things modern and new, and so it’s perhaps unexpected that it can be considered to be nearly half a century old; the ‘symbolic birth date’ of the Internet has been declared 7 April 1969, the date of publication of the first RFC (Request for Comments) document. Much of the technological terminology surrounding the Internet has changed dramatically in that time. The original RFC discusses ‘IMPs’ – Interface Message Processors – at length; today we would call such devices routers. Also, as technology has moved on, terms like ‘dial-up’ have become more or less redundant.

But not all changes in Internet jargon result from changes in technology. Often it is simply fashion that decides which terms come in and out of use, as well as changes in familiarity with the Internet itself. Below are some of the most high-profile Internet-related terms which if used now would, in today’s terminology, probably be considered a ‘fail’.

Cyberspace

The word cyberspace was apparently coined by author William Gibson in a 1982 short story. It was then applied to the non-fictional world of the Internet, and as this became mainstream in the late 1990s the word itself was used frequently. Today, however, cyberspace might seem an overly dramatic term for something quite everyday, and so (sadly) we no longer “jam with the console cowboys in cyberspace”. Other cyber- words are now equally unfashionable. Words like cybernaut, cyberpunk, and cybercafe all seem more retro than futuristic to a modern reader.

Information Superhighway (and its cousin, infobahn)

This term was apparently popularized by Al Gore, and served as a metaphor to illustrate the potential benefits of a high-speed Internet. With the Internet now familiar to most people, there’s no longer much need for this overly long synonym, and when it is used it’s often done so humorously, with deliberate faux-cluelessness.

Surf

Once upon a time, rather than ‘use the Internet’, you would ‘surf the Net’. Moreover, if you didn’t mind mixing metaphors, you could even say you were ‘surfing the Information Superhighway’. This slightly strange choice of verb itself gave rise to other terms such as silver surfer, meaning an elderly Internet user. This has become less common as Internet use has become more universal, and less restricted to the stereotype of youthful geeks.

Netizen

A netizen is a person who uses the Internet. This, of course, now includes more or less every person in the Western world, so the usefulness of this word has become limited.

Web ring

Following the development of the World Wide Web (which is not the same thing as the Internet!) in the 1990s, the prefix web- became a popular way of forming new words. Some, like website and webcam, are obviously still current. The same cannot be said for web ring, meaning a group of sites on a particular topic (usually hosted on Geocities, it seems) all linked to each other. In recent times social sites such as Twitter and Tumblr have become an important way of finding websites, and made the concept of the web ring more or less defunct.

Hyper-

In the early days of the World Wide Web, the prefix hyper- was a fairly productive one. Following hypertext (which is the HT in HTML), words like hyperlink and hypermedia came into use. Although hyperlink is still in use, it’s more commonly abbreviated to simply link, and the concept of hypermedia is rarely mentioned.

An image from the OED website in the late 1990s.

It is all too easy to scoff at these now dated terms, but we shouldn’t laugh: the chances of  modern buzzwords like acqhire showing great longevity are surely slim. And, of course, what goes around comes around. Consider how wireless and digital have fared since entering the language. Maybe one day we’ll all be surfing cyberspace again, netizens.

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