When I was first learning about the Web, in 1994, one of the first analogies I came across was that the Internet is like a huge university library with millions of books and journals and newspapers — except that there’s no card catalog and all the books have just been dumped randomly onto the floor.
That was a pretty handy metaphor back in those days, when Yahoo was far from comprehensive and Alta Vista didn’t even exist. It’s less apt now, but still useful in giving some sense of how decentralized and disorganized the Internet is, considered as a whole. (Of course it’s probably not even correct to consider the Internet as a “whole” any more than “the electrical grid” is a whole. The Internet is defined by its protocols, not its content or its organization. Those protocols are used in a wide variety of places, some public and some private. And even in the public parts, there are zones and dividing walls and spheres of influence. But still.)
At any rate, this page has an interesting discussion on the origins of that “books on the floor” analogy. Surprisingly, it seems to go as far back as 1992, at least, and the earliest person cited as using it is Ed Krol, in a Nov. 3 Newsday article by Josh Quittner.
At the bottom of that page, there’s a motto: “Teach a man to use the Internet, and he will leave you alone.” Now there’s a maxim that’s still valid today.