The Internet is quite simply, the world's largest computer network.

"It's aimed at the 'garden variety' computer user: not the expert or computer afficianado, just someone who has a job to get done."
-From "The Whole Internet: User's Guide and Catalog" by Ed Krol, 1992

Like "free love," the Internet was born in the 1960s. Unlike free love, the Internet was a product of the military. Its earliest incarnation was as a U.S. Defense Department network called ARPAnet. This was an experimental network intended to facilitate military research, and to link computers together so that they could survive partial outages (as in the case of a bomb attack) and still operate.

Of course, today's Internet is quite a bit different than the ARPAnet of its youth. And the military has largely moved off the Internet to what is know as "Internet 2," which is not populated with the general public. Today's Internet knows few boundaries. Grandmothers, journalists, college students, businesspeople, politicians, and even porn stars are a small example of who is using the Internet today.

Pretty much any bit of information a person might want can probably be found on the Internet (and certainly, some that you probably don't want.) Vast libraries of information are now just a few clicks away from anyone with a PC and an Internet hook-up.

Of course, the Internet is not just about information. Entertainment has moved in on the new resource and makes up a sizeable portion of the market. Advertisers are only now beginning to tap the potential of the Internet. People use the Internet for all sorts of things.

Perhaps the biggest feature to popularize the Internet is messaging. E-mail has become a national obsession in the United States, and in many other parts of the world. The results of this phenomenon are far reaching and wide ranging.

It's "free," after all (unless you count the cost of Internet service, which is still cheap.) People who ordinarily would fall out of touch have rekindled and maintained relationships from all corners of the globe as a result of the ease and affordability of e-mail communication.

And, to be honest, it's just plain fun for many people. Though it's hard to explain why, some people are as enthusiastic about the process as they are about what they have to say.

"I don't know why, but for some reason I just go crazy when I hear that little 'you've got mail' voice. I love it! It's like opening a surprise birthday present. I'm a little obsessed."
--Internet user and friend of this author who prefers to remain nameless.

Messaging remains the most popular function of the Internet. Along with messaging came a new pastime -- chat rooms.

"Oh I've met so many people in chat rooms. It's kind of weird, I suppose. I won't even talk to strangers on the street, but put me on a keyboard and I'll go crazy. I'll talk to just about anybody, unless they start to say anything scary. Then I beat it."
--Same friend.

It seems that many, if not most people who visit these chat rooms either conceal their identities or misrepresent themselves altogether. This is usually for protection, but sometimes it's for more nefarious reasons. A whole new breed of stalkers has also realized the potential of the Internet.

But we must take the bad with the good. People with less than good intentions have always been a part of our society, and we can hardly blame the technology itself for what it can be used for in the wrong hands. The bottom line is that chat rooms can be fun but dangerous places, just like any physical places can be, and users should exercise discretion and good judgement when visiting one.

One attribute of the Internet that is very important, and that separates it from the other media, is that it is not regulated or governed by any one entity. It knows no national boundaries, and is owned by nobody. While there is a downside to this, it helps keep the flow of ideas free, unlike any other medium in the past has been effectively able to do. Lovers of free speech naturally have learned, or are learning to embrace the Internet. It is the last true open forum of ideas. The recent conflict in Yugoslavia is a good example of this. For the first time, e-mail is being used as a method of conveying up to the minute information and viewpoints from people involved or affected by an ongoing war.

Newspapers and Magazines

Newspapers were the first of the traditional media to realize the potential of the online market, and instead of seeing it as a threat, many of them established Internet presence early on. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the printed word is still an integral part of the Internet, unlike broadcast media.

Many major newspapers today have an online version, and most are free. The Internet may in fact be the savior of the printed media rather than its demise. In the future newspapers and magazines will no longer rely as heavily on printing costs and materials, distribution costs and equipment. Just like with the traditional format, advertising revenue carries the weight of the cost of producing the media product.

And the potential audience is far greater. Anyone in the world with Internet access (not limited by their government) can access the New York Times online for free. This is unprecedented in the history of journalism.

Another major aspect of the Internet which sets it apart from other media is the ability it provides for practically anybody to send their message to the masses. Personal homepages are becoming a regular part of people's lives. Anyone with a little creativity, some basic web-authoring knowledge (can be obtained for free online) and the time can put together an online newspaper or magazine. There are even companies that will (for a modest price) place links to anyone's site into popular major search engines, and place banner ads bringing people to the site. It's a lot easier than going out and buying your own printing press, ink, paper, etc...

Thus, the Internet has an enormous potential for linking humankind together in ways never dreamed possible even 20 years ago. And it has not even begun to be tapped to the degree possible. As David Carlson, an instructor at the University of Florida and director of UF's Interactive Media Lab has said, the Internet right now is much like the wild west of the early and mid 19th century. A vast untapped resource with few limits or restrictions.

And you don't even need to pack a gun!