Magazine article Insight on the News

Amateur Linguists Say Language, Not Electrons, Defines Cyberspace

Magazine article Insight on the News

Amateur Linguists Say Language, Not Electrons, Defines Cyberspace

Article excerpt

One of the strengths of the English language is its ability to absorb new words. Younger Americans might find it hard to believe, but E-mail and cyberspace weren't always an integral part of everyday vocabulary.

But some people intimately connected with the World Wide Web say cyberlanguage needs reform. The issue hardly is esoteric, they argue; who-ever controls the terminology used on the Internet will influence the Net itself.

"The words we use to describe the elements of our industry are borrowed and limiting'" says Kyle Shannon, the 32-year-old director of, a leading New York design firm that creates Web sites for clients such as British Airways and American Express. "They limit the technological and conceptual leaps we should be making. It's time to move on"

Shannon would substitute participant or user, for example, to emphasize the interactive nature of Net, and he would replace home page with gateway. "With a page, people will say, 'It's just like a magazine except that it's harder to read and you can't take it with you'" says Shannon, who is writing a book on cyberlanguage. Home page connotes a single site or point of entry when, in fact, it can be reached through several links. "The Internet is not about television or magazines, it's about participation. Hopefully, my vocabulary will help people understand that."

Shannon has lots of support from industry insiders. "The language we use dictates our actions" says Jerry Michalski, managing editor of Release 1.0, an industry newsletter. In Michalski'sjudgment, the Internet is one-third of the way into a 15-year process that will define its direction. "The vocabulary will change and reflect the winners and losers in terms of commercial uses and personal preferences."

Michalski foresees a struggle between corporations and individuals. "A broadcast perspective is taking over the Net"' he warns, pointing to the popularity of terms such as channel to describe information sources on the Web. America Online, for example, classifies its "Newsstand," "Reference" and "Personal Connections" services as channels. "They're serving cyberpotatoes," says Michalski. "It's TV on-line.... The consumer is perceived as a gullet with a wallet."

Words are particularly important because they can confine as well as liberate thinking, adds Janice Gjerdson, director of new-business development at Digital City Studio, producers of the on-line guide Total New York. …

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