In conceptual terms, this superhighway is a massive electronic network offering an array of entertainment, shopping, information and communication services to homes and businesses via computer and, perhaps someday soon, an updated version of the television set. In actual use, it has opened huge storehouses of information and changed the way people communicate and the way business is conducted. In doing that, it has created global electronic communities in which users who never would have the opportunity to meet face-to-face discuss, confer and even argue with users that have similar interests.
Where It Began
The Internet wasn't formed as a highly-accessible superhighway. Originally, it was established by the U.S. Defense Dept. in the late 1960s as a defense research network and a fail-safe communication system that could be fully activated in the event of war or public emergency. The Internet was, and is, nothing more than a collection of computers, telephone cable and satellite transmission systems that relay data to and from thousands of points around the globe.
It's important to remember from the outset that the Internet isn't a network in the conventional sense. Rather, it's a network of networks. The Internet consists of some 10,000 or more different computer services and networks operated by government, industrial and not-for-profit organizations and others. Just as traditional highways can be accessed by a variety of secondary roads and access ramps, the Internet can be accessed through any of these networks by anyone with a computer, modem and telephone line.
As a consequence, Internet use has broadened considerably since the late 1960s. Today, educational institutions, business firms, researchers, computer buffs and people from just about every walk of life use the Internet and the World Wide Web as a communications and information retrieval tool.
Once you're connected to the Internet, you're part of an electronic community consisting of an estimated 25 million to 35 million users. You'll have access to thousands of information sources and databases covering every field of human endeavor and can gain access to libraries and experts in more than 50 nations. Connect to the Internet and you'll gain the ability to communicate with other users through electronic mail, or e-mail, its most widely used feature. You'll also be able to transfer computer files to other Internet users around the world.
The World Wide Web (WWW) has brought point-and-click technology to the information on the Internet through the development of hypertext links. You will need a software program called a browser to view information on the Web. But once there, you'll also have access to photographs, moving pictures and sound.
Planning an Internet Trip
Because no one owns or runs the Internet, you can't obtain an Internet account or subscription. You can't even find an official road map to this vast superhighway system. For starters, though, all you need is a computer, a telephone, a modem and Internet access. Access simply means that a network operator -- a business, educational institution or an on-line information service -- has assigned you an Internet address or code that enables you to send and receive information via the network.
Access is much easier to obtain than you might think. If you're affiliated with an educational institutional or major corporation, ask if you can obtain an Internet address -- you might be able to do so at no charge. Some colleges and universities offer guest accounts on their computer systems to community residents for a small fee. Some metropolitan communities offer full or limited Internet access via not-for-profit communication or computer organizations or library systems.
If you can't find a local organization that will provide you with access, you can subscribe to an on-line service -- such as America Online, CompuServe and others -- that provide Internet access. These services will charge a monthly fee to access their networks and services, plus a surcharge for connecting to the Internet through them. There also are Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that offer direct Internet access without the other features offered by an on-line service. In any case, search for a local access source, which ultimately will save money on long-distance telephone charges.
Your Internet address will consist of domains -- a series of numbers and letters that identify you, your host computer, the organization providing you access and the national affiliation of the organization. You'll use this address to enter and navigate through the Internet.
Maps and Road Signs
The Internet is an amalgamation of thousands of computers, organizations and networks. It's not a menu-driven service that provides quick and easy access to every destination in the network, and there's no one to call for advice when you get lost on your Internet trip.
No one governs the Internet. Users try to establish guidelines and protocols for Internet use, but no one has the authority or resources to make hard and fast rules, approve or disapprove of the content offered by the networks comprising the Internet, or even build up-to-the-minute road signs directing the causal users to the variety of destinations on the superhighway.
So let's say you've got access to the Internet. How do you find your way around? Here are a few suggestions.
First, you can use one or more of the commercially published guidebooks. These books list many of the popular Internet destinations and provide the appropriate addresses for them. But these books can become out of date quickly because Internet offerings change constantly and there is no central authority to record these changes.
Once on-line, look for files designated by the letters FAQ for frequently asked questions. Internet access and informaton providers often collect the questions most often asked by users and present answers in these files. Chances are many of your questions will be answered here.
Next come discussion groups. These groups can consist of several, hundreds even thousands of users interested in a particular topic. These people systematically exchange ideas, data and chatter through e-mail and bulletin board postings.
Then come gophers. These electronic gateways provide simple menus to sections of the Internet and can direct you to a destination. Web users have access to even more powerful tools called search engines, which can generate lists of Web addresses based on a string of words related to a topic of interest.
As users become proficient in navigating the Internet, they usually accumulate a collection of addresses of special interest to them. The Internet is a vast collection of roads and boulevards that may include dead ends and circles. The more addresses users collect, the easier their Internet trips can be.
In future articles we will cover Internet and e-mail etiquette and on-line marketing.
Richard G. Ensman Jr. is a syndicated freelance writer based in Rochester, NY.