Rexplanation: The internet isn’t just technology. It’s a place and people.

Partial map of the Internet based on 1/15/2005 data.

[Note: This post is a Rexplanation.]

In my opinion, there are two ways people understand the internet.

The first way is to understand the internet as something to use.

The second way is to think of the internet as something you not only use, but something people are and a place people live and work.

Those who use the internet understand it with metaphors related to legacy media and channels of communication or different types of utility and tools. To them, the internet is about reading, viewing, listening, looking-up, sharing, calling, sending, buying. Even those who use the internet’s tools of social media still think of it in terms of legacy metaphors: friends, following, hanging out, chatting.

Those who’ve reached the understanding that they are the internet are similar to those who have reached an understanding that any organization or institution is both a structure and a collection of people. It’s the same dynamic that enables the Supreme Court to rule that corporations are people. Special interests describe their special interest as people (I’m the NRA– well, not actually me, but those guys holding the gun are). Cities are streets and buildings, but cities are also people (after the May, 2010, flood, in my hometown we used the slogan, “We are Nashville” to declare our can-do spirit). In the New Testament, the greek word ekklesia that we translate into the word church refers to an assemblage of people who are “called together” — in other words, a church is people, like the internet is people.

So, viewing the internet as more than something to use, but as people and place is not a radical concept — indeed, it should be a rather simple concept to grasp.

Yet some very smart people just don’t seem to get it.

One of my favorite very smart people to use as a punchline for not getting it is Malcom Gladwell who plays school marm whenever he explains the internet as only a user could.

The recent SOPA/PIPA battle demonstrated the divide between those who understand the internet as people and those who perceive it as technology. Earlier this month, I wrote about visiting my congressman regarding SOPA and suggested then (before the legislation cracked under the pressure) that the internet had not yet demonstrated what could happen if it brought its power to the debate. It was clear to me that those who backed SOPA understood the internet as being “technology” used by people — and not as a place that people inhabit. That was their downfall.

A few days later, in a comment thread on Dave Winer’s blog, I wrote, “The tech blogosphere is filled with people who have broken through some barrier of comprehension one needs to experience the internet as a place, as well as a platform for all sorts of media and utility. So much of politics — at least at the traditional activist level and the way the US representative system is set up — is tied to an understanding of place in exclusively geographic terms. While traditional media and the political blogosphere is focused on what’s happening in some county in northern New Hampshire, the tech-blogosphere is wondering how lawmakers can be so clueless in understanding the ramifications of the entertainment industry’s power grab through SOPA — a global issue. I remember Tip O’Neill’s line, “All politics are local.” But for those of us who live on the internet, I’m not sure I know what local is anymore.”

Today, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about a similar disconnect in the understanding politicians have of place, compared to how businesses view it — and I would argue, the way that people who understand the internet as a collection of people view it:

“Politicians see the world as blocs of voters living in specific geographies — and they see their job as maximizing the economic benefits for the voters in their geography. Many C.E.O.’s, though, increasingly see the world as a place where their products can be made anywhere through global supply chains (often assembled with nonunion-protected labor) and sold everywhere. These C.E.O.’s rarely talk about “outsourcing” these days. Their world is now so integrated that there is no “out” and no “in” anymore. In their businesses, every product and many services now are imagined, designed, marketed and built through global supply chains that seek to access the best quality talent at the lowest cost, wherever it exists. They see more and more of their products today as “Made in the World” not “Made in America.” Therein lies the tension. So many of “our” companies actually see themselves now as citizens of the world. But Obama is president of the United States.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ready declare some New World Order exists because Al Gore invented the internet because the Trilateral Commission put him up to it.

However, it seems clear to me that it is time to start seeing the internet for what it is — and that’s lots more than a platform and technology.