Internet 101: Beginners Quick Reference Guide

Start using the internet with confidence

The internet and the World Wide Web, in combination, form a worldwide broadcast medium for the general public. Using your desktop computer, smartphone, tablet, Xbox, media player, GPS, or car, you can access a world of messaging and content through the internet and the web. This guide will fill in your knowledge gaps and have you fluent on the internet and the web quickly.

How the Internet Differs From the Web

The internet is a massive hardware network. The internet's most extensive collection of readable content is called the World Wide Web, a collection of several billion pages and images that are joined by hyperlinks. Other content on the internet includes email, instant messaging, streaming video, peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing, and downloading.

Using the internet to send emails
Lightcome / iStock

The internet, or net, is a term that refers to the interconnection of computer networks. It is a conglomeration of millions of computers and smart devices, all connected by wires or wireless signals. Although it started in the 1960s as a military experiment in communication, the internet evolved into a public free broadcast forum in the 1970s and 1980s. No single authority owns or controls the internet. No single set of laws governs its content. You connect to the internet through a private internet service provider in your home or office or a public Wi-Fi network. 

In 1989, a growing collection of readable content was added to the internet—the World Wide Web. The web is the HTML pages and images that travel through the internet's hardware. You may hear the expressions Web 1.0, Web 2.0, and the invisible web to describe these billions of web pages.

The expressions web and internet are used interchangeably by most people. This is technically incorrect, as the internet contains the web. In practice, however, most people don't bother with the distinction.

Web 1.0, Web 2.0, Invisible Web, and Dark Web

When the World Wide Web was launched in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, it was filled with plain text and rudimentary graphics. Effectively a collection of electronic brochures, the web was organized as a simple broadcast/receive format. This simple static format is called Web 1.0. Millions of web pages are still static, and the term Web 1.0 still applies to them.

In the late 1990s, the web started to move beyond static content and began offering interactive services. Instead of only seeing web pages as brochures, the web began to offer online software that allowed people to perform tasks and receive consumer-type services. Online banking, video gaming, dating services, stock tracking, financial planning, graphics editing, home videos, and webmail became regular online web offerings before the year 2000. These online services are now referred to as Web 2.0. Websites such as Facebook, Flickr, Lavalife, eBay, Digg, and Gmail helped make Web 2.0 a part of our daily lives.

The invisible web, also called the deep web, is the third part of the World Wide Web. Technically a subset of Web 2.0, the invisible web describes billions of web pages that are purposely hidden from regular search engines. These web pages are protected by passwords or hidden behind firewalls. They are private, confidential pages, such as personal email, personal banking statements, and web pages generated by specialized databases such as job postings in Cleveland or Seville. Invisible web pages are either hidden entirely from casual eyes or require specialized search engines to locate. 

In the 2000s, a cloaked part of the World Wide Web spawned the darknet, also called the dark web. Darknet is a private collection of websites that are encrypted to conceal participants' identities and prevent authorities from tracking users' activities. The dark web is a black market for traders of illicit goods and a sanctuary for people who seek to communicate away from oppressive governments and dishonest corporations. The dark web can only be accessed through complex technology. You won't accidentally stumble across the dark web. Most internet users never go there.

Internet Terms for Beginners

Beginners should learn basic internet terminology. While some internet technology is complex and intimidating, the fundamentals of understanding the net are doable. Some of the basic terms to learn include:

  • HTML and http/https
  • Browser
  • Web page
  • URL
  • Email
  • Social media
  • ISP
  • Downloading
  • Malware
  • Router
  • E-commerce
  • Bookmark

Web Browsers

A web browser is the primary tool for reading web pages and exploring the larger internet. Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari are the big names in browser software. Each of them offers solid features. Other browsers include Opera, Vivaldi, and Tor browser. All internet browsers are free on computers and mobile devices. You open a browser and enter a search term or a URL, which is the address of a web page, to reach any web page you are looking for.

Mobile Internet: Smartphones, Tablets, and Laptops

Laptops, tablets, and smartphones are the devices people use to surf the internet as they are on the go. Whether you are riding on a bus or sitting in a coffee shop, at the library, or in an airport, mobile internet access is a revolutionary convenience. Dealing with mobile internet connections requires some basic knowledge of hardware and networking.

Email: How It Works

Email is a subnetwork inside the internet. People trade written messages along with file attachments through email. Over time, email provides the business value of maintaining a paper trail for conversations.

Instant Messaging: Faster Than Email

Instant messaging, or IM, is a combination of chat and email. Although often considered a distraction at corporate offices, IM can be a useful communication tool for both business and social purposes.

Social Networking

Social networking is about starting and maintaining communications with friends and family through websites. It is the modern digital form of socializing, done through web pages. Users choose one or more online services that specialize in group communications and gather their friends there to exchange daily greetings and regular messages. Although not the same as face-to-face communications, social networking is popular because it is relaxed, playful, and motivating. Social networking sites can be general or focused on hobby interests, such as movies and music.

Acronyms and the Internet

The world of internet culture, social networking, and messaging is filled with jargon that has expanded into a language dominated by acronyms such as LOL, BRB, and ROTFL. You may feel lost without a guide to this cryptic terminology. Whether or not you choose to use these communication shortcuts, you need to understand them to know what others are talking about.

Search Engines

With thousands of web pages and files added every day, the internet and the web are daunting to search. Although sites like Google and Yahoo help, even more important is the user mindset. Knowing how to approach sifting through billions of possible choices to find what you need is a learned skill. 

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