This article describes in detail how internet communication works.
This is a lengthy article but contains useful information that can give you a lot of insights about what the internet really is and how it works. So, here goes.
I will start with giving my simplified definition of what the Internet is, followed by examples, advantages and disadvantages of internet communication, and finally what the future holds in store for this technology.
So here is my simple answer to the question
What is the internet?
The Internet is just a Communication channel with added data storage capabilities. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Does this simplified definition of the internet cover all possible scenarios of online activities?
Let's delve deeper into the article to find out.
Types of Internet Communication
Here's a list of the popular types of internet communication.
1. Social Networking Sites
Social networking sites such as Facebook or Google Plus, allow people to create an identity for themselves online, and connect with people whom they know. Using these sites as a medium and internet as the channel for communication, users can do several things.
For example, they can indulge in online chats with friends, send instant messages to people, and share photos and videos with others.
Using social networking sites to keep in touch with the people you know and to make new contacts, has become one of the biggest applications of internet communication.
Email sites such as Gmail or Yahoo Mail allow people to send electronic mail to other people over the internet. It's the fastest way of sending communication to others and once you type a mail and hit the send button, it reaches the mailbox of the recipient in a matter of seconds.
Compare this with the centuries-old postal system where you had to send your letters by post to others, and it took several days for those letters to reach the intended recipients. With the advent of email, postal systems worldwide have almost become obsolete.
Emails became very popular because they make maximum use of the power and speed of internet for meeting communication needs. Several businesses today rely heavily on email for doing business communication with their customers and with their vendors. In the case of most businesses, the internet communication with customers is usually formal in nature, and has a tone that is similar to the company's offline letters.
3. Online Forums
Though not as popular as social networking sites or emails, forums do have their own space in the world of internet. Forums allow people with similar interests to get together and communicate with each other about the topics they love.
There are literally thousands of forum sites that dedicate themselves to specific topics such as travel, cars, sports and the like.
4. Online Games
Like I said earlier, almost everything you do on the internet is communication, and Gaming sites are not an exception.
For example, I can play live chess on the Chess.com site with other people who are sitting in different corners of the globe. And what does the site do? It allows my opponent and me to communicate our moves to each other, and the site also helps by showing the position visually on a chess board.
So, online games also are not outside the purview of internet communication.
While some games allow people to play with or against each other, there are others which allow people to 'communicate' with a software program hosted on some remote computer somewhere on the internet.
5. Internet telephony - Audio and Video calls
Online sites such as Skype allow people to communicate with each other using the power of the internet, in the same way that people can do it offline over the phone. All you need for this is a headset that can be connected to your computer.
Instead of physical telephone lines, the systems convert analog voice signals to digital signals and transmit it over the internet to the recipient's computer. At the other end, the digitized signal is again converted back to analog, and presented to the recipient as a voice that can be heard.
Long-distance telephony done over the internet is much cheaper compared to the more traditional methods of communication using landline or mobile networks. This is the reason why such forms of internet communication have found wide-spread acceptance amongst people.
To add to this, if you have a video camera installed on your computer, you can also use it to make video calls to people, so that the person at the other end will not only be able to hear your voice, but also able to see you.
Video communication is also quite popular amongst people who have to stay far away from their families and loved ones for extended periods of time, because of their jobs or other reasons.
While calling up people on the internet is useful for individuals, there are some industries that rely on it for profitability.
For example, there are many international Call centers that make use of internet telephony for their communication needs. Their core business is making and receiving calls and using internet telephony significantly lowers the call costs for them.
The agents at these call centers usually have SIP phones, the lines of which are all connected to a main central server, which is in turn connected to the internet.
6. Banking applications
You may feel that this definitely cannot be considered a type of internet communication. But like I said earlier, almost everything you do on the internet is some or the other type of communication.
For example, in the case of internet banking, you can make online payments to people. All you have to do for this is to visit your bank's website, login to your account, and pass instructions on how much amount you want to transfer, and to whom you want this money to be transferred to.
These instructions are nothing short of communication. You could just as well walk into your bank and give those very same instructions offline. That's what people used to do, before internet banking was developed.
These days there are a lot of other things that you can communicate to your bank online. You can request for new chequebooks, make payments from your account, and even book fixed deposits online. You can also use the credit or debit cards issued by your bank, to shop online for things ranging from clothes, to books, to kitchen appliances, to electronic gadgets.
7. Communicating with Search Engines
Here's what I do whenever I want to research some topic that I know very little about. I go to Google's website, and communicate my requirements to Google, by entering text in the box that they provide.
Google's search engine is a software program. It's not a person. When I tell the program what I want, it looks up details in its index, and displays the results to me.
So, all searches that people do are nothing but their interactions with a software program. The search results that show up contain hyperlinks to several websites that have the information about the subject that I am looking for.
8. Blogs and Websites that communicate with you
Most of the information that is put up on the websites is in the form of text, videos, images etc. It is that information which the website owners want to communicate to you. It is also that information which is waiting to be read or seen.
For example, as I am writing this article right now, I am doing only the first half-part of the communication process. I am creating content and will be posting it on the internet for people to see. Only when someone reads it, will this process get completed.
This is an interesting point in itself.
In most of the forms of offline communication such as when you make a telephone call or when you meet a business client, you know beforehand whom you are communicating with. And you start to talk when the other person is ready to hear.
However in the case of websites and blogs, it's different.
Here you make your say first (by writing an article, or shooting a photograph, or recording a video), then you save whatever you said in electronic form, then upload it to any of the host server computers on the internet, and finally wait for people to view your content.
This is akin to the 'Notice Board' in a college or a school. The school authorities put up their communication (notices) on the board for their students to read, and the school children read it later in their free time.
Online Bulletin boards work using the same principle, and so do websites and blogs. Only the content and target audience varies from one site to another.
9. RSS Feeds that push information to readers
For bloggers and website owners, having to wait for people to discover new content on their site is not the best way to reach and expand their audience. Hence to overcome this limitation many bloggers use a handy communication tool called RSS Feeds.
Once RSS feed is setup for a blog, readers can subscribe to it. Whenever a new post (article) is published by the blogger, the new content is immediately sent to all those people who have subscribed to that blog's RSS feed, and the people can view it using RSS Reader tools such as Google Reader.
Thus in the case of Feeds, the new content is pushed out to readers, instead of having to wait for them to visit the blog to look for it.
10. Advertising on the internet is also nothing but communication
If you are a company or a person who wishes to market your products or services online, then the fastest way to reach your prospective clients is by showing your ads on various websites that are related to your product.
Internet advertising works in the same way like the traditional Newspapers and Television does. Like newspapers and TV programmes have their readers and viewers, each website or blog too has its own audience. Some if not all websites, sell advertising space on their site. This is space which advertisers can use to communicate information about their products to the website's audience.
Using the communication power of the internet to reach vast global audiences, as well as the ability to target ads to specific niche audiences, holds tremendous benefits for advertisers.
One of the easiest and most popular ways to advertise online is by using Google's Adwords tool. The tool allows marketers to target specific audiences, based on country and interest. The ads can be displayed on Google's site next to search results, and also on Google's partner sites that use Adsense.
Advantages of Internet Communication
1. Very fast.
Chatting is real-time. Emails are delivered in seconds. Breaking news can reach intended audiences in a matter seconds.
2. Saves money.
Communicating by Emails means no postage fees. Long-distance internet telephony is also cheaper compared to the more traditional methods.
3. Wider reach.
E.g one blog post can get thousands of reads. You can communicate and share ideas with people across continents. Marketers can reach a global audience.
Many people can contribute for a common cause and make an impact. eg. Wikipedia. Open source softwares such as WordPress are created using the same principle.
5. Saves time
Online shopping and online banking has become popular because is saves time. It is much more convenient to do these activities online, compared to the effort required for the same activities offline.
6. Allows for more data-types
Inernet communication is better than other tradiional ways because it allows for a wider array of data-types such as images, videos and text. Compare this with offline newspapers and magazines which cannot allow for videos, or with television programmes which cannot focus on text.
Disadvantages of Internet Communication
1. Privacy concerns
Everyone connected to the internet can be traced using their IP address.
If you think this is no big deal, that's OK.
But think about it this way. What if someone could gain access to every single query that you ever made on search engines in the last six months, every comment you posted on websites, a list of every website you visited, and a cached copy of every single word you ever uttered on your favourite social network.
That's a great deal of information which can reveal a lot about you. While all this is hypothetical thinking and nobody is ever likely to do any such research, according to me it is still best to use restraint in everything you say and do on the internet.
Especially you should never reveal sensitive personal information such as your Bank A/c details or passwords in any of your online communication, unless of course you are dealing with a trusted site.
2. Security concerns: Phishing Sites and Spam mails
There is no dearth of spammers and fraudsters on the internet. You have to ensure that you don'’t fall prey to their schemes.
You should be aware of commonly used techniques such as Phishing Sites in which the fraudsters make exact replicas of other well-known sites, so that they can draw people to it using emails and other channels, and then to fool people into giving out key information.
While some sites can be downright dangerous, others attempt to simply know your email address so that they can make a big list of email addresses and sell it off to other people, who can then use it to send spam mail to you.
So, when you are communicating with any site over the internet, ensure that you are on the right website. For financial transactions, banks usually offer secure access (https) along-with other levels of protection. However the best level of security that you can ever get is by being aware of what goes on around you in the world of internet.
It's very simple for anyone to copy text and images from anywhere on the web and make use of it for personal gains.
Many people who surf the internet copy the text content and images that they like. While most of these people don't do it for commercial gain, the fact still remains that they do not take permission from the owner of the content before doing so.
Most people are either not aware or fail to acknowledge the fact that for every photo that they see published on the web, some photographer somewhere actually had to go somewhere and spend time and money for taking that photo, and for every article that they see, some author somewhere has likely spent long hours pouring his heart and soul in it.
Then there are still other people who knowingly steal other people's content and publish it elsewhere on the internet for their own benefit, without proper acknowledgements, back-links or credits.
Since information communicated over the internet is so freely available for people to access and copy, it often results in copyright infringements and plagiarism. Though there are a few tools such as Copy-scape to monitor and prevent such illegal activity, this still probably remains the one disadvantage of internet based communication that does the maximum damage to honest publishers.
4. Faceless Communication, Internet Addiction, and Social Effects
I am not an expert in human psychology but from what I can see around me, I do feel that internet communication is changing the way people interact with each other in a big manner.
My personal view is that chats over the internet can never be of the same quality or have the same intensity that face-to-face communication provides. There are several key ingredients missed out in online chats. You cannot get a friendly pat on the back, neither a reassuring touch, nor any other visual cues that we get while talking face-to-face with a person. There are 'Emoticons' for this, but these emoticons simply do not meet those expectations.
Video calls are slightly better in this regard, but face to face communication still remains the best. Simple text communication can get misinterpreted by the recipient if not properly drafted.
And not everyone understands all those short forms of words and phrases that have become a part of internet vocabulary. So, while LOL (Laughing out Loud) may be a very common word for you, your neighbour next door may have never even heard about it, and hence you should be careful in your choice of words when you are communicating online with anyone.
Internet addiction is a reality. I have seen people get hooked on to social networking and to gaming sites. But this is something that happens in the offline world also. The only difference is that getting addicted to websites is simpler due to the ease in accessing the internet.
Whether leading a parallel online life hurts real-life social skills, whether spending long hours on the internet makes people lonelier, whether it hampers or aids the quality of social interactions, and the study of positive and negative aspects of internet communication, is still an area of active research and the results of which are not yet clear, at least to me.
Internet has brought the world closer. People have more access to information now than ever before. Learning any new subject has become easier. Gaining knowledge about far-away countries and cultures has become easier.
The main effect of faster communication is word can spread about like wild fire on the internet. The result is overnight success stories and overnight disasters.
The social impact has been most noticeable in countries where people wanted political and social changes. Whether changes happen because of the internet is debatable, but a free and fast communication channel does mean that news spreads very fast.
All things considered, the benefits of internet communication far exceed the limitations and risks. The pros are many while all the cons can be controlled and kept in check.
Next, let's see how Internet Communications works on a technical level
The basics of internet technology and its underlying framework is quite simple to understand.
Every computer that is connected to the internet has a unique IP address. It is a string of numbers that helps to identify each computer.
When you connect to the internet using a modem or broadband connection, you actually connect to your ISP (Internet Service provider) who further provides you with connectivity to other networks on the internet through NAP (Network Access Points).
How browsers and websites work
Websites are just a bunch of files kept on a server that is connected to the internet 24 hrs a day, and 7 days a week. And because people cannot remember numbers so well, all websites also have unique names e.g. Google, Apple, Facebook etc.
When you enter a website name in the address bar of your browser window (such as Chrome or Internet Explorer), the browser queries a DNS (Domain Name server) and finds out the corresponding IP address of that website.
After this is done, the browser then establishes communication with the server located at that IP address, and requests for data. The server in turn responds by returning the index page of the site (coded in HTML) which the browser renders and shows to you as a webpage.
The Future of Internet Communication
Up to this point, I have been dwelling on how the internet is just a communication channel with added data storage capabilities. As of now, we can communicate with other people using the internet (as in email or chatting), and also with software programs (such as gaming applications and search engines).
So, the next question is what lies in the future. How will things develop further?
According to me, now that people have already connected to each other, the next logical step in Internet communication is for our machines to connect and talk to each other using the internet.
This idea has been dubbed as 'The Internet of Things', and I believe this is going to be the most important aspect of internet in the future.
To summarize, almost everything that we do on the internet falls under the purview of internet communication. Hence when someone asks me "What is the internet?" instead of going into technical definitions, my simple answer is this.
"The Internet is just a Communication Channel with data storage added. Nothing more, nothing less".
In my opinion this is the simplest way to describe what the internet is, from an internet user's perspective.