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A Succinct Definition of the Internet?

Cliff posted more than 7 years ago | from the indefinable dept.

The Internet 498

magnamous asks: "Ever since Senator Ted Stevens used the phrase 'series of tubes' to describe his understanding of the Internet, I've noticed several stories and comments referencing how silly that is. Although I agree that that description is rather silly, each time I've found myself trying to come up with a -succinct layman's definition- of what the Internet is, and I come up short. Wikipedia has a gargantuan page describing the Internet, and Google's definitions offer pretty good descriptions of what the Internet is in a functional sense (with some throwing in terms that the layman wouldn't understand, or take the time to understand), but not really a good description of what it -is- in the physical sense that I think Sen. Stevens was trying to get at. What are your suggestions for a succinct layman's definition of the Internet?"

I know some would say that laypeople should take the time to learn the technical, more accurate meaning of what the Internet is. The problem is that they won't. We all know laypeople. I live with two of them. When you start talking about 'TCP/IP' or 'DNS', or if you get far enough to start describing those terms, their eyes glaze over. That's what makes them laypeople — they don't care about the subject enough to learn about it in-depth; if they did, they'd be computer enthusiasts. So please keep in mind that, in order for this discussion to be useful, 'succinct' and 'layman' are essential parts to any definition of the Internet given here. Also keep in mind that 'succinct' doesn't necessarily mean one sentence; a relatively short paragraph would be fine, too — the main goal is to come up with something that physically describes the Internet in a way which laypeople can actually understand."

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The Internet (5, Insightful)

mfh (56) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892911)

The internet is a collection of ideas, presented to users in a vast array of increasingly easier to use methods, by a plethora of individuals, groups, small businesses, corporations and governments, for multiple purposes involving money, fact and/or opinion. No single group of aligned parties shall control the Internet, or the Internet shall be no longer valid.

Re:The Internet (4, Funny)

Tackhead (54550) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893007)

> The internet is a collection of ideas, presented to users in a vast array of increasingly easier to use methods, by a plethora of individuals, groups, small businesses, corporations and governments, for multiple purposes involving money, fact and/or opinion. No single group of aligned parties shall control the Internet, or the Internet shall be no longer valid.

Usenet was not the Internet, but back when it was most of what the Internet was used for, Gene Spafford said the same thing, albeit somewhat more whimsically:

"Usenet is like a herd of performing elephants with diarrhea -- massive, difficult to redirect, awe-inspiring, entertaining, and a source of mind-boggling amounts of excrement when you least expect it."
- Gene Spafford, 1992

The Internet is a model train set (5, Interesting)

sserendipity (696118) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893047)

This is how I describe it to people.

There are a bunch of computers - big and small, like the one on your desk and big ones that live in big rooms full of other computers. In between them is a lot of fiber optic cable. And organizing all the fiber optic cable is a set of junctions, like you would have in a model train set, only functioning at a bazillion miles an hour.

Each little bit of data that you ask for, and the request itself, is like a little train, going down a track. It keeps hitting these junctions that read where it is going and shunt it onto the right cable to get there. When it gets there, in all likelihood the computer at that end sends something back, which travels the same way.

Re:The Internet is a model train set (1)

aichpvee (631243) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893177)

What's a shunt?

Re:The Internet is a model train set (1)

sserendipity (696118) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893235)

The internet provides [] .

Re:The Internet (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893129) for porn!

Al Gore's (0, Troll)

inKubus (199753) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893347)

What about:

"A network of computer networks invented by Al Gore."

Best one short sentence description? (4, Insightful)

Threni (635302) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892923)

How about "bunch of computers connected using phone lines"?

Re:Best one short sentence description? (1)

Captain Splendid (673276) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893137)

Heh, I was thinking about something similar, but chickened out.

Re:Best one short sentence description? (1)

Hennell (1005107) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893161)

Whilst that describes the physicality of the internet it doesn't do so well making people understand how there are things on the internet.
I often find the word lethologica on the tip of my tounge...

Re:Best one short sentence description? (1)

DeadChobi (740395) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893267)

Howabout a series of electronic devices connected in such a manner as to facilitate the sharing of data.

It includes cell phones, and doesn't mention any specifics. Any definition that mentions the physical medium across which the data is carried does not define the internet, since it doesn't include the venerable IP over Carrier Pidgeon spec, or the IP over Smoke Signal, or Sneakernet, or any of the other ways that data can be exchanged between computers that doesn't involve electrical wiring. Yes, the Internet is currently constructed with wiring but that definition becomes archaic when we switch to fiber optics or wireless.

Re:Best one short sentence description? (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893317)

Actually, to anyone with a shared connection (office, campus, etc) this wouldn't sound right. In fact, I would argue that from a mere mortal's perspective the participating computers are not actually part of the Internet. I would submit that it's more accurate to say:

"It's the phone system for computers. It allows your computer to contact other computers and exchange information, just like you do with your home phone. And as with your phone, there's lots of physical ways to make that work (cells phones, old black rotary phones, big office phone exchanges with hundreds of handsets, and so on. To important thing is the information that flows, and that the actually connection part has been automated so you don't have to worry about how it works, you can focus on the communication part of what you're trying to do..."

            - peterd (not signed in)

Series of tubes (3, Insightful)

biocute (936687) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892927)

Maybe just call it "series of tubes"? Stevens is pretty layman, so I wouldn't be surprised most people can understand better with description like that.

We used to call aeroplanes "big metal birds" and people instantly associate it with "big flying things" in a physical sense. Later on, aeroplane becomes a common term and no more layman terms are needed.

So in the future the term "internet" would be enough for everyone, but right now, "series of tubes" pretty much describes its physical structure.

Re:Series of tubes (5, Insightful)

Grishnakh (216268) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893237)

We're already at that point, unless you happen to live in an African tribe or similar. 10 or 15 years ago, this "what do we say to laymen?" question may have had some relevance, but now it does not. Everyone I know either uses the internet, or at least knows what it is, and this isn't just geeks or nerds, it's 75-year-old retired people, disabled people, and assorted other totally non-technical people. In developed countries, especially those speaking English (since we are discussing an English definition after all), there's almost no one left who doesn't know by now what the internet is.

It's true, these people may not understand exactly what it is on a low level, like what backbones are, what companies own them, what TCP/IP is, etc., but just like with airplanes, they know the important stuff: that it's a "network" connected to their computer that they can use to access email, websites, and other services. These nontechnical people use the internet every day for reading their email, buying stuff on, checking out their favorite discussion forums, etc. They don't need a definition for the "internet". They already know what it is. That some stupid politician doesn't know, or feels some need to create a definition, is utterly pathetic.

Series of tubes is a good metaphor (5, Insightful)

alienmole (15522) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893303)

I know people joke about the series of tubes thing, but it seems to me that was the least wrong part of Stevens' totally confused statement [] .

Politics aside, I don't really see the technical problem with comparing the Internet to a series of tubes. Tubes have a predictable bandwidth, i.e. you can only pump a certain amount of liquid or gas through them in a given time; and they have predictable latency, i.e. you push something in one end, it takes some time to come out the other end. So far, a lot like a network connection.

What the "series of tubes" doesn't capture is the packetized nature of the internet, or the complexities of routing, and other such details. However, at the abstraction level at which Stevens was talking, I'm not sure any of that matters. If you're talking about things like "clogging up the Internet", it's true that that can happen, for the same reasons that tubes can get clogged: if you try to put too much stuff in, at too many entry points, your backbone tubes are going to become a bottleneck. So the metaphor holds up in this case, and predicts behavior that you can see on actual networks.

The fact that the email problem Stevens was describing had nothing to do with Internet congestion is a separate issue, which doesn't actually detract from "series of tubes" as a metaphor for the Internet at a certain level of abstraction.

I'd love to hear reasons why I'm wrong. Other than "Ignore the facts, we must excoriate politicians who are against network neutrality!" Ridiculing a perfectly good metaphor just because you don't agree with the guy using it is not the way to sensible public policy, although I admit it does seem to be how politics is often conducted.

the internet in a nutshell (5, Insightful)

Rudisaurus (675580) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892935)

It's pretty much a telephone system, except that it's computers calling other computers. Most people have a basic understanding of the workings -- if not the mechanics -- of a phone system.

Porn Central (2, Funny)

Timesprout (579035) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892943)

Succinct enough for you?

The internet (0, Redundant)

Anne_Nonymous (313852) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892945)

Porn and spam occasionally interspersed with content.

If you don't understand what the internet is bynow (-1, Troll)

CrazyJim1 (809850) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892947)

You don't belong anywhere near a computer.

Re:If you don't understand what the internet is by (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893037)

That is exactly the sort of naive, elitist, holier-than-thou attitude I would expect from someone with "God spoke to me." and a link to a religious website in their sig.

Re:If you don't understand what the internet is by (1)

Blakey Rat (99501) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893153)

Don't taunt CrazyJim1. He invented every video game ever made before they were even made! He also invented a comic book where a guy has two katanas with rockets in the hilt. He holds a record for most wins in Starcraft also! (I know because it's on his resume.) You don't want to mess with CrazyJim1, man.

A global network of computers (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18892953)

Possibly a solar network of computers.

Can't do better than this: (0, Redundant)

Mr_Icon (124425) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892963)

"The Internet is a series of boobs."

It's Tubes, Quite ALright (1)

osewa77 (603622) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892965)

I have no problem with the "series of tubes" definition. It's pretty accurate. Tubes are fixed in capacity, as are most Internet links. However, there is only one Internet. ;-)

Ted Stevens was way off (5, Funny)

Mr2001 (90979) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892981)

It's not a "series of tubes". God, what a stupid definition.

It's an array of pipes!

Re:Ted Stevens was way off (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893067)

I disagree. It's obviously an ensemble of ducts.

What's so wrong with Tubes? (1)

TheSkyIsPurple (901118) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892989)

What's really all that wrong about tubes as a layman's descriptor? Like any metaphor it can be taken too far, but the metaphor itself is not bad.

It's like if you were describing a car... aw never mind ;-)

Re:What's so wrong with Tubes? (1)

ResidntGeek (772730) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893283)

The problem is that he not only took it too far in explaining bandwidth shortage, but invented it specifically to justify that bandwidth shortage, which it so miserably failed to do. The "series of tubes" metaphor says that bandwidth is inherently limited by the tubes, which are for the most part difficult to replace, when in reality it's limited by the machines connected by the tubes, which even a layman understands can be replaced without digging up cables all around the world.

Millions of computers hooked together (1)

h2oliu (38090) | more than 7 years ago | (#18892991)

Not entirely accurate, as you then have to define computers, but as close as I can come.

Re:Millions of computers hooked together (1)

Mr2cents (323101) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893373)

Or better: lots of networks hooked together. That's why it's called internet.

To me, the most important things to know are:

1) on the internet every computer has a unique ip adres.

2) data is sent to other computers by means of routing. For an ordinary computer, that means looking at the destination addres to determine if it is on the local network. If so, it sends it directly to that computer, if not it sends it to the router. Routers connect different networks, and when a message arrives, it retransmits it on another network that is closer to the destination.

That's very simplified, of course, but it's a start.

The Internet is... (5, Informative)

Jimmy_B (129296) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893003)

The Internet is a bunch of electronics which let any connected computer communicate with any other connected computer. It is useful because many of those computers provide information and services on request.

That's it. The Internet is not wires, fiber-optic cables, http, TCP/IP, or anything like that, because those are technical details which have changed in the past and may change in the future.

Re:The Internet is... (4, Insightful)

Chris Burke (6130) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893255)

That's a really good definition. You are right that the key observation is that the technological means by which all of the computers are connected and the protocols they use are not important.

However since we are defining The Internet and not merely any computer network (to which your definition would apply), you should mention that this is a globally connected public system.

Since I don't have mod points (and you don't need) (1)

msimm (580077) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893259)

I just figured I chime in agreement. Tubes is simple and pretty convoluted. The description you've provided is succinct and provides enough building-block that a reasonable person could infer a number of complex uses based on this understanding. What am I supposed to do with pipes? (:

Re:The Internet is... (1)

bogjobber (880402) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893343)

Actually, the electronics part is also a technical detail which has changed slightly, and may change more in the future as well. Also, the definition you gave is just a definition of a network. It's not unique to "the Internet."

Tubes are fine (5, Insightful)

rta (559125) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893009)

I thougth the "tubes" analogy was fine, myself. I don't know why people got on his case about it.
Usually when i try to describe the internet I liken it to the mail system. You have "envelopes" that are addressed to someplace. Then they get picked up by someone, thrown on a truck, routed etc. It's basically the same thing that happens with packets as they get routed.

As far as the WWW goes, that's a different and distinct thing that's built on top of the Internet. I don't think it's really that hard to explain. It's just like a library or newspaper basically.

If you want to get into the finer social implications.. then that's another story, but the basics, I think, are easily understood in terms of familiar concepts.

Re:Tubes are fine (1)

akb (39826) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893399)

I agree. Networking people often refer to "pipes", so I have no problem with "tubes" and never really got why people made such a big deal about that part of his comments. The other parts of his comments are *much* more ridiculous ("an Internet was sent by my staff at 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday, I got it yesterday"), let alone his position on the net neutrality issue and, more generally, that he is a bought and paid for shill.

It's a big truck (1)

Aqua OS X (458522) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893013)

The internet is a big truck.

Re:It's a big truck (1)

Entropius (188861) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893229)

So it's something you just dump something on?

Re:It's a big truck (1)

aichpvee (631243) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893233)

Is it a monster truck or like a triple trailer semi? Oooh I hope it's a firetruck!

no simple definition (1)

G27 Radio (78394) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893019)

I could say: The Internet is a network of computers linked together. Different pieces are owned by different companies and individuals. There is no central authority that controls the Internet. However the computers, services, and network connections that make up the Internet can be controlled by the owners of the parts.

Of course, that only describes one aspect. There are many aspects, so your layman's description should change with context.

oblig simpsons (2, Funny)

Loconut1389 (455297) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893021)

"Series of tubes" is a perfectly cromulent expression.

Re:oblig simpsons (1)

crimson30 (172250) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893195)

"Series of tubes"

Whoa, whoa -- slow down, egghead!

How's this for simple? (1)

Grandmaster Mort (731817) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893023)

The Internet is a collection of network computers that are assigned a valid public IP (Internet Protocol) address. That pretty much sums it up, doesn't it? :-P

The Internet (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893025)

I find that this [] website does a sufficient job of explaining to the less technically minded what the internet is and is all about.

The definition I've always used: (1)

jd (1658) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893045)

A federation of computer networks that discriminates only by the ability to exchange information with something in that federation.

(It's not about protocols. If you wired up a network using X.25 or DECNet, fired up some obscure machine, loaded up an information server on it, then provided a gateway to regular TCP/IP and a proxy to HTTP, that machine would be as much "on the internet" as any other. Any definition has to allow for non-standard connections, or it's not a complete definition of the Internet that people use.)

The Internet for Dummies (1)

twolfe (235277) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893051)

Just ask any ISP sales weasle to explain it to (insert non-clued layman here), they are used to dumbing it down for clueless business decision makers at companies worldwide. Sure, half the crap coming out of it's mouth will be wrong, but it will be layman enough for most non-technical folks to at least grasp the concept...

Nobody does dumb like a dummy...

Simple English Wiki (3, Insightful)

daeg (828071) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893055)

The Simple English Wikipedia edition has a decent definition, although it throws in packet switching and "IP" in the definition ( [] ):

The Internet is a worldwide network of interconnected computer networks that transmit data by packet switching using the standard Internet Protocol (IP). It is a "network of networks" that consists of millions of smaller domestic, academic, business, and government networks, which together carry various information and services, such as electronic mail, online chat, file transfer, and the interlinked Web pages and other documents of the World Wide Web.

So when you come up with a good definition, please contribute and edit the Simple English page.

Easy (1)

TodMinuit (1026042) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893059)

A bunch of wires connected to a bunch of other wires.

Pipes okay, but not tubes? (1)

PizzaFace (593587) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893061)

I think Senator Stevens got a bad rap for that one. Techies often talk about "fat pipes" when they mean fast network connections, and evidently the image stuck in Stevens' head. I'd give him the benefit of assuming he was speaking metaphorically, since he must know that there's no actual tube connected to his computer.

Re:Pipes okay, but not tubes? (4, Interesting)

coug_ (63333) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893285)

I'm no a fan of Stephens particularly, but he definitely got a bad rap for this one. The full quote is actually very well thought out and intelligent sounding, even if it is using layman's terms.

"They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the Internet. And again, the Internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a big truck. It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

I think Senator Stevens got a bad rap for that one. Techies often talk about "fat pipes" when they mean fast network connections, and evidently the image stuck in Stevens' head. I'd give him the benefit of assuming he was speaking metaphorically, since he must know that there's no actual tube connected to his computer.

Re:Pipes okay, but not tubes? (1)

esconsult1 (203878) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893341)

Yeah, but he all lost us all when he mentioned trucks.

best definition I've heard... (4, Funny)

Floritard (1058660) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893073)

The Internet is a communication tool used the world over where people can come together to bitch about movies and share pornography with one another.
- Ben Affleck - Dogma (1999)

A series of... (1)

spiritraveller (641174) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893077)

Wires connecting a lot of computers.

Communication occurs over various "ports," which are similar in concept to frequencies in the radio world.

With any "layman's definition," you have to make analogies to things that the layman already understands. Otherwise, you would have to go into great technical detail. Sen. Stevens problem was that he simply repeated someone else's analogy (a telco/cableco lobbyist's for certain) but he does not understand it himself.

The analogy he used was not appropriate for explaining the internet, but it was appropriate for advocating a legislative position. By simply repeating it as if it were a scientific lesson, he made himself look like a buffoon.

Best definition (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893079)

A series of '0's and '1's with the occasional '2'

Highway. (1)

Mr. Flibble (12943) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893083)

Taking a queue from the tired phrase "information superhighway" I have always tried to describe the internet as a series of roads to people. Granted the analogy is not perfect, but it has enough things to get close:

Bandwidth - how many lanes the road supports, the wider the number of lanes, the more traffic it can support (I also illustrate transportation types - motorcycles are fast but carry little, trucks carry lots and are slow etc.)

latency - the speed limit on that section of road

Ports/firewall ports: toll booths with only specific lanes open.

Hub: a 4 way stop.
Switch: a 4 way intersection with traffic lights.
Router: A cloverleaf overpass - often with police (police being firewall policies).

I can use the above examples with the appropriate word "traffic" and explain how network segments are slow or faster than others. Describing the methods of connecting to the network such as a 56k modem being a pot hole filled dirt road, comparing cable internet to an express way etc.

Again, not perfect, but it gets enough of the ideas across for people to make some sense of it.

Communication System that Survives a Nuclear War (1)

c0d3r (156687) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893089)

Internet - A Communication System that can Survive a Nuclear War.

Tubes! (1)

ZDRuX (1010435) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893093)

Hmm.. I always though Ted Steven's explanation was quite adequite, nobody else here seems to agree with me though, tough times!

Ill tell you what Sen.Stevens was trying to get at (1)

unity100 (970058) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893095)

he was trying to get at finding a way for enabling big corps who are naturally affiliated with "the good ol boys" club that runs the senate, capitol hill and administration to be able to control internet.

and his definition of internet in fact was "something we ol' boys definitely need to put a leash on and control that this freedom of information thing wont go far and hurt our 'business'"

the reason that his actual definition and what he said about the tubes seeming sooo different when you would actually hear them was his motive about "i (actually one of his aides) need to put up a definition that will further our bidding and sufficiently silly that 'stupid' (this is what ol' boys think about ya rednecks out there) people will be fooled by it and side by us".

this is what it was all about.

A roadmap for clouds (1)

smellsofbikes (890263) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893097)

Multidimensional, between entities that appear, disappear, and change location without notice, where the links between the clouds are mostly fictional because they might go through a wholly different cloud, but it could be useful to consider them connected. And, most of all, uncontrollable and largely imaginary: most of the patterns reflect the mind of the observer, not reality.

what's wrong with tubes huh? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893103)

virtual (and often physical) 'tubes' that data goes down - never had a problem with this personally. If we call them pipes does that sound better?

Definition of the Internet (1)

Kaizyn (174682) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893117)

That's easy, the Internet is an information superhighway!

The Internet is Not Succinct (1)

mfh (56) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893123)

So why should the definition of it be so unparalleled?

Imagine a giant radish (5, Funny)

Blakey Rat (99501) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893125)

Imagine a giant radish, like a planet sized radish. Now imagine that there's a bunny hopping to the radish, and it takes a bite out of it. But the bunny spits out that bite and kind of smears it back in place on the radish with a paw. Then it rains.

That's the internet.

It's not something you just pump something through (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893145)

It's... it's not a big tube.

It's a serious of trucks.

Oh, oh I know... (1)

Eric Damron (553630) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893147)

An electronic system designed by scientists to allow the world wide free exchange of information for the benefit of all mankind. Later to be subverted and controlled by corporate interests for the benefit of the wealthy.

Depends on the context (5, Insightful)

deblau (68023) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893149)

Physical: The Internet is a collection of computers that send each other messages, along with the equipment that carries the messages. Social: The Internet is a virtual community where people can get together, do business, and share ideas and culture. Functional: The Internet is a way you can use computers to send family, friends, and co-workers letters, pictures, and movies. Technical: The Internet is a collection of computers following protocols conforming to the OSI model that enable computers to communicate with each other. ...

Deconstruction (1)

carpeweb (949895) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893157)

Didn't the term "internet" come from Inter-Network or Interconnected Network or something similar?

I'm sorry; is "network" too technical for layperson comprehension? The word itself is not technical, even if the subject of computer networks is ...

I don't think it was the word "tubes" that got "Interwebs Ted" into trouble. I've heard a lot of technical folks over the years describe bandwidth in terms like "pipes" to make an analogy with water flow. So, "tubes" is not so far off the mark. But, a network is not a series. That's not a technical distinction, and the context is what shows that Stevens is an idiot.

If the problem is the word "network", then maybe I don't understand the term "layperson", and I'm actually the one in trouble here ...

ObQuote (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893171)

Because it has to be said:

But what *IS* the internet?

It's the largest equivalence class in the reflexive transitive symmetric closure of the relationship "can be reached by an IP packet from".
--Seth Breidbart

Network of Networks? (1)

QuantumRiff (120817) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893179)

I used to hear that expression all the time, never do anymore

Really simple... (1)

forkazoo (138186) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893183)

I will assume that the person understands what a computer is. If not, you will need to explain that, which is not included in this explanation.

A network is when a bunch of computers talk to each other. Like, when you have a bunch of computers in a computer lab classroom, and they are all plugged into each other so that you can work on a file on any of the computers.

An internet is when you gang together a couple of networks so they talk to each other.

The Internet is what you get when all the networks talk to each other.

The particulars are largely unimportant, frankly. A basic definition doesn't need to go into the particulars of routing or TCP/IP or the difference between host and network byte order. It doesn't matter that some networks use ethernet and others use wireless and some used to use token ring. Just explain what a network is. Just a regular old LAN. Then, explain that you can get networks to talk to each other just like you can get computers to talk to each other, and that is an internet.

Now, once you have the technical definition out of the way, you get to, "why gang a bunch of networks together?" Well, that's because it seemed like a good idea at the time.

What is the mat... I mean Internet.? (1)

The13thSin (1092867) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893193)

Internet is a gateway to information. A way to exchange ideas... all by typing and clicking on your computer. It's a way to communicate with people all around the world, to read different views on any subject you might be interested in... That, and porn & spam... but I'd keep the latter out, or else you might have to explain that as well...

It's a cloud, and other little cartoony things. (4, Funny)

ScentCone (795499) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893205)

Most of the internet is a fluffy cloud, with little lightning bolts connecting it to little brick walls with holes through them, behind which are lots of little white boxes with numbers. The rest of the internet is a series of PowerPoint slides labled "ROI" and "incredible growth" and "first mover."

World Wide Web (1)

Uruviel (772554) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893231)

In both the physical and conceptual sense it's a mesh(/web). Physically it interconnects computers via wires in a web. Conceptually it connects ideas and information by use of hyperlinks(links for short) in a mesh. Both the conceptual and physical network are open, everyone can post ideas and links to ideas furthermore everyone can add computers to the web. It is interesting to note that the conceptual and physical internet are two separate things. There is no law binding the ideas in the internet (stored in, for example, html documents) to specific computers in the mesh. Nor is there a law stating that specific machines in the web should contain specific information. In a way the conceptual internet is distributed over the physical network the same way the pictures in a photo album are independent from the album itself.

Webster is fine (3, Informative)

John.P.Jones (601028) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893245)

Internet (noun): an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities around the world.

I think this is a servicable, sucinct, definition. Of course, I would have split it in two as follows...

Internet (proper noun): the global internetwork based on the Internet Protocol.
internetwork (noun): an electronic communications network that connects computer networks and organizational computer facilities.

but I'm a bit pedantic.

It's a tough thing to describe because... (1)

Rimbo (139781) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893249)

...there really hasn't ever been anything like it before.

Al Gore's "Information Superhighway" is a lot closer than the "series of tubes," although it's more like the transportation system of the entire world.

Internet [n.] (1)

FlyingSquidStudios (1031284) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893263)

A pornographic media delivery system with occasional alternative uses.

I think... (0, Troll)

Viceroy Potatohead (954845) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893271)

...that the Internet is a delivery system for eco-friendly porn (by lowering our consumption of glossy paper). That's why Al Gore invented it, right? To save the environment?

The Internet... (1)

DragonWriter (970822) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893277)

The Internet is like the emptiness of a vessel; and in our
employment of it we must be on our guard against all fullness. How
deep and unfathomable it is, as if it were the Honoured Ancestor of
all things! ...

Then again, I may be confusing it with the Tao.

You're all wrong (1)

AbsoluteXyro (1048620) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893289)

It was software; in cyberspace. There was no system core; it could not be shutdown. The attack began at 6:18 PM, just as he said it would...

What a stupid (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893291)

What a stupid fucking slashdot article.

Tubes. (1)

iMySti (863056) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893295)

I was getting fond of the tubes description.

here goes (1)

akb (39826) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893297)

The Internet is a global collection of interconnected, independently operated data networks. Computers connected to different networks on the Internet communicate with each other through the use of Internet Protocol, which defines a common address space, and with the aid of the independent network operators agreeing to exchange their communications.

Definition by analogy (1)

Ayanami_Rei_II (521400) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893305)

Computers are to the Internet as people are to society.

Ah, that's an easy one. (4, Insightful)

Onan (25162) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893307)

A friend of mine managed to cover this in four words over a decade ago:

"Many computers--all friends."

When in doubt, ask the inventor... (5, Funny)

Vexler (127353) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893319)

... but you may find it an inconvenient truth.

My personal playground (1)

amyhughes (569088) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893327)

It's my personal playground. Now get the hell off my lawn.

Easy (1)

buss_error (142273) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893345)

The internet is a cooperating network of networks.

The several networks cooperate by using a defined standard of communication "rules", called "RFCs", by providing selected services such as web servers, email servers, DNS systems, and other systems to the general public, and some provide more services to their customers/users.

There's the 10,000 foot over view.

Picture the internet (1)

Strange Ranger (454494) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893349)

Analogies are like fire, wonderfully useful but with a lot of potential for danger.
(meta usage intended) With that in mind...

Picture the internet as a vast ever changing network of many many spiderwebs all interwoven together. These spiderwebs were spun in many shapes and sizes and thicknesses by many different kinds of spiders who decided to cooperate. But, instead of catching bugs with this giant ever-evolving spiderweb, the spiders pass data through its strands to each other. Accordingly, scattered everywhere throughout this megaweb are devices that tap into the strands and pull out the data and in some way make the data useful to the spiders. More and more spiders are now carrying small portable devices that can tap into the web strands wherever they go on this giant heterogeneous megaweb. The data could be a catalog of things for sale, it could be data that is reassembled into voices for talking, or it could be pictures of the spiders doing gross things in their bathrooms. Picture some of these interconnected webs being electronic in nature like telephone lines, some are fiber-optic, and some you can't see at all, they're just made of radio waves. Now you have a basic understanding of the internet.

Elementary - check, layperson - check, succinct - hmmmm... I'm sure somebody could shorten it and not lose much.

Internet is Information (1)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893357)

The Internet is a forum, the media and the message, it is a library and a circus, it is news and entertainment, it is games and pirates and all kinds of information and software communicating.

The Internet is people and programs sending and receiving information to each other via computers and networks.

I don't see how you need to say anything more than that to laypeople of the kind that you describe, whose eyes glaze over when talking about technical details. Do not talk about how the internet works, just say what it is.

Oldie but goodie (1)

Enry (630) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893359)

Fortunately I haven't had to describe the Internet to anyone in a long long time.

Information superhighway (or just comparing to the US road system) is pretty good:

You start with the major highways, which get progressively smaller and smaller as you get to state then town roads, then someone's house (their PC). Different kinds of traffic can flow on those roads at the same time - trucks, cars, minivans, etc. Some areas you can't easily get into or are limited (gated communities, private property, etc.).

The Internet does *not* interconnect computers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893371)

The Internet, strictly speaking, is a network of LANs. Just because your LAN is a CIDR/32 don't let that confuse you.

Bus Station Newstand (1)

microcars (708223) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893377)

its like a big Newstand.

a really really big one. With Vending Machines.

And it is in the middle of a Bus Station.

it's kinda like Mos Eisley (1)

BigBadPete (241096) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893385)

You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

A collection (1)

llZENll (545605) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893397)

A collection of devices to allow communication in many forms such as text, sound, and video.

The Internet is like Air... (1)

craznar (710808) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893401)

... but with holes in it.

Yell - and everyone hears you, but they soon ignore you

Whisper - and a few people hear you.

Governments would like to control it - but can't.

And best of all - when you fart in an elevator you can blame it on other people.

Internet (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18893411)

Internet: A worldwide network of computers and people.

Here's my attempt: (1)

roamingapril (991481) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893417)

The internet is a world-wide network of computers, all connected together. Some computers on the internet (called "servers") send webpages, video, and other data to computers on the internet that have requested the data.

I think you're missing the point (1)

mo (2873) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893419)

Perhaps the phrase "a series of tubes" is mostly accurate, but it's not the reason people laughed, it's just a good summary.
Go listen to Stephens' speech [] again.
It's clear he's (badly) regurgitating some laymens terms that have been fed to him by god-knows what lobbyist.
Furthermore, this isn't my grandpa we're talking about, this is one of the most powerful people in the country responsible for legislation governing the internet.
The "series of tubes" phrase might be a reasonable thing you'd say to your grandpa to describe the internet. However, if he then positioned himself as an authority on the internet in front of the country's leaders, that would be funny.

infrastructure for transmission of information (1)

B0bReader (1019846) | more than 7 years ago | (#18893427)

The internet a world-wide infrastructure through which various kinds computers of can send and receive information.
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