Creating Visual Metaphors of the Internet
Walter M. Bortz, Graduate Student
William R. Davie, Ph.D.
Jung-Sook Lee, Ph.D.
All correspondence should be addressed to:
Professor William R. Davie
Department of Communication
The University of Southwestern Louisiana
P. O. Box 43650
Lafayette, LA 70504
Submitted to the
Visual Communication Division
A.E.J.M.C. Annual Convention
Baltimore, Maryland, 1998
RUNNING HEAD: VISUAL METAPHOR
Creating Visual Metaphors of the Internet
This study examined visual metaphors of the Internet created by college
students. The authors applied an Interaction theory to their data from a series
of in-depth interviews and classified visual metaphors into metaphoric types.
They identified 23 types of visual metaphors, including challenge, navigation,
food, privacy, flowing, knowledge and information, and powerful force. They
also discussed implications of metaphoric research for communication theory and
practice by focusing on the nature of projective or similarity-creating
WORD COUNT: 75
RUNNING HEAD: VISUAL METAPHOR
Creating Visual Metaphors of the Internet
Metaphors have been used in persuasive communication for years. When the
president of the United States proposed "building a bridge to the twenty-first
century," in his reelection campaign in 1996, he drew upon one of the best
known, yet least understood tools of language. When a television commercial for
Eggo Waffles symbolically transforms waffles into angelic halos hovering over
the heads of children, it taps into the thought processes which allow people to
interpret metaphor. For hundreds of years the metaphor has been seen as only a
play on words - a substitution of one word for another. Yet it is fundamental
to communication processes. By its nature, it is an illustrative type of
communication. We can show people something with metaphors as opposed to
telling someone something.
Metaphors command our attention for a number of reasons. Some have suggested
that they are central to thought processes (see Black 1962, Emmett 1961,
Richards 1936, Ricoeur 1977), while others claim that they are often taken for
granted (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). As a tool of expression, Beck and More
(1987) suggest that employees who used metaphor most effectively tended to get
promoted faster than those who did not. Metaphor is distinctly human. That is
why one of the challenges to artificial intelligence has been comprehension of
metaphor (Beck 1987).
The study of metaphor has been carried out among several disciplines including
communication, linguistics, philosophy, cognitive science, psychology, and
computer science. The predominance of mass communication studies involving
metaphor has tended to analyze the effects of using metaphors in advertising.
Gerald Zaltman's Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET), for example, uses
metaphor and interview data to improve advertising for a product or service.
Other studies, such as one by Bourland-Davis' (1997), have allowed subjects to
create metaphors to show their relationships with different media.
In this study, we used the Internet as a central topic to focus on the creation
of visual metaphors. The Internet, arguably the most important development in
mass communication since the advent of television, combines audio and visual
imagery that "is new, loaded with content, crowded, and seemingly a great
business prospect" but "none of these... [aspects] are distinct communication
phenomena..." (Newhagen and Rafaeli 1996, 4). Considering the growing
importance of the Internet as a communication mechanism, we seek dimensions
specific to communication in this study. Some features unique to the Internet
discussed in previous studies include linearity on the Internet, the routing of
data paths, synchronicity and interactivity (Newhagen and Rafaeli 1996). Often
these concepts are explained by metaphors.
The second reason for choosing the Internet as a topic is the nature of the
term 'Internet' and its relation to the system that it represents. The term is
somewhat abstract, and because of this abstraction, it lends itself to the study
of metaphor. Consider Vice President Gore's labeling the Internet an
'information super-highway,' or 'The World Wide Web' that signifies a system of
documents, clients and servers sharing information via 'hyper-text mark-up
language' (HTML) protocol. These concepts are brought to the realm of
tangibility with metaphorical representations, therefore, it would be useful to
examine visual metaphors associated with the Internet.
Aristotle is one of the earliest writers on the subject of metaphor, and his
analysis is still relevant today; particularly regarding the use of metaphor for
rhetorical discourse. To achieve this rhetorical use, "...the metaphors by
which we give names to nameless things must not be far fetched; rather we must
draw them from kindred and similar things; the kinship must be seen the moment
the words are uttered..." (Cooper 1932, 188). Aristotle expresses a key
dichotomy of metaphor: the connection of different 'things,' that are somehow
related. Aristotle noted the discovery powers of metaphor, "...strange words
simply puzzle us; ordinary words convey only what we know already; it is from
metaphor that we can best get hold of something fresh" (Aristotle 1924, 1410b).
Other classical authors tended to emphasize the ornamental uses of metaphor.
For example, Quintilian suggested six uses of metaphor; 'for vividness,' 'for
brevity,' 'to avoid obscenity,' 'for magnifying,' 'for minifing,'[sic] and 'for
embellishing' (cited in Hawkes 1972). In the late seventeenth century, British
Parliament proposed an Act to curb the use of 'fulsome and luscious' metaphor
Certain romantic authors began to develop a different perspective on metaphor
loosely based on the philosophy of Plato. Coleridge, for example,
distinguished the points of view of Plato from that of Aristotle: Aristotle
believed that the mind was an empty page, filled only with information that the
senses perceived, whereas Plato held that information not seen or perceived at
certain levels could affect the information perceived at other levels (cited in
Similarly, Richards (1936) argued that metaphor was not a 'function of
picture-making,' but it was a function of language. How a figure of speech
works does not necessarily have anything to do with mental images or sensory
perceptions supporting the words of the writer or reader. Richards is generally
deemed to be the father of the Interaction perspective of metaphor. The
researcher concluded, "In the simplest formulation, when we use a metaphor we
have two thoughts of different things active together and supported by a single
word, or phrase, whose meaning is resultant of their interaction" (Richards
Several researchers illustrated the Interaction perspective in their
investigation of how people process incoming bits and pieces of information.
Bruner (1957), for example, used the theory of schematic processing to
illustrate how complex sensory stimuli is processed and simplified by the
cognitive agent. Graber (1990) utilized an information approach to explain how
people process visual information--information such as images in news programs.
Schematic processing allows people to wade through the daily barrage of
information by assigning general 'scripts' to new information based on prior
experience. If the new information seems to fit into a particular script it is
'filed' accordingly, and much of the specific information is ignored (Graber
Proponents of the Interaction view of metaphor, in their opposition to the
substitution and comparison views, contended that a metaphorical statement has
two distinct subjects--a "principal" subject and a "subsidiary" one. The
metaphor works by applying to the principal subject "associated implications"
characteristic of the subsidiary subject. These implications usually consist of
"commonplaces" about the subsidiary subject, or in some cases, the metaphor
selects, emphasizes, suppresses, and organizes features of the principal subject
by implying statements about it that normally apply to the subsidiary subject.
This involves shifts in meanings of words belonging to the same family or system
as the metaphorical expression; and some of these shifts, though not all, may be
metaphorical transfers (Black 1962, 44-45). According to Black, interaction
involves the application of new meaning and is more than convenient figurative
replacements of literal expressions.
In her study of the role of metaphor in mass communication, Bourland-Davis
(1997) explored the creation of textual metaphors by asking communication
students to form metaphors about media in general. She then organized and
analyzed the metaphors by theme. She proposed that people's relationship to
media can be defined by the metaphors they create.
There do exist simple metaphors that can be explained sufficiently by a
comparison or substitution view. The problem is that many metaphors cannot
sufficiently be explained by these views. For example, if we said that, "Fred
was a sloth," assuming that the domain of interpretation is Fred's laziness--and
we provide no other contextual information, then we might make the argument that
the substitution view could adequately explain this metaphor. Sloth-like
qualities are simply substituted for laziness.
Indurkhya (1992) distinguishes between two different types of metaphor:
similarity based metaphor and similarity creating metaphor. The former is
based on a series of similarities that exist before the metaphor, while
similarities exist only after the metaphor is understood in the latter.
Similarity based metaphor is more like a simple comparison. Similarity creating
metaphor or projective metaphor is not reducible to a simple comparison, because
it involves a reorganizing of the sensory data with a new ontology. This
reorganization happens through the process of projection.
In the context of marketing and advertising, Zaltman and his colleagues
proposed the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique (ZMET). This procedure
operates by allowing subjects to identify images that illustrate aspects of a
product or service. Through an interview process, the visual metaphors are
explained, and through these explanations, respondents' feelings toward various
aspects of the products are brought to the surface. The ZMET "is designed to
surface mental models that drive consumer thinking and behavior and characterize
these models in actionable ways using consumers' metaphors" (Zaltman and Coulter
1995, 35). The ZMET study relies on the creation of visual metaphors. Visual
metaphor is less common in metaphor research, but no less valid.
Visual metaphors can control the sensory data on the source side of the
projection. It is the difference between asking someone "Of these three, which
two colors are more similar: green, blue, or aqua?" or showing them a swatch of
green, blue, and aqua and asking which two are more similar. Each approach has
inherent strengths and weaknesses. In the first case we are asking for someone
to find a relation in their concepts of certain colors. In the second example
we are asking people to find relations in their perceptions of certain stimuli.
Persons may perceive the stimuli differently, but the stimuli are held constant.
Another issue that we must address is whether visual metaphors can be
considered to be metaphors at all. The use of visual examples is justified by
the necessity to look beyond verbal or literal limitations. As several
researchers (e.g., Zaltman and Coulter 1995) have demonstrated, most
communication is nonverbal. One of the premises used in ZMET is that "thoughts
typically occur as nonverbal images, even though they are often expressed
visually" (Zaltman and Coulter 1995, 37). Zaltman and Coulter contend that if
we can assume that thoughts tend to occur as images, then allowing subjects to
express themselves with images will allow researchers closer access to the
Not all pictures are metaphors as illustrated in Indurkhya (1992). The context
in which the image occurs is as important as the content of the image in
determining whether or not a metaphor exists. Simply put, an image is part of a
visual metaphor if it is used metaphorically. Indurkhya (1992, 21) explained:
A religious ritual, a painting, and a certain juxtaposition of images in a film
are all examples of things that have the potential of being metaphorical. A
general term that subsumes them all is perhaps a complex symbol or a structured
set of symbols.
The shower scene in Hitchcock's Psycho, for example, was used to represent a
spiritual cleansing. Another example of metaphorical use of symbols with a
similar degree of metaphoric content in Indurkhya is shown in David Lean's
Doctor Zhivago. Indurkhya (1992, 23) noted:
...When Yuri (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) "first touch,
accidentally, on a
trolley, Lean signals their mystic union with a spark from the trolley's
wires." [Anderegg 1984, 129] .
Clearly, that spark could be interpreted as being part of a visual metaphor
given the context in which it occurs. The fact that not everyone might
interpret it as such does not reduce its potential. It would be futile to
assume that for a metaphor to exist it must be universally understood. Some
metaphors will appear to be anomalous to some people, some metaphors will be
missed entirely. So, we conclude that visual metaphor is not only a valid
manifestation of metaphor, but it also permits us certain advantages in the
study of metaphor. Visual metaphor limits the source realm and renders the
visual sensory data isomorphic. Visual metaphor also allows for the use of
symbols that might be difficult to describe with textual metaphor. With this in
mind, we explored the following two principal research questions:
RQ1: In asking participants to produce and explain visual
representations of the Internet, will a specific type of
metaphor--referred to as "projective metaphor"-- be created?
RQ2: From the visual metaphors formed, what abstract concepts, or
themes, will emerge for the Internet?
First we set out to obtain a set of potential visual metaphors. This was
necessary to effectively answer the research questions because they pertain to a
set of created metaphors. Forty-two students from sophomore-level communication
classes participated in the experiment. The participants were either given
extra credit, or had the exercise count toward class participation. The
students who volunteered were told that this was a research to measure
advertising effectiveness. To allow metaphors to form naturally, without a
conscious attempt to produce them, no mention of metaphor was made. The
participants were given written instructions as well as an in-class explanation
of the tasks that they were asked to perform. They were given one week to
complete the task. They were asked to find several pictures that illustrate
what the Internet means to them. The participants then signed up for interview
times approximately one week from the assignment date. They were asked to allow
about 20 minutes for the interview. They were to bring their pictures, and be
prepared to discuss the ones that they had chosen. Arrangements were made to
duplicate the pictures at no cost to the participants.
The participants were interviewed to discuss the pictures that they brought.
The interview questions were derived from the procedures that Zaltman and
Coulter outlined in the discussion of ZMET. They stated that not all of the
procedures outlined are pertinent to every study; also time and funding
constraints can make some of the techniques difficult. So, as these authors
have suggested, we adopted certain techniques relevant to this study. We used
the first seven steps of ZMET with only minor variations: "storytelling, missed
issues and images, sorting task, construct elicitation, most representative
image, opposite image, and sensory images" (Zaltman and Coulter 1995).
The participants were first asked to describe and explain their images, and
each one's relation to the Internet. This gave them an opportunity to express
the relationships that they have been associating between their pictures and the
Internet. Then they were asked to describe an image that they wanted to bring,
but were unable to find. This gave the participants an opportunity to bring up
any images that they thought of prior to finding the pictures, or let them
describe pictures that they were unable to find. Next, they were asked to sort
their images into meaningful piles and explain the reasons for their sorting
choices. Also, they were asked to take three of their images and explain how
two of them are alike yet different from the third. The pictures were grouped
into triads and evaluated using a modified technique (Zaltman and Coulter
1995). This technique was used to focus on major themes and elicit constructs
within the mind of the cognitive agent--in this case, the student participant.
Then, they were asked to pick their most representative image. Next, they were
asked to describe an image that is the opposite of what the Internet means to
them. As Zaltman and Coulter (1995) prescribe, a good way to help determine
what something means to someone is to ask what it does not mean to them. All of
the above processes served to outline the context of the visual metaphors and
establish a domain of interpretation. We need more than just an image to have a
visual metaphor, without an understanding of the domain of interpretation then
we can have no metaphor.
At this point we have compiled a set of metaphors as well as a description of
the meaning of the metaphors provided by the creators. So, now the procedure
departs from the ZMET technique in order to critically evaluate the set of
metaphors in light of the Interaction theory of metaphor. Thus far,
participants have created a set of potential metaphors using some procedures
from the ZMET technique. We then employed a data classification system as shown
below for analyzing this set of metaphors.
Indurkhya (1992) organized his data into three categories which we applied to
our data. Three categories used in this study are as follows:
No visual metaphor: No metaphorical representation is present. A picture is
supplied, but no visual metaphor exists.
Similarity based metaphor: A metaphorical representation based on similar
structures of the source and target. In a similarity-based metaphor, the
conventional description of the target realm (the target concept network) is
used to mediate the process of projecting the source concept network onto the
target realm (Indurkhya 1992, 256). An example would be to use an hydraulic
system as a metaphor for an electrical system.
Similarity creating metaphor: This is a projective metaphor, which works by
disregarding the target realm of the target concept network, and projecting
instead a new source concept network on it. In the process, the structure of
the source concept network is kept more or less invariant, but the ontology of
the target realm is altered and eventually becomes "isomorphic (as far as it can
be) to the structure of the source concept network" (Indurkhya 1992, 271).
An example would be to use a pump as a metaphor for a paintbrush. In fact,
researchers have determined that a paintbrush does pump paint onto a surface as
opposed to smearing it. Knowing this, we reorganize the data that we see when
we observe a surface being painted by a brush. The data have not changed, but
they are now organized by concepts associated with pumps (Indurkhya, 1992). To
operationalize this theoretical definition, the key factor that distinguishes a
projective metaphor is whether an ontological structure was projected onto the
domain of interpretation (the Internet) to reorganize the sense data. Or,
stated more simply, did the participant project a structure?
Here it is necessary to define what is meant by structure. Two examples
illustrate the present definition. In the first case, the participant produces
a picture of a telephone and states that the Internet is like a telephone
because people can communicate over long distances. This would not be a
projective metaphor because the participant is only comparing phone concepts to
Internet concepts. Any image of any phone could be substituted here without
altering the representation.
On the other hand, the participant produces a picture of a phone booth packed
with people and relates the picture to issues of privacy on the Internet. Here
a projective metaphor does exist. The participant is applying the structure of
privacy as it is organized by the phone booth picture to the domain of
interpretation (the Internet). Note that if the elements of the picture were
rearranged, or if we substituted a picture of an empty phone booth, the metaphor
would not work. We could, however, substitute another picture that represents
the same basic structure--a circus car stuffed with clowns, for example. The
structure is the ontology by which the sense data is organized by the concepts.
In the second example, the participant is indeed projecting a structure.
These categories are not self evident, and require understanding the underlying
theory in order to effectively classify metaphors. As Indurkhya admits, some
examples may not fit into one category ultimately or exclusively. With that in
mind, another researcher was instructed on the classification schema and asked
to evaluate 20 percent of the examples to establish the acceptable level of
reliability. With this procedure, all of the potential metaphor examples were
RQ1: In asking subjects to produce and explain visual representations of
aspects of the Internet, will a specific type referred to above as "projective
metaphor"-- be created?
There were 162 images obtained from the 42 participants who were interviewed,
or an average of 3.8 images per subject. All of the images, in accordance with
their accompanying descriptions, were divided into three basic categories: no
metaphor (metonomy), similarity based metaphor, and similarity creating
metaphor. Metonomy is broadly defined as substituting the part for the whole
(Fiske 1980; see Sapir 1977 for a more complete definition). This category is
typically populated by examples where a subject would produce an image that
represented a product, service, or simply information that could be obtained
from the Internet. For example, one participant produced a photograph of a
baseball player and explained that one can get sports information from the
Internet. This particular baseball player was used to represent all sports
information. There is not a metaphorical representation here, only a metonistic
representation. An image was not used metaphorically, instead an image of a
particular 'x' was used generally to represent all 'x's. All cases that did not
contain a visual metaphor were put into this metonomy category.
Similarity based metaphors were rare in this data set. Only three of the 126
images were classified as this type of metaphor. One example produced by a
subject consisted of a photograph of a world globe that was peppered with
push-pins (See Picture 1). The participant explained that the pins represented
connections of the Internet such as hubs where several Internet lines tie
together, and noted that the concentration of the pins seemed to coincide with
highly populated and technologically advanced areas. This image is a system
that is a visual representation of the system of the Internet. One might note
the similarity of this example to Indurkhya's (1992) example of a hydraulic
system being used as a metaphor for an electrical system (see figure). Both
examples represent systems with points of similar representation.
The majority of metaphorical representations were classified as similarity
creating metaphor. Thirty-six of the 162 images fit this category. These were
most relevant to developing ideas for mass communication, representing
nonconventional expressions of the participant's relationship to this medium;
examples are shown in the findings for RQ2.
RQ2: From the visual metaphors formed, what themes, will emerge for the
Here the 'theme' is operationalized simply by having the participant provide a
short label for the picture as it relates to the Internet. We were exploring
the themes that emerged for the various metaphors that were created. What
follows is a thematic interpretation of the visual metaphors that were obtained.
A theme is listed, then a description of the image, and a related concept
follows. The source image descriptions are supplied only to facilitate our
explanation. These descriptions were created by looking at the participants'
images independently from their explanations, and then providing a brief
description for the principal subject of the image. The source concept
descriptions were paraphrased or taken word for word from the interviews.
Visual Metaphors by Theme
Four of the metaphors dealt with the notion of challenge and reward. The first
example stresses the challenge aspect, whereas the following two examples stress
the imminent, yet still un-obtained reward. The last example stresses the fear
a) Source image: A lady driving a fast convertible and a watch. A
woman drives a convertible automobile, the wind blows her hair. This
image is connected to a close-up image of a watch. (See Picture 2)
Source concept: Getting the "hang" and "taking off".
b) Source image: A tight-rope walker. A man in costume balances
himself high above a gorge. He holds a long pole and has a confident
Source concept: Challenging, yet fun.
c) Source image: A doorknob with light coming through a keyhole.
Rays of light stream from an old-fashioned keyhole.
Source concept: A door of opportunity for which I do not yet possess
d) Source image: A skier in mid air jumps off of a mountain. High
above a tree-line we see a skier--bending toward the front of his skis,
sailing towards a snowy ground.
Source concept: A great leap.
The subject who produces this example expressed that it was difficult to get to
a particular destination without being distracted.
a) Source image: Two men try to climb a wall. From behind, we view
two men struggling to climb over a brick wall that is taller than they
are. (See Picture 3)
Source concept: Trying to reach a destination (being distracted).
The Internet was represented as food in four of the 162 images: The deli
sandwiches in the current example, a stew, a cheesecake, and a candy-bar.
a) Source Image: Open Milky Way candy-bar. A candy bar is cut open
on a white plate so that all of the internal layers are visible, and the
caramel flows toward the viewer. (See Picture 4)
Source concept: Desirable.
b) Source image: A deli. We see an external night shot of an
illuminated restaurant in the background with close-ups of sandwiches in
Source concept: Nourishing: food for thought.
c) Source image: Cheese-cake desert. A rich looking desert with a
whipped topping is served on a white plate.
Source concept: Rich, enticing nature.
The image of a crowded phone booth appeared twice, once as a metaphor and once
in a non metaphorical sense. In the latter, it was used to represent telephones
in general and the subject made no comment about the people inside the phone
a) Source image: Many people in a phone booth. (See Picture 5)
Source concept: Lack of privacy.
Various representations of information and knowledge were used in several of
the examples. The first example below is the only case where any type of
'information flow' was represented. The second example is related in that the
Internet is seen as a melting-pot of information--information is 'melted' and
'flows' together as a liquid.
a) Source image: A waterfall. White streams of water cascade down a
mossy mountain side. (See Picture 6)
Source concept: Flowing together.
b) Source image: A pot of stew.
Source concept: A melting-pot.
6) Knowledge and Information
a) Source image: People's heads popped open with large coil springs
inside. Like a jack-in-a-box, the tops of the heads of a man, woman and
child are sprung above their excited faces on large coil springs. (See
Source concept: Expanding knowledge from all points of view.
b) Source image: A lady looks at a twisted lamp. A floor lamp is
crafted from copper tubing in an artistic design; it holds a large bright
bulb with no shade.
Source concept: A bright idea, a different perspective. (See Picture
c) Source image: Light bulb drawing.
Source concept: A source of information.
d) Source image: A silhouetted image of a person with a star in the
Source concept: Knowledge.
7) Powerful Force
a) Source image: A cartoon Hercules. Muscles bulging, Hercules
wields a glowing lightening bolt. (See Picture 9)
Source concept: A strong part of society.
Of the 162 images, two different images were used to represent infinite
qualities of the Internet. The first, a picture of the sky, and the second, a
large hand-bag. Both were metaphorical representations.
a) Source image: A large purse. A large tan woman's hand-bag.
Source concept: Infinite possibilities.
b) Source image: Sunny sky with clouds.
Source concept: Infiniteness.
9) Social Relationships
Meeting people appeared as the concept in five of the 162 images, whereas
intimate relationships were the subject for three of the images. Typically, two
or more people would be pictured together in the image. This example is the
only one that used a metaphorical representation for meeting people.
a) Source image: Two hands touch. Illuminated from behind, two hands
touch from opposite directions, in front of a dark background.
Source concept: Meeting friends.
The concept of addiction was only specifically mentioned once, and it was not
associated with the image of drugs per se, but instead with the image of
vitamins--substances with which addiction is rare. Addiction was alluded to two
other times: One subject used an image of a watch to represent the concept of
people spending too much time on the Internet. In another image, hair spray was
associated with the concept of "getting out of control" by spending too much
time on the Internet.
a) Source image: A bottle of vitamins.
Source concept: Addiction.
b) Source image: Hair spray.
Source concept: Getting "carried away" (lack of control).
The concept of an explosion of information was represented metaphorically in
two examples. In the first example, the Internet is associated with a volcano.
In the second example, the Internet is associated with an atomic explosion.
a) Source image: Lava eruption. A large volcanic eruption with
glowing globs of magma.
Source concept: Explosion.
b) Source image: A nuclear radiation sign with a mouse pointer icon.
Source concept: Explosion.
The concept of confusion was represented in five of the 162 images, two of them
a) Source image: A crossword puzzle.
Source concept: Confusion.
b) Source image: Question marks.
Source concept: Confusion
13) Ease of Use
Golfer Tiger Woods' image was used in two of the 162 images--once
metaphorically and once not metaphorically.
a) Source image: Tiger Woods. Tiger stands at a podium to accept an
award. He smiles at the viewer.
Source concept: Easy to do.
Travel was a very common concept among the images. Some participants even
alluded to a synthetic travel experience via the Internet--you could visit far
off places from your living-room. Typically these images would contain historic
buildings, beaches, luggage, and hotels. In this case, the participant
specifically mentioned 'escape' in explaining the metaphor.
a) Source image: A man in a car. We look head-on at a lone driver
behind the wheel of a sports-car. He wears sunglasses and looks at the
Source concept: Escape.
The subject of anonymity and assumed identities surfaced in several of the
interviews. The following was the sole metaphorical expression of anonymity.
a) Source image: An old man dressed as Superman. A grandfather-like
character sports the blue shirt and red cape.
Source concept: Assumed identities; role-playing.
16) Advanced Technology
Of the 162 images, 5 were images of computers, none of which had any associated
metaphorical representation. The following example represents a metaphorical
representation of advanced technology.
a) Source image: Glowing abstract images of human bodies (as from a
computer generated infra-red scan).
Source concept: Advanced technology.
a) Source image: People and a dog in boats in a lake. A collage of
three pictures; in each of them we see a canoe with two people in it from
a distance. It the third shot we are looking from the point of view of a
dog in another canoe.
Source concept: Exploring.
Excitement was seen in a few of the metonomy examples by showing a picture of
an excited person's face. The following is a metaphorical example of
stimulation or excitement.
a) Source image: Electronic representation of the brain. A
multi-colored abstract of the brain as if generated by some kind of
brain-wave recording apparatus.
Source concept: Stimulating quality.
a) Source image: A lady with several different hair-styles.
Source concept: Variety.
a) Source image: A performer on a stage. From behind, we see a
blurry performer address an excited crowd.
Source concept: Universal quality (i.e. music as universal language).
21) New Dimension
a) Source image: Odd alien people. Glowing multi-colored beings
stand in a swirling color vortex.
Source concept: A new dimension.
a) Source image: A shark. Under water, we see the mouth and eye of a
Source concept: Dangerous quality.
23) Peace of Mind
a) Source image: A skier. A skier glides along a snowy wilderness
Source concept: Peace of mind.
The first research question asked whether participants, invited to produce and
explain visual representations of the Internet, will create a specific type of
metaphor--referred to above as "projective metaphor." This exercise revealed
some interesting and unique ways participants viewed the topic, and gave
insights to their schematic processing. We often saw how a seemingly unrelated
picture was related to the Internet with abstract concepts. Additionally, the
interviews yielded some value-based information about the topic. For example,
some participants used pictures to emphasize the confusing nature of the
Internet, while others portrayed it as relaxing.
To visualize the model of projection, proposed by Indurkhya (1992), to explain
the creation of a similarity creating metaphor, recall the phone booth image: a
crowd of people are packed into a telephone booth. As discussed above, the
participant said that this image represented the lack of privacy on the
Internet. Indurkhya's model of projection shows how this metaphor works. The
source realm is the sensori-motor data that we perceive from the photograph, in
this case, a phone booth packed with people. The source concept network
consists of all of the concepts dealing with lack of privacy. This cognitive
agent (the participant) uses the concept network to arrange the sensori-motor
data of the photograph in a particular way--a particular ontology.
If we attempt to explain this metaphor with either the substitution or
comparison approaches, we can see their shortcomings. The concepts associated
with Internet privacy cannot be substituted with the concepts associated with
being stuffed into a phone booth. Personal constriction has no conventional
interpretation in regard to the Internet. It is also difficult to identify an
underlying analogy for the comparison view to be applied. Besides the domain of
interpretation--lack of privacy--there is no obvious analogy. No conventional
interpretation exists between the source and the target. Consequently, the
Interaction theory of metaphor is more useful in helping to explain the metaphor
process, especially since it takes into account the different levels of
abstraction of the source and target.
Another point should be stressed; participants were not "trying" to create
metaphors in this study. If they were, we might have expected different
results. The goal was to see what metaphors could be cultivated, not contrived.
This approach is one of the reasons for the reduced number of metaphors as
compared to images collected. On the other hand, the integrity of the naturally
occurring metaphors was maintained by using this unobtrusive technique.
In the second research question, we asked: from the visual metaphors formed,
what abstract concepts, or themes, will emerge for the Internet? There were
some commonalities among some of the examples in regard to either the images
that were used, or the concepts that were represented, or both. A thematic
analysis was employed to organize and explain the data. Bourland-Davis (1997)
provides precedence for such an analysis in her study involving metaphor
creation for mass media: Creating Metaphors for Mass Communication Theory. Owen
(1985) is credited by Bourland-Davis for the conceptual process of identifying
prominent themes in metaphors. Owen's work focused on the metaphors that people
use to temporarily understand and explain their perceptions of their roles in
personal relationships. Bourland-Davis extended this framework to include the
relationship of people and media. We built on both works, shifting focus to the
specific medium of the Internet, while maintaining the same caveats noted
before: Namely, that the themes proposed are offered for descriptive purposes
only and may not reflect generalizable categories. Similarities between
Bourland-Davis' data and themes that emerged in this study are noted in the
descriptions that follow.
Four of the metaphors dealt with ideas of challenge and reward -- interesting
concepts for advertising on the Internet. Most advertisements tend to stress
the ease of using Internet products and services, but few if any address the
ideas of challenge and reward. (This motif has been used successfully in other
advertising campaigns; consider the slogan for the U.S. Army, '...the toughest
job you'll ever love.') Some people may want a challenge and will be gratified
by conquering various Internet applications.
Of the two images used to represent infinite qualities of the Internet, a
picture of the sky, and a large hand-bag, there is an obvious but noteworthy
distinction. The large hand-bag has finite boundaries, but the participant
extended the infinite metaphor to the Internet by explaining that a computer has
finite boundaries as well as some capacity for storage, but its contents can be
replaced with other information from the Internet, just as different items can
be in the hand-bag.
The concept of addiction was alluded to three times during the interview phase
of data gathering. One of the participants presented an image of a watch to
illustrate the concept of people spending too much time on the Internet. In
another image, hair spray was associated with the concept of "getting out of
control" with spending too much time on the Internet, and another participant
used the term in reference to a picture of vitamins. Addiction was one of the
themes that emerged in Bourland-Davis' study as well, where a student compared
television to drugs saying that he or she could not go without television.
The concept of confusion was illustrated in five images, including an example
of a puzzle. A puzzle implies an attainable solution to an Internet user's
confusion, whereas the picture of question marks from another participant did
not. Question marks were also used by a participant to represent the fact that
she, 'questions the whole Internet.' Her interview revealed that she considered
the morality and safety of the Internet to be suspect, but because she used the
question marks simply to replace the word "question," her illustration was not
In the example of Tiger Woods' image, the idea projected related to the ease at
which the student felt the Internet allowed him to use complicated tools. The
second image of Tiger Woods, however, simply showed that one could obtain sports
information from the Internet, which would be metonomy, at best, and does not
suit the classification of metaphor.
The Internet is inherently non-linear. Users can 'jump' to other
locations--different documents-- by clicking on 'links' in other documents.
While this offers certain advantages over typical linear media, such as text in
a book, it also introduces the problem of navigation. The participant who
produced the example of two men trying to climb a wall expressed the opinion
that it was difficult to get to a particular destination without being
The Internet was represented as food in four of the 162 images, but only in the
deli sandwiches example was 'nourishing the mind,' or any kind of nourishing
quality cited by the participant. The stew was used to represent a 'melting
pot' concept, whereas the desserts represented enticement and desire.
Bourland-Davis (1997) placed food examples in a category entitled 'Basic Needs,'
based on Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. One of her students produced an example
projecting media as food for the mind very similar to the deli concept.
Various representations of information and 'information flow' were visualized.
The illustration of a pot of stew, for example, related to the Internet as a
melting-pot of information--information is 'melted' and 'flows' together as a
liquid. Bourland-Davis' (1997) categories featured 'Water,' with two of her
students creating a pool metaphor and a sponge metaphor for media.
The visual metaphor attributing powerful force to the Internet was depicted by
a cartoon of Hercules. This category was also present in Bourland-Davis' (1997)
research. Three students in her study produced powerful force metaphors using
natural disasters, a boxer, and a whale.
The subject of anonymity and assumed identities surfaced in several of the
interviews. In one example depicting an old man dressed as Superman the
participant noted that the Internet might be responsible for relationships based
more on personality and less on appearance. Another student said that malicious
people could use its anonymity to abduct children.
One assumption considered in undertaking this study was that we would end up
with many pictures of computers and no insightful metaphors. Fortunately, this
was not the case. Of course, there were images of computers produced; out of
the 162 images, five were images of computers, none of which had any associated
The interview with a participant who produced a picture of people and dogs in a
boat revealed an adventurous metaphor with regard to the Internet. The
placement of the characters was perceived by the subject to represent exploring
vicariously. The subject associated this with synthetic experience that the
Internet can provide.
Two different metaphors used the image of a skier in a snowy wilderness, but
the images were composed differently and their concept networks appeared quite
different. The first showed a skier in mid air, and the subject used it to
represent the concept of a great leap--the leap of "getting into " a new
technology. It is easy to extend the concept network to include feelings of
fear and exhilaration. The second had the skier safely on the ground, just
moving through the snowy landscape. The subject associated this with the peace
of mind that one might find by using the Internet.
The thematic analysis of the metaphors in this study makes no claims regarding
reliability or generality, but its importance should not be discounted. For
example, those interested in advertising research may see this as an example of
the wealth of different concepts that can be obtained from a relatively simple
exploration process. Also, it shows a more general application of ZMET
principles to a particular medium. It further extends the application of
Bourland-Davis, yet focuses on one particular medium: the Internet.
If we can agree with Indurkhya that similarity creating metaphors are
potentially tools for creative genius, then future research that would aid in
the production and analysis of these metaphors would be desirable. There is
also a great potential for additional research exploring the relationship that
is currently developing between people and the new medium, the Internet. The
themes identified here offer a source of discussion and exploration for
researchers interested in this new medium.
Our population of participants was neither very large nor very diverse.
According to Zaltman and Coulter (1995) that should not adversely affect the
ZMET process, however, we cannot make any claims of generality about the themes
that were formed about the Internet. Of course, a large number of participants
would tend to make the Interview process (and transcription process) rather
A clear limitation of this study is the lack of a simple operational definition
for classifying the types of metaphors formed. Because every picture and every
related description was produced by the participants, each case required careful
consideration to determine whether a structure was being projected. Both
researchers were required to use their best judgment based on their
understanding of the theoretical model. A more succinct operational definition
for classifying the metaphors will have to originate from a clearer and more
definitive theoretical model.
One question that arose during this study was how would demographics affect the
kinds of metaphors formed and the themes crafted about the Internet. For
example, will men and women form different metaphors about the Internet?
The interviews revealed that the participants had varying experience with the
Internet and used the Internet for different reasons. We might ask how people's
use of and experience with the Internet affects the types of metaphors they
The Interaction theory of metaphor seems to be the best explanation for the
ways in which cognitive agents create and understand metaphor, but it still
needs a good deal of testing and research. Metaphor is uniquely human, and we
have been unable to synthesize the process. In an era when we can clone living
animals, and indefinitely prolong the life of cells, and monitor and identify
brain-wave activity for various sensory input, and so on, it is odd how a simple
cognitive process and the communication of the products of this process
continues to elude us.
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