Essentially, a world-wide computer network in which smaller networks and individual computers are connected to each other by means of a complex system of routers and gateways. Originally created by the United States Department of Defense, it is now a popular consumer-oriented network, especially thanks to the World Wide Web, a graphics-based portion of the Internet. Access to the Internet can either be direct (which is how educational institutions, government departments, organizations, etc. connect) or through a third party known as an Internet service provider, such as America Online, CompuServe, or MindSpring, to name but three. In this latter case, a consumer (usually through a personal computer equipped with a modem) dials into a central server which then allows access to other Internet resources.
There are several distinct features of the Internet:
'E-Mail'. Perhaps the most widely-used of all Internet resources, electronic mail (or e-mail) allows for the (usually) instantaneous transmission and reception of messages from one user to another. The sender and receiver can be in adjacent offices, or separated by thousands of miles. E-mail is transmitted based in an Internet address (or email address), which typically includes the user's name, followed by the at-sign (@) and the user's domain, or the local area network in which the user (or the user's mail server) is located.
'USENET'. A USENET group, also known as a newsgroup, is a kind of electronic bulletin board, in which subscribers can post and download messages to and from each other, usually pertaining to a single topic, be it taoism, socialism, conspiracy theories, television programs, music groups, artists, computers, and (not surprisingly) sex.. There are literally thousands of newsgroups on every conceivable topic.
'Internet Relay Chat'. IRC allows for a number of different users to "meet" in a single location and converse with each in real time. IRC (known colloquially as chat rooms) is kind of a real-time USENET group, where users can discuss a wide variety of topics.
'The World Wide Web'. The World Wide Web is the fastest-growing portion of the Internet, being as it is graphics-based. Essentially, the Web is an interlinked collection of "pages," which correspond to files on widely-separated computers. These pages can be instantaneously accessed by means of hypertext links. The Web can be used (by means of a browser, or a software utility that can read HTML code) to view graphics, as well as hear sounds, see video and animation, or download files. Various search engines make it easy to locate specific topics on the Web, and many companies and individuals now routinely provide their Web address (called a Universal Resource Locator) in ads, on business cards, etc.
'Other Internet Resources'. Before the advent of the World Wide Web (and in many cases afterward), files were located and obtained by means of searching utilities such as Gopher, WAIS, Archie, Veronica, Jughead, etc. The resources and utilities available to search the Internet are changing daily.