I researched this article on the Internet.

That won’t surprise you, my little cyberknight; my darling digital warrior. You are a practiced and gleeful member of the brethren of the Net. Even if you tend Luddite, the following terms are likely still familiar to you: e-mail, IM, Google, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia.

Scoffing? I remember seeing my first YouTube video during my senior year of high school. That was three years ago. Today, YouTube is the definitive site for an enormous part of our cultural exchange — viral videos, music videos, news clips. It immortalizes verbal gaffes, bad singing, stupid pranks, the cuteness of babies and fluffy animals. Certain videos even reach internet immortality, at least for a few weeks. But for those few weeks, unless you’re friendless or friends only with technophobes, the video of the moment is basically guaranteed to pass through your inbox. People will e-mail it to your panlist (a Yale term – in the real world it’s a listserv), G-chat about it, tweet it, Facebook it. Then they’ll refer to it during human-to-human interactions, so blithely that if you’re not clued in, you’ll miss it entirely. What makes a good viral video? Mainly, the humiliation of others. But running a close second are adorable babies/animals, crazy people ranting and occasionally, a scripted sketch. There are already countless essays that attempt a diagnosis of our zeitgeist through these videos.

What interests me here is not the content of the videos themselves, but the nature of their availability, and eventually, their pervasiveness. The 2000s were not the beginning of the usable Internet. That was the ’90s. As with the beginning of any new regime, the ’90s were a dark age for the Internet, culminating in the dot-com crash of 1998-2000. The past ten years have hardly perfected the Internet, but with much of the initial framework set down, the aughts have been an incredibly fertile time for Web innovation. Wikipedia arrived in 2001. Facebook in 2004. YouTube in 2005. Google, the old man in the room, was launched in 1996, but it wasn’t until 2003 that the company left Silicon Valley to occupy the GooglePlex in Mountain View, CA. And many of the Google features that are indispensable today were started post-2000. G-mail launched in 2004, but was invitation only until 2007. As of July, it has 146 million users each month.

The complete and accurate definition of the Internet is not what you’d immediately expect. At the most basic level, the Internet describes a ‘network of networks.’ One computer communicating with another is a network. The Internet is that small network exploded exponentially. When you diagram the Internet as it exists today, the image resembles a neuron gone wild: branches of connections so numerous that zooming into the original picture to finally reach a local and comprehensible segment would take a very long time. What we typically interact with is actually the World Wide Web, or, as Wikipedia says, “a series of interlinked hypertext documents,” first “invented” around 1989. This is the Internet you know and love, the clickable digital landscape of text and image, sight and sound. Yet despite the fact that we live immersed in the Internet, few people have a full understanding of what exactly it is they’re mucking about in.

This hardly matters. While computer science know-how might affect the way you perceive the inner workings of the Internet, it has little to do with how most people use the web on a day to day basis.

If you remember the first time you started using the internet (late elementary school, early middle school), you remember a clunky behemoth of such obsoleteness it seems hilarious to imagine. Remember AOL? Besides my dad, does anyone still use it? Remember dial-up? Remember Hamster Dance (what Wikipedia tells me is “one of the earliest examples of an internet meme” — that was 1998)? Today, if a Web site doesn’t load in a few seconds, we begin to fidget and wonder what’s wrong. There wasn’t a lot to do on the early Internet — most of the things we do online today had more competent counterparts outside of the Web.

Mainly, this refers to information. We turn to the Internet for news, weather, directions, movie times, unknown words. We don’t really read the paper newspaper anymore, or watch the Weather channel, or call Moviefone or reach for the dictionary. Instead, we go to nytimes.com, weather.com, moviefone.com (unavoidably ironic), dictionary.com. When we want to know more about something, we don’t go to the library to find the most relevant book. We Google.

Google, along with it’s compatriot Wikipedia, has fundamentally changed the way we think of information. Much as in spousal relationships where years of cohabitation result in the compartmentalization of information (as in, Herbert doesn’t ever know where his keys are because Gertrude always remembers), the Internet is simultaneously crutch and resource. With smartphones, the Internet is literally in your hands, almost all of the time. Even considering that not everyone has a smartphone, the spread of wireless Internet and laptops make the Internet widely accessible. In the same way a village without any telephones would have been considered very remote and very behind 10 years ago, we are approaching a time when a location without Internet access is unthinkable, or if not unthinkable, extremely inconvenient.

More than anything else, the Internet is ubiquitous. It is an omnipresent specter that sticks its nosy fingers into everything we do. E-mail, instant message, Skype, Twitter, Facebook and the other forms of social media and communication mean that we can be reached at any time, and more than that, that we are expected to be vigilant. Whereas 10 years ago you could get away with letting a day go before answering an e-mail, today that time is probably more like a few hours and even then, especially for those with smartphones, you’d probably need an excuse for your negligence.

Aside from how perpetually reachable we’ve become, we are awash in a culture of knowledge that assumes all information is instantly searchable. Don’t know something? Wikipedia it and you’ll be at least halfway prepared. On the one hand, this means that the scholarly dedication to memorization that characterizes the great minds of yesterday will be less common, if not less impressive. Why memorize something that is so easily found online? While some lament this transition, consider the leaps we are taking for research. Once all books are uploaded and searchable, it will be infinitely simpler to siphon the relevant details from millions of texts for a paper. And though others bemoan our shrinking attention spans, our multitasking mania, still others relish our progress towards broad, common, democratic knowledge. The Internet makes the most obscure information in the most obscure field accessible to the casually curious outsider. It bridges the gap between expert and enthusiast. Books may disappear, but reading won’t.

Other alarmists are more frightened of the dehumanization that the internet seems to represent. Instead of spending real human time with real human people, they argue, we interface over the cold microchips of the WWWasteland. How can Facebook wall posts compare to live conversation? But it’s not so much that one form of contact replaces another, than it is that we have found new ways to supplement interpersonal relations. The pleasure we get out of digital exchange is distinct from the pleasure we get out of “real” exchange, but it’s still pleasure. And it’s hysterical to suggest that these alternatives will eradicate traditional modes of relating. As we begin to process and accept new methods of human connection, we will also begin to accept that social media isn’t a worse means of communication, merely a different one.

I may be rash in saying the internet is the most important technological invention for the distribution of information since the printing press, but there — I’ve said it. And since this is online, it means I can never really take it back. As we know, deletion is never final on the Internet. For a short while after the initial deletion,
Google’s cache function ably digs up the dead. After that, the piece disappears into the annals of the web. But if you have the skills, you can find it. And certain percentage of the internet is actually dedicated to storing the history of the internet.

But to go back to the printing press comparison, in a time where the vast majority of the world is literate, we forget that it took a very, very long time for literacy to go from elite skill to common practice. In the same way, internet literacy is one of the major ways we can currently distinguish between generations. Our parents and grandparents are more often than not less capable of navigating and seizing on the benefits and intricacies of the Web. In the same way, our younger brothers and sisters have been weaned on digital milk. They probably know more about certain parts of the Internet than you do. We are still in the beginning stages of the internet; in the beginning of a new way of thinking about reading, knowing and communicating. So much of the Internet is still unlegislated, a sure sign that the shape it takes today will not be the shape it takes in the future.

So where is the Internet going? I don’t know. But wherever it’s going, it’s not going away.