Just what is the Internet?
Over the last decade public usage of the Internet has grown explosively. It is a communications and research tool which becomes more useful and powerful every day. It’s network includes millions of computer, each of which can potentially be accessed by any other. It can be used for everything from sending emails and photos to family, to playing card games with someone halfway around the world. It’s a great way to communicate with friends and family, research interesting topics or hobbies, and to expand your horizon.
Many people do not understand the Internet and how it works – or are scared to try using it because of constant stream of news stories about hackers, viruses, identity theft, etc. Don’t let the acronyms and the lingo scare you – the Internet is a wonderful source of information and entertainment, and is worth trying!
How Does the Internet Work?
Perhaps the best analogy for how the Internet works is the road system that we’re all familiar with. Using roads, anyone with a car can leave their home and travel to nearly any point in the US by negotiating their way along various roads, highways, expressways, etc. As you drive, you decide which direction to follow at each intersection that you encounter. If someone else were to leave from your home for the same destination, the route that they choose to follow may differ, but the end result is the same (hopefully!)
The Internet works much the same way. When you send an email to a friend in another state, your computer first breaks up that email into many parts (called “packets”). Each of these packets is then sent out onto the Internet, where they wend their way though the many intersections that make up the network. Each intersection is a computer called a “router” which determines how best to forward that packet onwards – in the same way that you decide which route to take at each intersection on the road.
As the packets that make up your email traverse the Internet, they will often get jumbled, and arrive at their destination computer out of order. Some packets may get lost or somehow garbled. The “protocol” or language of the Internet allows your computer and all the other computers on the Internet to tell each other when a given packet is missing or garbled and must be resent. Once the destination computer receives all the packets, they are reassembled into an email from you.
Of course, not just emails are transmitted this way. Anything that can be represented in a digital format can be sent and received via the Internet. That includes things like photos, audio (music, voice), video, documents, faxes, etc. It’s this capability that makes the Internet such an amazingly useful tool for communication – with a simple Internet connection you can access a world’s worth of information and communicate with people anywhere in the world – usually for a surprisingly low monthly fee.
Types of Internet Connections
There are many ways to access the Internet. The most basic is called “dial-up” and uses as simple phone line. A device on your computer called a “modem” transmits data over the phone line through audio signals to another computer at the other end of the phone connection, which converts these signals into a format appropriate for the Internet. This method is very economical, and very slow compared to others. However, for most basic Internet use (such as email) it’s quite sufficient.
Growing ever more common are “broadband” connections to the Internet such as DSL and cable. DSL uses the same phone lines as a dial-up connection, however it uses different technology and is much faster. A cable connection uses your cable TV line and is generally about the same speed as DSL. There are minor variations in the nature of these two kinds of service, but they’re roughly equivalent in price and performance. There are also other kinds of connections such as satellite, ISDN, etc. but dial-up, DSL and cable are by far the most common for residential use.
Once you have an Internet connection, what can you do with it? Most people think of email, and the World Wide Web when they think of using the Internet. Email is perhaps the most popular and common way that people use the Internet, and many people rely on email far more than more traditional methods of communication such as letters or phone calls. To send someone an email, you need to know their email address, just like you need a mailing address to send a conventional mail (often called “snail mail” on the Internet). These address look something like “email@example.com”. The “someone” part is usually the user’s account name, and the “someplace.com” is the company that provides their Internet access. There are, however, many websites that provide free email accounts.
Just as with conventional mail, after you send an email it takes some time to get to the recipient – however with email this delay is often very short – under a minute is common! The email then will sit on a computer (called a “mail server”) until the recipient checks to see if they have any new email, at which point they will download the new mail to their computer, read it, and perhaps respond.
“Spam” is a growing problem on the Internet – this is the online equivalent of junk mail – unsolicited mail that is sent to you. It can be quite annoying or even offensive – however there’s little that be done about it besides filtering or deleting it. These days many companies provide “spam filters” which attempt to filter out spam before it even gets to your inbox. These tools are useful, but not perfect and it looks spam will remain a thorn in the side of email users everywhere.
The World Wide Web or “web” is the other most common use of the Internet. To access the web, you need a “web browser” which is a computer program that interprets and displays the information located on websites on the Internet. The most common web browser is Internet Explorer from Microsoft, and probably already installed on any computer you may have access to. There are many other free, and arguably better web browsers available – one popular free browser is called firefox.
To use the Internet, you tell your web browser to “open” a website – which is an address very similar to an email address. This website address is often called a “URL.” Once you tell the program to access the website, your computer will begin sending and receiving information over your Internet connection as it finds and contacts the computer that runs the website you are connecting to. Often times it will take several seconds (or minutes!) for a website to “load” fully, depending on how fast your Internet connection is, and how much information in on the web page.
There are websites dedicated to just about every topic you can imagine (and many that you can’t or would rather not). Remember – anyone can create a website for little or no money, so you must be prepared for anything when “browsing” the web! There are many people who use the Internet to try to scam others – just remember that if it sound too good to be true, it probably is – and err on the side of caution.
The best way to explore the web is through the use of search engines. These are specialized websites that attempt to catalog the entire web so that you can search for sites of interest to you. The best search engine currently is Google (located at google.com). To use a search engine, simple enter the appropriate words into the search box and click “Google Search.” The search engine will then return a list of websites (or “links”) that it thinks fit most closely to what you’re looking for. However, remember that computers are stupid – it basically just looks for websites that have a lot of the words that you entered in the search box.
A newer, and very popular Internet tool is “Instant Messaging” or “IM”. IM is very similar to email – you use it to send text (usually) to other people via the Internet. However, IM programs will let you know when another user is online and available to have a message sent to them. The messages generally arrive in a few seconds, making IM much more like a conversation, while email is more like letters. Many people leave their IM clients on whenever they are using their computers and are connected to the Internet, so you can see at a glance who among your friends is online and ready to communicate.
Hopefully you now have a better idea of what exactly the Internet is, how it basically works, and what sorts of things can be done with it. It really is a wonderful tool that is worth trying out. See you online!