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.


Author: Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 30+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing.

5 thoughts on “What’s the universal icon for the Internet? Is there one?”

  1. Throughout the article you confuse The Internet with The World Wide Web. That may be intentional on your part.

    I would say that either “http://” or “www” act as fairly widely understood symbols for the web. For better or worse, so does the Internet Explorer “E”.

    @ is a great symbol for email.

    As for “The Internet”… That’s a tough one. It really depends on the context.
    For WiFi – the Wi Fi Symbol seems widely used in Europe. Although it is biased towards the Roman alphabet.
    For Ethernet access (the other primary way of accessing the Internet)…. I guess I’d go with a picture or an icon of an Ethernet plug connected to a Globe symbol.

  2. @Terence Eden,

    Thanks for comment. Yes, I DO know the web is only a part of the larger Internet. But that’s a technical nuance that doesn’t matter to a majority of users, or indeed to most people in the world. As I said at the outset, techies can be as precise as they like, but we’re looking for a universal icon that grandma and grandpa can relate to.

    “http://” or “www” maybe the way forward here…but we might soon hear from design specialists who see no merit or elegance in that one!

    Let’s keep talking…but not split hairs!

  3. Looks like our little question struck a chord with many. Over the past 48 hours, this question has drawn the following answers on Quora, http://www.quora.com/Why-is-there-no-universal-icon-or-symbol-for-the-internet

    Andrew Cheung: For the same reason that there is no universal symbol for that other globally popular thing, religion.

    Ethan Bond: “www” or any variation of that would, in my mind, be considered “iconic” or “symbolic” of the Internet. Perhaps not in graphical form, but in the purest meaning of the terms, it suffices.

    Marco Hamersma: Because there isn’t a good way of visualising it. The Internet isn’t a tangible thing and there is no suitable metaphor that would be understood by everyone (so that includes non-geeks)

    Mark Simchock: I hear it’s bubbling to the top of Zuckerberg’s to-do list. Give him time and he’ll corner that one too. :)

  4. One reason for there not being a universal icon may be because the Internet is not one thing, one functionality. In my writing since 1999 I have been describing it as a meta medium, an agglomeration of media. And the functions keep expanding: communication in multiple forms, information retrieval, publication, transaction, remote computing, surveillance, and so on.

    The problem with many of the icons is that they deify a specific device used to access the Internet. If anything, I’d go for the amorphous cloud that one finds in schematic diagrams.

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