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A hitchhiker's guide to the Net Netspeak: The popularity of the Internet is exposing more and more people to elaborate and arcane jargon. Here's a primer.


Too bad the great American poet Dr. Seuss didn't live to see the Big Bang of cyberspace, with the Internet going from geek retreat to nationwide playground in just a few years. The creator of the lorax, the sneedle and the wumpus would be at home with the gigabyte, Unix, Spam, RAM and ROM.

The world of computers has long been full of elaborate and arcane jargon, seemingly designed to separate the newbie -- novice -- from the pro. But the soaring popularity of the Net has spread that jargon far and wide, and it seems like you can't open a package of gum without seeing something like http: //bubbles.com/.

For those leery of walking the walk if they can't talk the talk, here's a short guide to the language of the Internet.

In the beginning was ARPANET. If you want to sound like a grizzled veteran, use this instead of "Internet," then correct yourself. It began with the Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency looking at how a communications network might survive a nuclear war. That led to the idea of packet switching, or breaking a message up into many small parts that are set loose, like homing pigeons, to find their various ways to their destination.

The packets make their way through routers, special-purpose computers that serve as traffic cops. If the electronic path between two points is suddenly cut, these machines quickly spread the word and begin guiding the packets on a new path. Hence the description of the Internet as self-healing. That resilience also helps to explain why the Net is difficult to censor.

Researchers first used the Net to send messages and exchange data files. Those chores are handled via SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) and FTP (File Transfer Protocol). Net techies have a protocol for every occasion it seems, rather like Buckingham Palace.

E-mail is what was formerly known as "electronic mail," much as the piano was known as the pianoforte. Use the latter term and you brand yourself as being from a different era.

Many regard e-mail as the killer-app of the Internet, the application program that drives the Net's acceptance. It has become wildly popular for many reasons, not the least of which is a convention that normal rules of capitalization and punctuation may be thrown to the wind. It's a fine way to communicate -- almost as immediate as a phone call, but cheaper and less obtrusive. Its casual nature lets parents dash off notes to kids at college, or workers fire off a gripe to management, leaping over several corporate levels.

It didn't take long before enterprising folks realized that the same software used to distribute a newsletter to Schnauzer fanciers allows mass-mailings to millions of netizens, urging them to "Make big money in your spare time," and the like. Such mailings are known universally as Spam.

Offended recipients, who sometimes must pay for each message received, have been known to respond to Spam with mail bombs, floods of thousands of messages back to the marketeers. So the canny salesmen create and then abandon e-mail addresses, thus forcing the complaints to bounce, or be relayed back to the sender as undeliverable.

An offshoot of the Internet known as Usenet gave computer users worldwide the ability to exchange comments as though a conference is going on in slow motion. These newsgroups range from the sublime (sci.physics.fusion) to the ridiculous (alt.tv.beavis--n--butt-head).

Newsgroup comments, or posts, can beget hostile responses known as flames. When an issue degenerates into little but invective, there's a flame war going on. Sometimes, though, a keyboard drawing called a smiley is used to soften a comment that might otherwise be taken as a flame, as in, "That's a really stupid idea. : -)"

(A variant, the holy war, is an endless exchange in which neither side gives an inch, as in IBM fanatics vs. Apple fanatics.)

All that leads to the Internet's latest epoch -- the World Wide Web. The Web had its beginnings at the CERN physics laboratory in Switzerland, where scientists were looking for a simpler way to share information over the Net.

It occurred to some -- notably Tim Berners-Lee, known as the father of the Web -- that any document or data file on the Net could be identified by a Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. The URL tells how the file is to be called up, the name of the machine it's stored on, the folder or subfolder it's in, and finally the name of the file itself.

For example, a document called "The Jargon File" can be found at http: //locke.ccil.org: 80/-jargon/-index-.html.

To that core idea the researchers added the concept of a hypertext link, a pointer, embedded in a document, that can take you to any other document, anywhere.

Researchers at the University of Illinois created a browser program called Mosaic, which combined hypertext links with fancy screen formatting courtesy of HTML (HyperText Markup Language) and the scheme caught on.

The result is a conglomeration of millions of computers with tens of millions of files, each with pointers to files that have pointers to files that have pointers More like a fabric than a web, it has given rise to a phenomenon known as surfing the Net, wherein an innocent search for mortgage information at 9 p.m. may end at 3 a.m. with a discussion of lemurs.

Much of the growth of the Web comes from individuals creating their own home pages, lured by the idea that their snapshots of granny and the twins can now be viewed by someone in Zanzibar with Mosaic or one of its descendants, such as Netscape.

The business world leaped straight from skepticism over the Web to infatuation. High-powered servers -- computers that answer requests for Web information lickety-split -- act as advertising engines, or online catalogs or survey takers.

The Internet gold rush has its own equivalent of TV ratings: hit counts. But there's little agreement on their meaning, beyond the fact that a hit is a request for data, so it's a Wonderland-like word that means exactly what the speaker wants it to mean -- no more and no less.

pTC With no central administration, the Internet is growing in fits and starts. The flood of multimedia information on the Net -- pictures, digitized sound, even video -- is straining routers and data circuits. When the owners of that equipment are slow to upgrade capacity, or bandwidth, the result is one great big traffic jam, a Net brownout.

The interstate highways of information are the Net's backbones -- high-capacity trunk lines that span continents and oceans. One provider's fiber-optic trunks will soon have a capacity of 160 billion bits (or gigabits) of information a second, equal to 64 encyclopedia sets with 29 volumes each. But until the local links catch up, the result will be dark fiber.

Where is this all going? Look for businesses to leap on the concept of intranets, internal networks that let employees use familiar browsers to call up everything from sales statistics to company softball results.

Programs called intelligent agents will roam the Net for you and report back with the information they think you want. More efficient, perhaps, but less entertaining.

And the marketing types, among them Home Shopping Network, are banding with mathematicians to develop various forms of cybercash, a secure way to pay for goods through the network.

Gratification is just a click away.

Pub Date: 12/09/96

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