Digital spaces on the web are a lie.

There is no space on the web. I don’t mean that they’ve run out–there has never been any space because that’s not how it works.

Why does it matter? Well, it’s connected to some thoughts I’ve been having about Parler, about freedom of speech, about the rights people should have re: the internet – but most of all it’s connected to a scary amount of commentary I’ve been reading about all those things that doesn’t seem to understand how the web works. That’s really bad! How can we handle serious societal problems without understanding what we’re saying is underlying them?

And worse, all the policy is made by people who also don’t understand.

In the US, our average legislators are really old and never learned this stuff (well, a couple did).

Our average judges are really old and never learned this stuff (well, other than this guy).

Our average regulators are – well, actually most of them do know how things work underneath, but they’re pretty much bought and paid for by billion-dollar corporations, so don’t hope for too much there.

So you and I have to know how it works, just to give things a chance of coming out right. We’ve got to understand it first, before politicians start talking about what the government should allow, or before we start deciding on what we think other people have done wrong.

How does it work?

(I’ll keep the explanation part short, promise.)

Software runs on your computer or your phone. (It might be a browser, or it might be an app.) It connects to a network. Through the network, broken up into little pieces called “packets”, it talks to another computer, a “server”. That computer sends back information. Then your computer or phone shows you what it sent. Your computer or phone can send information, too. The computer on the other end can do stuff with that information.

It doesn’t sound like a “space”, right? Packets of information–that’s just like the mail. Maybe metaphorically it’s space, sure, the way that contemporary artists always talk about “space,” but in your gut you probably feel that I’m leaving stuff out, that it’s really more like “space” than I’m letting on. That you’ve been going to places on the internet for years.

Well, that’s a lie.

Why would you feel that way if it’s not really how it works?

(This part’s a bit less short, sorry.)

It goes back to before people knew what the internet was going to become, back when they would write World Wide Web with capital Ws, and it goes back to how the web was first made as one thing, and then it became another thing. Computers talking to other computers had happened using different tools, and interesting stuff had been done that way, but those aren’t what you use today. You use the web.

The program you use like Google Chrome or Safari or Mozilla Firefox–there were others, too–is called a “browser”. Why? It’s a bit like how you used to browse shelves at the library. Behind the scenes, the browser sends “requests” to retrieve “documents”–the web pages themselves. The browser sends information in the request, and gets information in the reply–like writing down a book you want on a piece of paper, handing it to a librarian, and being handed the book. How would they know where to find it? You’d tell them where it was shelved–and on a computer, that meant something like the location in the computer’s “directories,” in its “filesystem.” There ended up being a format for this–the Uniform Resource Locator: a URL.

That was the way the web worked for a while – asking other people’s computers for documents and retrieving them. And that’s pretty easy to understand, right? Documents could have “links”, references in them to other documents, and then you could request those other documents and get them too. If a document was updated, and you requested that URL again, you’d get the new version.

The thing is, with a computer, you can do other cool things that aren’t as easy in the library, and then it gets a bit harder to explain.

People figured out pretty quick that they didn’t have to have a set of documents they could offer in the same way your library has to get books ready on the shelf. They could have their computer make something up on the fly after they got the request, then send it back1. So you’d be asking for something at a “location”, making a request for something that didn’t exist at the time you asked.

And on your end–they could send text for you to read, sure, or pictures for you to look at, but they could also send code for your computer to run. That meant you could request a “document” that was really a recipe calculator, say, or a fortune-telling program, or a game.

And all this stuff made the metaphor of a “document” a little hazy, right? If you ask to “retrieve” a “document” from a “location”, it sounds like there has to be a thing that exists in a place, and then you ask for it, and it’s sent to you. But now the “location” became just more instructions for the computer on the other end, not necessarily indicating a file it had ready. And now the “document” can be a computer program too–and it can make its own “requests” in the background!

This is where the lie started, and it was computer people lying to people who didn’t understand what the computer was doing. Not as a lie to hurt anyone, but just as a metaphor to help explain how you could use this thing, this network that didn’t feel very much like a library anymore. Instead of “loading pages” – making a request and being sent packets – you “went to pages”, went to “sites”, and saw what was “there”. That language had existed before, but while before it had been metaphorical, aspirational, now it was a haze over how the web actually worked. Computer people could make the web as complicated as they wanted – as we wanted – and as long as they made the part you interacted with simple enough, as long as they used metaphors that got you to do the right things, it’d be okay.

Besides, the metaphors expressed something about how it felt to use the web, something that felt true even for the people who really knew how it worked.

And if the point of that language was to make it possible for people to use the web, it worked. The web got huge!

You live your life on it, right? Remember–apps on your phone count, since most of the time they’re making “requests” just like a browser.

It’s the great triumph of the web that people use it without understanding it, that you don’t need to sit through a long nerdy explanation like this to get something done with it.

It is also dangerous that it’s become so important in so many people’s lives without them knowing what’s underneath.

“What about when I post things?” you may wonder in the back of your mind. “What about Twitter? Isn’t that like a space I post things in?” Twitter has a bunch of computers, but they kind of act like one computer as far as we’re concerned. People send requests to it with “posts” they want to make, but those are just the same kinds of packets of information that we’ve been talking about. Twitter stores them. Then another person opens up her browser and “goes to” wanting to see what you’ve posted. Twitter takes what it stored, lets people bid on ads, packages up the ads with what you wrote into a nice format her computer can show her, and sends it to her computer.

Remember–everything important happened on Twitter’s computer. It’s not like you went to a place and “posted” up a poster there–it’s more like if a newspaper used a machine to receive letters and to format the page with the letters to the editor. And the ads. (We can’t forget them.)

But you can see how it starts getting a little messy, right? Comparing it to a library, or a newspaper? Talking about who’s responsible for what? Because Twitter definitely was the “publisher” when it came to who gets to sell space in the classifieds of this whole affair–but crucially, as far as the computers are concerned, it would look very similar if you’d sent an email to, and they’d “gone to” and asked Google to show them their mail. Instead of anyone being allowed to look at what you’d told Twitter to store, only your friend should be allowed to look at what you asked Google to store. Doesn’t it feel a little silly to call Google the “publisher” of your email? What about if you’d mailed it to three thousand people at once?

Or what about your channels in Discord–they’re a bit more public; did anyone “publish” them? When you talk about who was “there”, “in” the channel, were you thinking about all the people who work on Discord’s computers?

I am a computer person now, professionally2, but I remember how the web felt before I learned how it worked underneath, back when all I knew were the same metaphors everybody does. If I were to have tried to describe it, I would have imagined my computer sending a little probe over the phone line to swim around in some black and green place – cyberspace! – and the probe would capture what it saw and send it back, and that would just happen to look like a web page. There would have been a there there, and I would have virtually gone there.

And that had implications for what I thought should be legal, what I thought was ethical, and what I thought was right.

I thought it was like a place.

Now I know better, and now so do you. You can have different opinions from me on what’s right and wrong and what should be legal, but we can both talk about it without the haze of believing metaphors are real.

That’s a start.

further reading

  1. An example of this is a search engine. This could be a computer that had its own data on a lot of different websites, and you could send it a request for “cockroach repellent”. It could look through the websites it knew about, figure out which were the ten most likely to be what you wanted, and format that into a “document” that your computer could show you with links to those websites. It didn’t have to know ahead of time exactly what you were going to send like how a magazine would have to plan ahead to write a “Ten Best Books On Cockroach Repellent” article; it could give you its best guess at the time you asked. 

  2. I see you coming, Other Professional Computer People. You think I’ve explained things wrong. Well, especially if you’re a lot older than I am, and especially if you’re talking about the history, go ahead and let me know how! Just remember that for our purposes here, we’re trying to get at what matters about the metaphors