The capital I

We love words. We love them a lot.

We love reading them, we love writing them. We especially love them when they fit together perfectly, conveying the authors’ thoughts, and painting a new world. That is why we pore over our words with care, examining every nuance, making sure we convey exactly what we mean to.

The copywriting decision that we kept revisiting during this redesign was whether we should capitalize “Internet” in our tagline: “We make the Internet useful.” We debated the decision all through development, and continued to think about it about after launch. Oftentimes, when we are writing informally, we do not capitalize the word. Other times, our intuitions tell us it should be capitalized. Many in the web industry–including people we have great respect for–have argued that it should not. Most style guides–including the two we base ours on: the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Economist Style Guide–still say that it should.

The difference

In network administration, “internet” has a specific meaning: a network of networks. The “Internet,” on the other hand is the worldwide system of computer networks that we are usually talking about. The issue is further confused because the Internet is an internet that encompasses many other internets (in fact, it encompasses the majority of internets). Alone, this is not enough reason to require differentiating between the two. We often use words in ways that they were not intended from the discipline they originated.

The arguments against

There are many arguments for using the lowercase I, but among the most interesting and compelling is by Derek Powazek:

We capitalize technology when it’s new and scary. It’s time to decapitalize it, just like radio, newspaper, and television.

On the surface this is quite compelling but there is no etymological evidence that radio, newspaper, or television were ever capitalized in normal usage. A search in the Google Books Ngram Viewer shows that neither television nor radio were constantly capitalized when they were new technologies. Further, sources compiled in the OED all spell the words lowercase from the beginning of their use. Finally, newspapers were started in a time when all common nouns were capitalized, so the point is moot.

If we take Mr. Powzek’s claim to be only for informal language, his argument may have more weight. It is possible that informally, people did capitalize the common names for new technology. There is some evidence of this in classic literature where a first-person narrator will refer to an important household object as “the Radio” or “the Television.” This interpretation is not compelling; Mr. Powazek makes the claim in a manifesto, where prose and accuracy in language use is paramount. Further, in informal writing, people can–to put it bluntly–do whatever the hell they want. Clarity matters less, and whatever clarity is needed can rely safely on context or asking the originator. In formal settings–such as a journal, newspaper, or trade magazine–clarity and precision in language is paramount. In these settings, “Internet” and “internet” carry different (albeit related) meaning that must be kept clear.

Our usage

When in conversation, we do not always capitalized “Internet,” especially on Twitter. Often this is from laziness, other times it just doesn’t look quite right (colloquialism intentional). But those are when we are using an informal medium. If a particular brand wants to emphasize informality, it would make sense to have a style guide recommend keeping “Internet” lowercase. In fact, we use lower case titles in many parts of our website, for that exact reason. But in a formal setting–such as the initial presentation of our brand–we believe capitalization is proper because we want to convey authority and gravitas.

Languages change, they evolve as usage of words and grammar changes. It may be that sometime in the future, the formal rules governing how we use the word “Internet” will change, but until then, we will keep the word capitalized. (Except when we don’t.)

(Editor’s note: Fixed an egregious error: we missed an Oxford comma; we apologize for any pain and suffering you may have endured.)