The Web Is Not the Internet (You're Probably Getting That Wrong)

Written by

Abraham Riesman

You know how England is in the United Kingdom, but the United Kingdom isn’t England? But people often slip up and act like they’re the same thing? And you can end up sounding like an idiot if you say call some Scottish dude English?

The Internet and the World Wide Web are kind of like that. They’re not the same thing. They’re not synonyms. They don’t even serve the same function. And, just like our theoretical mixup with a tartan-wearing Scottish separatist, when you get the distinction wrong, you can inadvertently sound like a dummy. I mean, most of the time, they can be used synonymously and no one will care, but if you’re talking about history or technical stuff and you want to be accurate or a know-it-all or beat a computer at Jeopardy, you should know the difference.

Case in point: a few days ago, I wrote a story about the first photo on the World Wide Web (hereafter known as “the Web” — that term is an acceptable synonym for the World Wide Web) and it spread far around the Web.

A sampling of confusion.

But a curious thing happened: as seen in the Tweets here, many of the outlets billed the picture as “the first photo on the Internet.” Which it absolutely was not. The Web was born at CERN in 1990, as a specific, visual protocol on the Internet, the global network of computers that began two decades earlier. If I had to guess, the first photo on the Internet was probably uploaded to USENET and contained either patent art or some MIT PhD’s favorite cheesecake photo of Olivia Newton-John.

I don’t want you to sound like a dummy anymore, so here is a brief cheat sheet for proper use of “the Internet” and “the Web,” with commentary from journalist Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. In short: the Web is just one way to display information on the much-larger Internet.


“The Internet is the global network of networks, all speaking the lingua franca protocol of TCP/IP,” Andrew says.

In other words: It’s not really a thing, per se. No one thing represents the Internet; there’s no center. There’s no single laboratory where the Internet was built. It doesn’t come in a box. In a way, capitalizing it as a proper noun is misleading, in that “Internet” is not a singular, unitary thing, but an ever-growing giant aggregate of most of the world’s computer networks. The term is an abbreviation of internetworking, a term that remains confined to the world of network engineers.

How long it’s been around: Hard to say. The first global networks started popping up in the 50s, and the most famous of those early networks, ARPANET, was launched in 1969 with an interrupted message sent from UCLA to Stanford. The term “internet” appears to have originated in 1974. TCP/IP — the formal set of protocols that let these networks speak to one another, through the use of Lego-like packets of information — was formalized in 1982. The first commercial Internet service provider went live in 1990. Some folks even claim the true origin of the Internet came with the mass spread of telegraph networks in the Victorian era. So, basically, it’s been around for a long, long time. For more, I highly recommend the (unsurprisingly) detailed, exhaustive, and peer-reviewed Wikipedia page on the history of the Internet.

What’s on it: Virtually everything you think of when the word “online” pops into your head in 2012. Email, browsers, the World Wide Web (we’ll get to that), smartphone apps, torrents. The one thing other thing all these Internet networks have in common is that they use the aforementioned TCP/IP, also known as the Internet protocol suite,. Andrew makes a good point: “When we confuse the Internet and the World Wide Web, we leave out all the other things going on with the Internet — from calendar syncing to error reporting, to any iPhone or Android app that goes online but doesn’t specifically work within the confines of a browser.”

What’s not on it: Closed-off intranet systems that are limited to a single geographical space and aren’t linked up to the rest of the world. Nations maintain control through these networks (North Korea’s kwangmyŏng and Cuba’s RedCubana, for instance), or use them to communicate in secret. These also include the internal LANs and other networks used by companies and schools.

When you should refer to it: Whenever you’re speaking in general about the network of globally interconnected computers, or referring to the act of connecting. When your computer’s inexplicably offline, the problem is with your “Internet connection,” not your “Web connection.” This one is a pretty versatile catch-all for most situations – so long as you’re not talking about milestones that are World Wide Web-specific or talking about the invention of the World Wide Web at CERN.


“The World Wide Web is just one application among many that uses the Internet,” says Andrew. “But it’s undoubtedly the most familiar, because it’s the thing inside our browser windows.”

In other words: It’s one way, ouf of many, to use the Internet. Indeed, the most widespread and successful way — the way that came to define most people’s understanding of the Internet. It’s a model of software that says pages that connect to one another via links. That linking is called hypertext transfer protocol (aka what that “http” in your URLs stands for). Every webpage and website is on the World Wide Web. Think of it this way: if the Internet is the ocean, then the World Wide Web is a massive fleet of ships and submarines, taking people through that ocean.

How long it’s been around: Since 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN launched the first webpages that connected to one another via hyperlinks. Confusingly, the first browser that Berners-Lee invented to use the World Wide Web was called WorldWideWeb. Berners-Lee and his team hooked it up to the Internet so people across the world could make pages and link them up. At the time, there were lots of other ways to use the Internet, such as FTP and Usenet. But the Web proved to be the easiest and most versatile, and it rapidly expanded into the behemoth we know today, encompassing billions upon billions of sites. Without the Web, there would still be an Internet. However, as Andrew put it, without the Web, the Internet “would probably look a lot like an iPhone home screen, with stand-alone applications for each thing we want to do.” Shudder.

What’s on it: Every webpage that you can view through a web browser, as well as the links between those pages.

What’s not on it: Lots of stuff. E-mail, smartphone apps, peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, instant messaging programs, FTP, and Usenet, for example.

When you should refer to it: If you’re talking about sites that can be seen on browsers throughout the world.

Now that this has been cleared up, let’s move on to the next important question: should we really be capitalizing “Internet”?


Topics: Internet, web

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