At its most elementary, internet architecture depends on a huge number of layers. The physical infrastructure layer is connected at the link layer. These are organized into the network layer, which routes messages, and is further managed by the transport layer. The session layer manages naming, location, and connection information, and the presentation and application layers bring the user their desired interpretation of the data and information being sent around the web. These layers encompass familiar terms like hosting and domain naming (in the physical sub-networks and the session layers, respectively), as well as web sites and email (at the presentation and application layers, respectively). For us, the layers are also important because – regardless of metaphor – they emphasize how many complex parts have to be accounted for when a study involving the internet is undertaken. As a framework for thinking through who and what the internet involves, layers help visualize the vast amount of information, and they also make it concrete and manageable.
Protocols will help us measure cultural influence on internet structure. The protocols by which the transmission of data and information are standardized and organized have a complicated history stretching back to the 1970s and 1980s. Oversimplified, they define the rules for moving and locating things online. Much of their structure is large databases. The Internet Protocol, or IP, maintains the numerical addresses of devices and locations online, and combined with the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP, the rules for passing information between those addresses), it defines the internet as we know it. Next comes the Domain Name System (or DNS), which correlates those IP addresses with written names such as lewislevenberg.com, and comprises the single largest database in the world. It recently began to incorporate non-Latin domain names, such as those written in Chinese, Arabic, and other character sets, creating a vast increase in possible domain names. The Hypertext Transmission Protocol (HTTP) describes how browsers interpret web sites, the Simple Mail Transmission Protocol (STMP) defines how email is sent and received, and the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) manages the movement of files from local machines (like a personal computer) to websites and back again – every time you download a file, you obey the FTP in addition to most of the others mentioned here. Where protocols become curious cultural artifacts is at their moments of development and change, such as when they encounter situations for which they have no existing rules; these are the moments of disruption and confusion to which cultural internet research must pay close attention.