But what is internet?

In a 1994 clip, the hosts of NBC’s Today Show talk about what exactly the Internet actually is. Although computer networking technology had been developed and was in fact widely available for decades prior, it was during the 1990s that browsing the World Wide Web and using Email became popularized, and common activities throughout most households.

Of course, watching this clip in 2019 is somewhat comical. How could anyone not know what the Internet is? How could they not even know how to properly read an email address? We have been so steeped in these technologies and activities that we don’t stop and consider what they actually mean.

However, I think that it can still be worthwhile to take a moment to consider this same question from 1994: “What is the Internet, anyway?”

When I ask this question, I wonder specifically about that precise terminology. What do we actually mean when we refer to “the Internet?” And how is that different (or is it different) from “the internet” or “an internet?” It may seem like nothing more than unnecessary pedantry, but there can be incredible value in taking a moment to consider our terminology.

In day to day discourse, it seems that most people use the terms Internet and the Web interchangeably. However, these two are not necessarily the exact same thing. From a technical standpoint, the Internet refers to the global network of networked computer systems, whereas the Web is one specific use of the Internet. The World Wide Web refers to the system by which web pages, text, and other content are displayed in Web Browsers. To be sure, the two terms are closely connected–the Web works because it runs on the Internet. However, it is still a distinct application and, for instance, is not the same thing as email, FTP, or telnet. Of course, this distinction is even murkier given that nearly all major email service providers have some for of web access.

To make the matter even more complicated, there is a difference between the mythical conceptualization of the Internet and what the Internet is actually. For instance, though we may like to think of the Internet as a great equalizing force, and providing opportunities for all voices to be heard, in reality it is still dominated and controlled by just a few giant corporations.

To help distinguish between all these possible uses of the term “internet,” I have found it helpful to lean upon the OSI model, which defines the different levels of computer-to-computer networking and communication. This model defines 7 layers, stacked upon one another. At its lowest, Layer 1 includes the physical connections between computers (which includes wireless connections), and stacks up to Layer 7, the Application itself. Though not officially part of the model, Layer 8 is sometimes jokingly referred to as the User, or the human-computer interaction that takes place in networked communication systems.

Though this model is certainly not without its flaws, it can be useful to help make distinctions among the different ways that we can use the word internet. For instance, the day-to-day use of the term typically is referring to the upper layers of the OSI model. In this sense, “the Internet” is the mythical conceptualization of what the Internet can be, as well as how corporations have actually constructed it. However, from a more technical standpoint, “the Internet” more accurately refers to the lower OSI models layers. And of course, the fact that we often use the same word interchangeably to refer to vastly different things.

These different definitions are important, but are certainly not the only way to define them. However, I think that whenever we write about the Internet (or even just the Web) it is worthwhile to be precise with our terms, and explicitly define what we’re really referring to.

2 thoughts on “But what is internet?

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