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Using the Internet
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Internet Primer:
The Least You Need to Know about Computers,
the World Wide Web, and Netiquette


Internet/World Wide Web


Electronic Mail (E-mail)


Most colleges and universities have computers available to students in labs or in the library. These are often connected to the Internet, and there is probably a knowledgeable person nearby to help you log on and answer any questions. If you want to set up your own personal computer system with Internet access, you'll need the following equipment:

  • a computer
  • a dial-up or cable modem
  • a telephone or cable line
  • an Internet Service Provider (ISP)

As of this writing, there are essentially three different types of Internet connections available: dial-up (slow), digital subscriber line (DSL) (medium), and cable (fast). DSL and cable connections are often referred to as broadband connections. Generally speaking, faster connections are more expensive. For information on choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP), enter “ISP” into your favorite search engine, and visit one of the many Web sites devoted to helping consumers find a national ISP or one in their local area.


More and more students these days are choosing to purchase their own personal computer. There are many considerations to keep in mind when buying a computer; cost is certainly a big one for most students. You'll need to decide how important different features are for you and your needs. Several factors you may want to consider are explained below.

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

The central processing unit (CPU) or “processor chip” is the brain of the computer, and its speed determines how fast the computer can process information. The two most important features to notice about the CPU are the type of processor, such as the Intel Core 2 Duo® or AMD Athlon® processor, and its clock speed (also known as clock rate). The clock speed is a measure of how fast the processor executes instructions. It is measured in megahertz (MHz) or gigahertz (GHz). A computer listed with a "2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo® processor" indicates that the processor is running at a speed of 2.4GHz. The CPU type and clock rate determine, in large part, both the speed and the cost of a computer. Increasingly computer chip (CPU) manufacturers are referring to their processors by various names and model numbers which may or may not be directly related to the actual speed of their processors. In this case the most reliable rule of thumb is that the power and speed of the processor are almost always directly proportional to the price. In other words, the faster the processor, the more expensive the machine.

Random Access Memory (RAM)

Random access memory (RAM) functions as a computer's short-term memory, or working storage space. RAM is measured in gigabytes (GB, billions of bytes) or megabytes (MB, millions of bytes) for older computers. It is almost always expandable. Today’s software often requires quite a bit of RAM to operate, especially if you want to multi-task, i.e. use more than one software application at a time, or if you plan to use video or audio. An "insufficient memory" message or sluggish computer response might mean your computer is running out of RAM, and you'll need to close some applications to continue. The amount of RAM available on new computers is constantly increasing. Most models sold at this time have at least 2 GB (low-cost desktop) or 1.5 GB (low-cost laptop), and many basic systems have considerably more. Base models of higher-end personal computers today often have four or more gigabytes of RAM. If you are thinking of buying an older used computer, consider upgrading its RAM to expand its capabilities. When doing so, be careful to have the correct type of RAM installed for your system. You can determine the type of RAM you need by visiting your computer manufacturer’s support Web site or by calling the manufacturer's customer support line. Software is constantly becoming more and more "RAM hungry." When buying a new computer, ask about its maximum RAM capacity so that you will know your upgrade options from the start.

Hard Disk Drive

The permanent long-term storage area on a computer is the hard disk drive. This is where most of your software applications and documents reside. The capacity of modern hard drives is measured in gigabytes (GB, billions of bytes) or terabytes (TB, trillions of bytes). Software and data files take up enormous space on hard drives, and if you plan to work with video or sound files, you will need an especially large hard disk. You can conserve hard disk space by storing some files on recordable CDs, DVDs, or by compressing files, but many people find this inconvenient. If you are buying a new computer, you need at least 80 GB of hard disk storage space, and many basic systems have 250 GB or more.

Whether your hard drive is large or small, one thing is certain: it will eventually fail. When it malfunctions, you may lose files unless you have them backed-up (copied to an alternate location such as a second external drive or other media). One good way to back-up files is to copy them to a recordable CD-ROM or DVD-ROM. If you use this back-up method, make sure you protect these back-up disks well because recordable media can be easily scratched and ruined.

Floppy, CD-ROM, and DVD-ROM Drives

Years ago computers were routinely sold with a floppy drive compatible with 3 1/2 inch diskettes. Each disk had a capacity of 1.44 MB. Especially with the advent of multimedia (graphics, video, and sound files), floppy drives quickly became obsolete and were ultimately replaced by CD-ROM and DVD-ROM recordable drives. A CD-ROM recordable drive allows you to access and store or “burn” data on recordable CD-ROMs, which can store data equivalent to 480 3 1/2 inch floppy diskettes. As of this writing, CD-ROM recordable drives have been replaced for the most part by higher capacity DVD-ROM recordable drives. Using similar technology, these removable storage devices allow you to record from 4.7 GB to 17 GB of data onto one DVD recordable disk. This is the data equivalent of nearly 25 CD-ROMs or more than 12,000 floppy diskettes. DVD-ROM drives are compatible with older CD-ROM technology, but CD-ROM drives cannot recognize, play, or record DVD-ROM disks. When buying a new computer, check to make sure the system is equipped with a DVD-ROM recordable drive (also known as a DVD-ROM "burner") or at the very least a DVD drive that will also record CD-ROMs (called a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive).


A modem is a piece of equipment that changes the information that a computer works with into the kind of information that can be transmitted through traditional telephone lines (dial-up modem), digital subscriber lines (DSL modem) (derived by your Internet Service Provider from the telephone line) or television cable (cable modem). A modem allows your computer to communicate with other computers around the world. It can be an external box or an internal card. Most new computers now come with built-in dial-up modems, but generally DSL and cable modems are external boxes supplied by your Internet Service Provider. Increasingly, you may choose to connect to the Internet wirelessly using Wi-Fi technology (short for wireless fidelity). To connect to a wireless signal, you must have a wireless adapter in your computer.

Modems come in different speeds and use different technologies to establish a connection. The speed of a modem determines how quickly you can download or access information from the Internet. The slowest (and least expensive) connection uses a dial-up modem connected to a standard telephone line. Dial-up connection speeds rarely achieve more than 45-50 K. Broadband (high speed) modem connections are much faster, but they are also more expensive. As of this writing, there are basically two types of high speed modems: Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) and cable. DSL modems typically have a maximum speed of 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) downstream (receiving data) and 640-768 kilobytes per second (Kbps) upstream (sending data). DSL modems can usually use the same telephone line that dial-up modems use, but the wire itself may first need to be replaced by your Internet Service Provider. Cable modems offer a faster connection with a current maximum transfer rate of approximately 38 Mbps (though actual connection rates tend to be 3-5 Mbps downstream). Like DSL modems, cable modems are usually supplied and installed by your Internet Service Provider. If you live on campus, check to see if your dorm room is outfitted with an Ethernet or local area network (LAN) connection, so you can plug directly into the university's network without having to use a modem. Depending on your school's network, you may also be able to connect from home using your own Internet connection.

Connecting to the Internet

Most colleges and universities provide Internet access to their students and faculty at an attractive cost (or free), and if you have access to this, you should probably take advantage of this. If you need to connect a computer to the Internet on your own, you must go through an Internet Service Provider (ISP). ISPs are companies that run the computers (servers) that enable you (the client) to get onto the Net. It works like this: when you log on to your computer (or the Net if using a dial-up modem), your computer contacts your ISP. When your modem connects to the ISP, it actually connects to their computer (called the server). The best known ISPs are national ones like America Online, Road Runner, EarthLink, and Verizon. But there are many smaller ISPs as well.

There are a few considerations to keep in mind when choosing an ISP:

  • Cost-The most significant factor determining the cost of your connection will be speed. Lower fees are charged for slower connections. Dial-up services are the slowest and least expensive, cable connections are the fastest and most expensive, and DSL connections are usually somewhere in between. Most ISPs charge a flat fee for unlimited Internet time each month, but some may charge you for each minute you are online. If you plan to access large files and multimedia enhanced Web pages frequently, you should obtain a broadband connection (cable or DSL). Shop around to find an ISP that offers an affordable rate plan that accommodates the way in which you plan to use the Internet.
  • Traffic-Some larger, national dial-up ISPs get a lot of traffic, and it can be difficult to get online. Find out the "dial up" number (the number your modem calls to link up) of an ISP, and call it at different times during the day to see if it's busy. Also, make sure you are using a telephone number that does not incur additional long distance charges from the phone company.
  • Technology-When considering broadband options, be careful with DSL technology. If you use DSL, the speed and reliability of your connection will depend on the amount of noise on your phone line and the physical distance you are from the telephone company’s switching station. Depending on this distance and the background noise level of your telephone line, you may have trouble achieving broadband connection speeds. In fact roughly half of initial DSL customers cannot connect at all and are forced to choose another connection type. Though more expensive, cable connections are more reliable and are typically three times faster than DSL connections.
  • Service-Some ISPs are courteous and prompt in answering customer questions and complaints; others are less so. Ask your friends and acquaintances for recommendations of ISPs that have good service.

For more information on choosing an Internet Service Provider (ISP), enter “ISP” into your favorite search engine, and visit one of the many Web sites devoted to helping consumers find a national ISP or one in their local area.

Internet/World Wide Web (WWW)

First conceived in 1989, the World Wide Web has exploded into mainstream culture. For many people, the Internet has become synonymous with the Web; however, the WWW is actually only one part of the vaster Internet whose origins date back to 1962. The Web is a gold mine of information for students and faculty, and more is being added every day. Originally designed to contain pages comprised of text and graphics, many Web sites now feature animation, video, and sound. It also allows people to connect and exchange ideas in both public and private forums (including social networks).


To view information on the World Wide Web, you must have a computer program called a Web browser. Some of the more well-known and popular Web browsers are Firefox®, Microsoft Internet Explorer®, and Safari™. Most computers are sold with a Web browser pre-installed, but you may also get one from your ISP on disk, or download one from the Web itself. Once you are logged on to the Internet, you can simply launch your Web browser, and you are ready to surf the Net.

Web Addresses

The Web is made up of millions of Web sites (or Web pages). Each Web site has an address, known as the URL (Uniform Resource Locator). A typical URL looks like this: This is the address for the McGraw-Hill corporate Web site. To get to any Web site, all you have to do is type its URL into the address area of your Web browser and press Enter.

You can analyze a Web site’s address to figure out whom it belongs to and in some cases determine something about the nature of what they do or where they are:

  • "http" stands for HyperText Transport Protocol; it is the basic language of the Web. Secure Web pages begin with “https” instead. Generally these interactive pages are secure because they involve some sort of financial transaction or other confidential or proprietary information of the user.
  • Often you will see "www" which tells the server that you want to get your information from the World Wide Web. Sometimes “www” is not required.
  • The last two parts of the address are called the domain name and the domain suffix. The domain suffix (or top level domain) indicates the Web site’s category or the country from which the Web site originates. The McGraw-Hill example above contains the domain suffix ".com" (pronounced "dot-com"), which stands for "commercial." Other domains you will come across include: ".edu" = education, ".org" = organization, “.net” = network, and ".gov" = government. A few of the more frequently encountered country of origin suffixes are “.uk” (United Kingdom), “.ru” (Russian Federation), “.br” (Brazil), “.de” (Germany) and “.jp” (Japan). Some of the newer domain suffixes include .biz, .info, .travel, and .pro.
  • When you read the address for a Web site out loud, remember that every "." is pronounced "dot."

Surfing the Web

A key concept to understand in surfing the Web is "links." Links are highlighted words or images on a Web page that you can click on to go to other pages. Once you find a topic that interests you, it is easy to explore just by clicking on links. Some links connect you to another part of the same page or another page by the same organization; others take you to another site completely. The blue underlined phrases in this document you are reading are examples of links.

A person or organization's Web site usually consists of many pages. The first page you come to when you type in a URL is called the home page. This page usually contains a menu for the entire site and lets you know something about the site's creators and purpose. The home page contains links to other pages within that site, and often to other sites of interest. With most browsers you can go back to a previous link by clicking a button labeled "Back." You will not get "stuck" someplace you don't want to be, so don't be shy about exploring links.

Web sites can be developed by any person or organization on any topic. The amount of information available on the Web today is staggering and continues to grow. You can utilize the Web for general research, as an educational tool, as a shopping mall, to find a long lost friend, get a new job, or answer most any question you might have. You are limited only by your imagination.

Search Engines

Now that you have a basic idea of the workings of the WWW, how do you go about finding Web sites that may interest you? A good starting point is to use one of the popular directories on the Web called search engines. A search engine allows you to search the Web for keywords or phrases pertaining to the topic that you are interested in. Upon entering a specific word or words, the search engine then retrieves any Web pages that contain that word.

Some of the more comprehensive and more popular search engines are:

To use a search engine, type in one of the addresses listed above. When the home page for that site comes up you will notice a "search" box in which you can type a key word or phrase. The search engine will then return a list of links with descriptions that represents all the information it has available on your topic. Sometimes you will need to narrow your search by adding another keyword; for example, if you type psychology, hundreds of millions of site listings will be returned.  Besides adding keywords, another way to limit your search to a smaller number of pages or “hits” is to enclose the search phrase using quotation marks. On the other hand, if you are too specific, you may not have any sites returned as a result of your inquiry. This does not necessarily mean that no sites exist.

To learn more about conducting academic research, see the Catalyst Research Tutorial.


When you find a Web page you want to return to in the future, you can "bookmark" it. To bookmark a Web page, use your browser to go to that page. After it has finished loading, choose "Bookmark" or “Favorites” from your menu bar and add a bookmark (or favorite). Your browser will record the address to that site in your bookmarks or favorites folder. Anytime you want to return to that site, simply return to the Bookmarks (Favorites) menu and select the title of that Web page. Your Web browser may use different terminology or a slightly different method for bookmarking Web pages, but they all generally work the same way.

Tips for Using the World Wide Web

  • Be patient. Accessing Web sites can take time, depending on how elaborate the site is, how fast your modem can download the information, and what time of day you might be surfing. You can speed things up a bit by turning off the "auto load image" option in your browser.
  • Keep in mind that "hiccups" can occur in the transfer process. Sometimes the server of the Web site you are trying to reach may be down, there may be a lot of activity on that site, or there may be line noise. Just try again to load the Web site, or wait and try again later. Because the Web is so dynamic, sites and links change every day. You might find some links on Web pages that go nowhere because the link has moved their pages to a new server or address.
  • Remember that while the Web is a great source of information, not everything on it is true. It is up to you to evaluate the information you get from the Web. For more information see the CARS Web Source Evaluation Tutor which gives students techniques for evaluating data and examining relevant information in the research process.

File Transfer Protocol (FTP)

File transfer protocol (FTP) sites are file and software repositories from which you can download shareware software, images, text, sound, video, and anything else that can be transmitted via the Internet. You can access FTP sites from the Web the same way you would enter any URL (FTP addresses begin with ftp://). Most FTP sites support anonymous FTP, which means that anyone can log on to the site with the user name "anonymous," enter their own e-mail address as the password, then download whatever files interest them. If you download materials using FTP, be sure to scan them with antivirus software to be sure they are clean, or you could infect your hard drive with a nasty computer virus.

Mailing Lists

Mailing lists (or listservs) are electronic mailing discussion groups that take place through e-mail. They are groups of people who "get together" online to discuss a specific topic. For students, mailing lists offer a way to participate in lively discussions, stay up on current research, or find out answers to burning questions. There are mailing lists on nearly every topic imaginable. Here's how it works:

  • Through word of mouth, e-mail, or a Web search engine, you find out about a mailing list dealing with a subject you are interested in discussing with others (e.g., choosing your major). As of this writing, one of the most complete catalogs of public mailing lists is:
  • In order to get involved in a discussion group, you have to subscribe to it. To subscribe, you send an e-mail to that mailing list's listserv with the word "subscribe" in the subject line and in the main body of the text. Also include your e-mail address.
  • Usually, the listserv will then subscribe you to the list and send you instructions on how to post to the group. Posting means that you send out a message or comment to the entire mailing list that you have subscribed to.
  • Every time any member posts to the listserv, all the subscribers get that posting as an e-mail message in their mailbox.
  • Once you have subscribed, you will begin to receive e-mail messages from the mailing list. Be careful though, some discussion groups have a large following and you may find your mailbox filling up faster than you can read the messages.

Mailing lists are an older Internet technology that is frequently being replaced by Web-based forums and social networks.

Weblogs or Blogs

A Weblog, which is usually shortened to blog, is a type of Web site where entries are made (similar to a journal or diary), and displayed in reverse chronological order. Blogs often provide commentary or news on a particular subject, such as food, politics, or local news; some function as more personal online diaries. A typical blog combines text, images, and links to other blogs, Web pages, and other media related to its topic. Most blogs are primarily textual although many focus on photographs, videos, or audio. Usually blogs allow you to post your own comments in context with the author's blog entries, turning these specialized sites into interactive, online communities or social networks.

There are many specialized search engines that focus exclusively on blogs, such as Google Blog Search ( or Technorati ( To locate the most current blog search engines, enter "blog search" into your favorite search engine.


Newsgroups, like mailing lists, are a way of discussing topics over the Internet with other people who share the same interests. However, newsgroups take place on an entirely different part of the Internet called Usenet. Usenet is one of the oldest Internet technologies that allows users to share information without using e-mail.

Usenet is composed of thousands of discussion areas called newsgroups. Individual comments that people make to one another on a newsgroup are called articles. You "post an article" when you want to make a comment. The lines of discussion within a newsgroup are called threads. To read the discussions on any newsgroup you must have a software program called a newsreader.

Generally, your ISP will provide you with a newsreader program as part of the software package. When you open the newsreader it should download any new newsgroups that have been added. You can look through the entire list and choose which newsgroups interest you. When you find one of interest, you just open it up and begin reading the articles.

Newsgroup addresses are called hierarchies. Listed below are some of the standard hierarchies with an example of each. There are many other categories, some of which are from foreign countries.

  • alt—groups generally alternative in nature (e.g.,, alt.alien.visitors)
  • bionet - groups discussing biology and biological sciences (e.g., bionet.general, bionet.immunology)
  • comp—groups discussing computer or computer science issues (e.g., comp.infosystems)
  • misc - groups that don't fit into other categories (e.g.,,
  • news - groups about Usenet itself (e.g., news.groups)
  • rec—groups discussing hobbies, sports, music, and art (e.g.,, rec.humor)
  • sci - groups discussing subjects related to science and scientific research (e.g.,, sci.psychology)
  • soc—groups discussing social issues including politics, social programs, etc. (e.g., soc.culture,
  • talk—public debating forums on controversial issues (e.g., talk.abortion, talk.religion)

Before you make a posting to a newsgroup, you may want to lurk for awhile; that is, read the discussion without contributing your own posting. Lurking will give you a sense of the kinds of postings that are appropriate for that newsgroup and what the newsgroup culture is like.

Newsgroups may be frequented by people from all over the world, including some experts in the field. They can be a great source of current information and of community. For example, a person suffering from a rare illness may not know anyone else with the same problem, but he or she can participate in a newsgroup specifically for people with that disease to learn about other peoples' experiences, the latest treatments, and just to commiserate. But, as always, be aware that not everything posted to a newsgroup is necessarily true; you must be a critical thinker.

Social Networks

Just as face-to-face social networking helps you meet new friends or find jobs in the real world, social networks on the Web provide an opportunity for you to do the same thing with a much broader view since the connections are not limited to people who you can see. Social networking Web sites make connections between many people who share the same interests visible. Joining social networks is generally easy and often free. After setting up an account and creating a profile (or homepage), you can then start connecting with people. When you find someone with whom you want to connect, you click a button that says something like, "Add as Friend". This starts a connection on the website with the person that others may see. He or she becomes a member of your network, and you become a member of theirs. Social networking becomes even more useful when you can see who your friends know, who your friends' friends know and so on. You are no longer an "isolated" Web user but a member of a dynamic group of people who share similar goals and interests. There are many popular social networking Web sites. Some examples are MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Although social networks offer many advantages, beware that sharing information online can have unintended consequences. Some sites may offer a degree of privacy (such as networks that only people at your school can join), but be aware that unwanted, off-campus visitors may obtain a username and password from an unsuspecting legitimate user and either compromise your reputation or worse.

Electronic Mail (E-mail)

E-mail is a way of transmitting messages using the Internet to a specified other person's computer. To send or receive e-mail you must either have a program installed on your computer called an e-mail client (software which allows you to send, receive, and read e-mail) or a Web browser to connect to a Web-based system. In either case you will need and an e-mail account.  Some common e-mail clients are Microsoft Outlook or Entourage, Mozilla Thunderbird and .Mac Mail. When you send an e-mail to someone, you type in their e-mail address in the space provided. E-mail addresses consist of the individual user's name or identification, the @ symbol, and the name of their server and domain: username@domainname (example:

After writing your message in the "body" of the e-mail, you can send it. Using your Internet connection, the message is transmitted  to the recipient server which "sorts" the mail and sends it to the individual's e-mail address.

E-mail communications are generally somewhat informal and not very lengthy. E-mail can be used for everything from sending memos, keeping up with friends and relatives, telecommuting, and exchanging documents and files.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about using e-mail:

  • Try to check your mail every day, especially if you belong to a mailing list. It's amazing how quickly your "inbox" can fill up with messages.
  • Know your netiquette.
  • Don't send anything too confidential or sensitive over e-mail; e-mail is easily accessed by others.
  • Keep your messages organized, brief, and to the point. Don’t send large file attachments unless you’ve checked with the recipient beforehand.
  • Proofread your e-mail before you send it.
  • Beware of anonymous messages sent by unscrupulous people pretending to represent banks, credit card companies, or online payment systems in order to obtain your confidential account information (called phishing).
  • Never open an e-mail attachment directly from your e-mail program. Always save it to your hard drive first, and check it with anti-virus software before opening.


Netiquette [(Inter)net + (et)iquette] is simply the etiquette of the Internet. “Etiquette” means behaving in ways that are socially acceptable (polite). Because no one owns or polices the Internet, it is especially important that all users take responsibility for keeping communications civilized. Remember that the written communications of the Internet cannot convey meanings by voice inflection or body language, so it's easy to be misinterpreted.

Here are some good netiquette principles to keep in mind:

  • Don't assume your correspondents know you are kidding, or being sarcastic, or anything else.
  • Don't be too harsh or judgmental with those you disagree with. Don't use all capital letters; this may be interpreted as SCREAMING. Don't gossip or spread rumors on the Internet. This is a good way to get into trouble. Do proofread your messages before you send them.
  • Do be kind and thoughtful in your correspondence.
  • Do be honest; if you put misinformation onto the Net, it could go to thousands of people.
  • Do reply quickly to your correspondents.
  • Do make messages and postings brief and to the point.
  • Do include a subject line that clearly indicates the topic of the e-mail, e.g. “Next Friday’s meeting” rather than “Hi.”


If you frequent the Net, and in particular newsgroups, you may get "flamed" or witness someone else getting flamed. Flaming is a hostile response that generally occurs as a result of a disagreement, and is meant to humiliate and upset the target. A flame is not intended to be constructive, to further clarify a discussion, or to persuade others. Often it is a direct personal attack. Just be forewarned and do not stoop to that level.


Emoticons are a fun way to express your feelings in electronic communication. They are a series of keystrokes and symbols that make a sideways picture. Emoticons can communicate to your reader that you are joking, disgusted, flirting, or sad--emotions that are otherwise hard to express in typewritten communication. Here are some examples:

  • :-) this is the most common emoticon, known as a "smiley"
  • ;-) the smiley, winking
  • :-p the smiley, sticking out it's tongue
  • (:^) a bald smiley
  • :-( a sad smiley


Even though you may be a relatively new Internet user and feel somewhat overwhelmed, remember that millions of people have felt that same way—and they are now successfully using the Internet. Your college or university may offer training in using the Internet. Many stores that sell computer equipment also offer training classes.

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