What’s the universal icon for the Internet? Is there one?

Would 2 billion recognise this?
What’s the first image that comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Internet’?

If you’re a techie or geek, you’ll probably come up with a detailed answer that is technically accurate or precise. But most of the 2 billion plus people who use the Internet worldwide are not techies. They don’t know – or care – about the back-end technicalities.

A good icon is simple, language-neutral, and can be understood across different cultures and by people with very different educational backgrounds. For example, telephones – both fixed and mobile – have established symbols or icons. Sure, the devices have evolved beyond the well known imagery, but everybody recognises these.

So what’s the equivalent for the Internet, never mind its multitudinous applications and delivery methods?

We’re currently editing a short video on LIRNEasia’s broadband quality of service experience (QoSE) in emerging Asian economies. We play with images to tell complex stories in non-technical terms. We wanted to use an icon for the Internet (broadband or otherwise) — and couldn’t immediately think of one visual that everybody knows and recognises unambiguously as representing the global Internet.

So we searched. Our usually reliable friend Google wasn’t of much help. Google image search for ‘internet icon’ brought up hundreds of results — but none that is a universally accepted or recognised. But the search itself was interesting and revealing.

Some images, like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer browser’s famous ‘e’, are well known but are branded to one product and company.

Others, like the ethernet cable’s plug pin, are widely used — but how many non-techies will recognise it? Besides, when broadband access is increasingly going wireless, do the cables matter as much as they used to?

The same goes for those colourful images of fibre optic cables — dazzling points of light, but how many Digital Immigrants (or even Digital Natives) will know what they are?

At least wireless Internet seems to have settled its iconography — or has it? The little antenna transmitting omni-directionally seems to pop up everywhere these days, at least where such coverage is available. But there too, we have more than one icon — even if their main visual symbols are similar.

Then there’s the ubiquitous @ sign — originally introduced for, and still an integral part of, email addresses. But hey, Internet is a lot more than emails!

Are we settled on this?
We asked around IT industry friends and IT-watchers, but none could give us a definitive answer. The most that they could agree on was that the 3-letter formulation www (signifying the World Wide Web) comes close to a universally recognised sign for the Internet.

Hmm, that’s far from being a visually elegant design. And it’s decidedly biased to the roman alphabet too (ok, that’s the language of science).

But is there a better icon for the whole Internet, irrespective of delivery method and language-neutral? If not, isn’t it about time we agreed on one?

Designers, geeks and others with spare creative capacity, please take this up.