I've known people who have gone out and bought a PC, signed up for an Internet account, and then called me to say, "Okay, so I'm on the Internet. Now what am I supposed to do there?"
That's backward. I think the marketers and the press have pushed so hard that some folks simply think they must be on the Net, without knowing why, sort of the way everybody thinks they need a cell phone. But unless there's something on the Net you want or need to use, you don't need the Net. You shouldn't buy a rice steamer unless you like rice. You don't need a cell phone if you never leave the house. Don't let Madison Avenue and Microsoft push you around.
So, here's a good place to get a feel for what you can actually do on the Net. If nothing here looks like something you want to do, please give this book to a friend or to your local library. You can check out the Net again in a year or two, to see whether it offers anything new.
Browse the Web
It's very likely that your interest in the Internet was sparked by the World Wide Web, even if you don't know it. When you see news stories about the Internet showing someone looking at a cool, colorful screen full of things to see and do, that person is looking at the World Wide Web, most commonly referred to as "the Web" or occasionally as "WWW."
All those funky-looking Internet addresses you see in ads today ” www. pepsi .com and so forth ”are the addresses you need to visit those companies on the Web. With an Internet connection and a Web browser on your computer, you can type an address to visit a particular Web site and read the Web pages stored there. (Figure 1.3 shows a Web page, viewed through a Web browser.)
Figure 1.3. Seen through a Web browser, a Web page is a file of information stored on a Web server.
When you use your Web browser to contact a Web site, the information on the server is displayed on your computer screen. The particular screenful of information you view is described as one Web page.
For example, the site shown in Figure 1.3 is one Web page from www.pepsi.com. All the pages that Pepsi has put up for you to see make up Pepsi's Web site.
By browsing the Web, you can do a staggering number of different things, including all the activities described in the following sections ”and much, much more.
Visit Companies, Governments, Museums, Schools
Just about any large organization has its own Web site these days. Many smaller organizations have their own sites, too, or are covered in pages stored on others' sites. You can visit these sites to learn more about products you want to buy, school or government policies, and much more.
For example, I belong to an HMO for medical coverage. I can visit my HMO's Web site to find and choose a new doctor, review policy restrictions, and much more. I can do this any day, any time, without waiting on hold for the " next available operator."
Just as easily, I can check out tax rules or order forms on the Internal Revenue Service Web site. Or view paintings in museums all over the world. Or find out when the next Parent's Night is at the local elementary school.
Read the News
CNN has its own Web site (see Figure 1.4), as do the New York Times , the Wall Street Journal , and dozens of other media outlets, ranging from major print magazines and fly-by-night rags spreading rumors, to small sites featuring news about any imaginable topic. You'll also find a number of great news sources that have no print or broadcast counterpart ”they're exclusive to the Web.
Figure 1.4. CNN is among the up-to-the-minute news sources available on the Web.
Whatever kind of news you dig, you can find it on the Web. And often, the news online is more up-to-the-minute than any print counterpart because unlike broadcast news, you can look at it any time you find convenient . Best of all, after you read a news story on the Web, no one ever says, "Thanks for that report, Carla. What a terrible tragedy."
Increasingly, libraries large and small are making their catalogs available online. That means I can find out which of the dozen libraries I use has the book I need, without spending a day driving to each. Some libraries even let you borrow online; you choose a book from the catalog of a library across the state, and in a few days you can pick it up at a library closer to you, or right from your mailbox.
Often, entire collections of works, scholarly papers, entire texts of books, research works, and more are available through libraries online.
Books are published on the Web, including classics (Shakespeare, Dickens) and new works. You can read them right on your screen, or print them out to read later on the bus. (Please don't read while you drive. I hate that.) The Web has even initiated its own kind of literature, collaborative fiction , in which visitors to a Web site can read ”and contribute to ”a story in progress.
Because computer software can travel through the Internet, you can actually get software right through the Web and use it on your PC. Some of the software is free; some isn't. But it's all there, whenever you need it ”no box, no disc, no pushy guy at the electronics store saying, "Ya want a cell phone with that? Huh? C'mon!"
One of the fastest-growing, and perhaps most controversial , Web activities is shopping (see Figure 1.5). Right on the Web, you can browse an online catalog, choose merchandise, type in a credit card number and shipping address, and receive your merchandise in a few days, postage paid. Besides merchandise, you can buy just about anything else on the Web: stocks, legal services, you name it. Everything but surgery, and I'm sure that's only a matter of time. One of the hottest trends in online shopping continues to be the online auction house, a Web site where you can bid on all kinds of items, new and old, from odds and ends to objets d'art.
Figure 1.5. Shopping may be the fastest-growing online activity.
The controversy arises from the fact that sending your credit card number and other private information through the Internet exposes you to abuse of that information by anyone clever enough to cull it from the din of Web traffic. But that risk factor is rapidly shrinking as the Web develops improved security. And while shopping from your PC, you can't get mugged in the mall parking lot.
Watch TV and Listen to CD-Quality Music and Radio Broadcasts
Through your Internet connection, you can actually watch live TV broadcasts and listen to radio programs. The sound and picture quality won't be as good as you get from a real TV or radio (unless you have a "broadband" Internet connection ”see Chapter 3, "Getting Connected to the Internet"). But the Net gives you access to programs you can't get on your own TV or radio, such as shows not offered in your area or special programs broadcast only to the Internet. With music, however, there's no compromise. Right from the Internet, you can copy high-quality music files that you can listen to anytime , even when you're not on the Internet.
Play Games, Get a College Degree, Waste Time
Have I left anything out? There's too much on the Web to cover succinctly. But I hope you get the idea. The Web is where it's at. In fact, there are many folks on the Internet who use the Web and nothing else to get and disperse information. But those folks are missing out. Read on.
Email, in case you didn't know, is a message sent as an electronic file from one computer to another. Using Internet email, you can type a message on your computer and send it to anyone else on the Internet (see Figure 1.6).
Figure 1.6. Email is a great way to keep in contact with people, especially those who live far away.
Each user on the Internet has a unique email address; if your email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you're the only person in the world with that email address. (Isn't that nice?) So if anyone, anywhere in the world, sends a message to that address, it reaches you and you alone. As mentioned earlier, to use email, you need an email client program, which interacts with the email servers that store and send email around the world.
Email is great for simple messages, but these days, it can do more. You can attach computer files to email messages to send them to others, broadcast a message to two or a hundred recipients at once, and even create cool, colorful messages with graphics and sound.
Have a Discussion
Using your email program, you can join mailing lists related to topics that interest you. Members of a mailing list automatically receive news and other information ”in the form of email messages ” related to the list's topic. Often, members can send their own news and comments to the list, and those messages are passed on to all members.
One of the Internet's principal discussion venues is the newsgroup, a sort of public bulletin board. There are thousands of newsgroups, each centering on a particular topic ”everything from music to politics, from addiction recovery to TV shows.
Visitors to a newsgroup post messages that any other visitor can read. When reading a message, any visitor can quickly compose and post a reply to that message, to add information to the message, or to argue with it (usually to argue ”you know how folks are). As the replies are followed by replies to the replies, a sort of free-form discussion evolves.
Exchanging messages through email and newsgroups is great, but it's not very interactive. You type a message, send it, and wait hours or days for a reply. Sometimes, you want to communicate in a more immediate, interactive, "live" way. That's where Internet Relay Chat ”a.k.a. "IRC" or just "Chat" ”comes in.
Using chat client programs, folks from all over the world contact chat servers and join one another in live discussions. Each discussion takes place in a separate chat "room" or "channel" reserved for discussion of a particular topic. The discussion is carried out through a series of typed messages; each participant types his or her contributions, and anything anyone in the room types shows up on the screen of everyone else in the room.