A Class on the Net for Librarians with Little or No Net Experience

LESSON 26: WWW, PART 1: HYPERTEXT

"As Obi-Wan sez: 'Use the web, Luke!'"

-- Larry Masinter, Xerox Corp, on the Net


THE WEB

Now that you've learned something about how to use the basic tools of the Internet such as gopher, veronica, telnet, ftp, archie, etc., I'm going to show you something else that makes all these client/server applications take a back seat; it's the Web!

The Web supersedes everything that has gone before because it encompasses all these applications, and more. It issues the commands, makes the connections, and transmits the information for you in an interface so smooth and transparent you no longer need to be aware of or know how to perform any of the steps yourself. If you have access to a Web browser, you have a multi-purpose tool: you can send email messages, access gopher sites, use veronica, jughead, wais, telnet, ftp, archie... just about everything we've covered in previous lessons. In addition, graphic WWW browsers allow you to view inline graphics, and with appropriate hardware and software and browser 'plug-ins', you can play video and sound clips, and much more...

The World Wide Web, (the WWW, W3, or simply the Web) has been in existence only a few years, and yet in this brief time period it has managed to spin so many interconnecting threads, or links, across the Net, the two now appear inextricably joined. The Web has become the Internet user's navigational tool of choice because it is at once the simplest and most dynamic way that has yet been devised to get around on the Net.

According to Tom Shoop, in an article entitled "The Lure of the Web," _Government Executive_, April 1995, the difference between the pre- and post- Web Internet can be compared to the difference between CB radio and cable TV. Says Shoop:

Before the Web existed, the Internet was an arcane, non-graphic communications vehicle. It required the use of specialized programs and computers, which limited its appeal to a relatively small group of enthusiasts. The Web, on the other hand, is loaded with graphics and uses point-and-click software so simple that anyone with the most rudimentary computer skills can operate it.
Interestingly, the Web wasn't created to provide an easy-on access platform for non-techies. It was developed in 1989 by researchers at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, as a way for high-energy physicists around the world to share data. Of course, as with the Internet itself, other computer users soon heard about the development and began to apply it to their own uses. Says Shoop, "In 1990, there were fewer than 100 Web servers in operation; by the end of 1994, the number topped 11,000." How much information are we talking about here? Well, citing Bill Eager, author of _Using the World Wide Web_ (Que Corp, 1994), Shoop says, "if you were to download 100 files contained on the Web every day for the next 10 years, you'd accumulate fewer than 20 percent of the files currently available." And you'll note that this quote is from 1994 -- today the amount of information is totally staggering.

HYPERTEXT

What does the Web do? In actual practice, it seeks to link all online knowledge together in a single complex web of interconnecting documents and services. This is accomplished by the use of "hypertext", the linking of highlighted words and pictures on your screen that allow you to jump directly from one document to another.

These links, called "hottext," "hotlinks," or "hyperlinks," may be colored, highlighted, underlined, or perhaps bracketed in some way (to let you know that they are links). The way they appear to you depends on the client software, or Web browser, that you have on your host. If you "click" (or enter) on hottext, you will connect to the document referenced by the hottext. That document will probably contain additional hotlinks to even more information, and so on, sometimes through layers and layers of documents. Each Web screen you visit provides you with additional links to related documents combining other texts, images and sounds which, in turn, provide more links to more documents, which ... well, you get the idea.

You don't have to know where any of these files are actually located -- they could be situated on computers around the corner or half-way around the world from yours. It doesn't matter, because the connections are made almost instantaneously, with just a simple click or a keystroke. Given the ease of "surfing", the fact that you can link to all types of Internet files, and the multitude of paths possible to a particular piece of information, you begin to appreciate the spider web analogy behind this tool's name.

Of course, the big fascination on the WEB is with the hypermedia -- graphics and sound -- which allow pictures, text and audio to be presented from one document. The power of multimedia presentations over the Net is staggering: if you haven't experienced the Web, just imagine viewing a magazine article about this year's hurricane season. The article contains pictures of destruction in the Carribean wrapped by text, colored headlines, and tables of statistics. You can click on a footnote to the statistics to link to additional data with comparative figures from the last 10 years; you can click on a link to satellite data to go to real-time satellite photos of current activity in the Carribean; you can click on a hotlink to listen to an interview with someone made homeless as the result of a storm; in a paragraph describing the adventures of data gatherers flying into the eye of a storm, you can play a movie of the actual flight; you can click on the by-line to link to more information on the reporter (and see his picture), and you can email him with comments via a user-feedback link; at the article's conclusions, you find links to additional weather resources on the Net... Pretty impressive, don't you think?

WEB BROWSERS

There are two different kinds of browsers on the Web:
  1. Text-based browsers, such as Lynx or Charlotte, provide access to the text of Web documents (or "pages" as they are called). Text browsers usually indicate hypertext links with highlighted or numbered text. You select items by using the cursor or tab key, or by entering the number of the item. You enter commands (or command keys) to initiate searches, jump to specific documents, page up or down in the document, back up to the previous page displayed, etc.

  2. Graphical browsers (called GUI browsers, for "graphical user interface") let you see the formatted text (bolding, various fonts, various point sizes), and display inline images; they allow you to play video and audio clips (provided your browser is configured with appropriate "plug-in" or "helper" applications). Using a GUI browser, you select items with a click of the mouse, and you use a scroll bar to page up or down in the document. The GUI interface will provide you with pull-down menu options for navigating, and probably provide hotbuttons as well to give you easy access to frequently needed options (such as printing, jumping to a specific location, help, etc.).

The most well-known GUI browsers currently being used are the Netscape Navigator, MicroSoft's Internet Explorer, and NCSA's Mosaic; however, Mosaic, original GUI browser, is no longer in development, and technical support is no longer provided by NCSA. Currently Explorer and Netscape are duking it out in a web browser champsionship bout!

GUI browsers come with lots of "bells and whistles." These interfaces provide you with a unified hypermedia interface to the Net and allow you to see and hear all kinds of still images and photographs, and even video, motion pictures, and sound. Of course, there's a catch. Obviously, to run a GUI browser, you have to have a graphic operating system, e.g. Unix, Windows, or Mac. And, you must have a direct network connection to the Internet (or an account on a SLIP or PPP provider if you're connecting via modem -- refer back to Lesson 3 for a refresher on these options). If you have only a shell account on a mainframe computer, as I do, there are ways to experience some of these options but, depending on your local circumstances, you might be out of luck!

Different graphic browsers require different helper applications and/or plugins to make the most of your Net experience. Helpers are applications that run in the background of your browser; a telnet client, for example, is required to be running in the background in Netscape in order for you to be able to make telnet connections. Plugins are tools that work in tandem with your browser to provide some special features: a calendar or chat, for example.

If you're interested in what the various browsers have to offer, check out Hotwired's NetMonkey site (registration is required, but it is a free service). At NetMonkey (http://www.webmonkey.com/), you can compare browser features, get the lowdown on available plugins, and even get a Tuneup to see if your browser is running at optimum performance. Another good site for browser comparisons and plugin info is IWorld's BrowserWatch http://browserwatch.iworld.com/. These sites will also link you to articles highlighting the ongoing browser battle between Explorer and Netscape!

Another plus: both Explorer and Netscape software is available on the Internet free of charge for educational sites and personal use (non-commercial). I'll give you more information on download sites at the conclusion of this lesson.

BROWSER INFO AND DOWNLOAD SITES:

!!!REALITY CHECK!!! ... Since many of us don't have either the powerful machines or the right connections, does that mean we can't traverse the Web? Of course not! As I mentioned earlier, there are text browsers on the Web that operate like GUI browsers, only without the pictures and the sound. Additionally, some of you with text browsers may still be able to see and hear what's on the Web by downloading a graphics viewer and sound player/conversion software from public sites. If you have viewers and players, you can download files, and later open them with the viewer, but it's a labor-intensive process, and certainly not the same experience as that provided by a graphic web browser. And, unfortunately, it doesn't work for everyone!

Nevertheless, even without GUI browsers, the Web is a powerful tool. You can use hypertext to jump from document to document, set "hotlinks" (which are analogous to bookmarks in gopher), and save, print or email Web documents, just as Netscape users do.

And another thing -- even though it is true that the Web offers connections to servers that deliver telnet, ftp, gopher, and more, while eliminating the need for most of the "arcane" commands you've been learning to use in many of these lessons, it is also true that in order to get you to the information you seek, these browsers often must take you through several levels of screens. The process can be especially frustrating when the Web documents turn out to contain almost nothing but links to other documents. That's when you may discover that the so-called old-fashioned methods of travel -- although trickier -- might end up being just as fast, or faster.

WEB CONNECTIONS

There are Web browsers for every kind of configuration.

  Configuration           Browser
 
 SLIP/PPP/Ethernet     Netscape, Explorer, Mosaic, etc.
 VT100/TN3270          Charlotte, Lynx, etc.
 Dumb Terminal         CERN line Mode W3 Browser
 email only access     Peter Flynn's http-by-mail service

To use Flynn's "e-mail me a page" web service, just address mail to webmail@www.ucc.ie and in the text of the message type GO url replacing 'url' with the url you want to request.

You can access public WEB sites by telnetting (VT100 emulation required) to:

  www.msu.edu  (login: web)
  info.cern.ch  (no login required)
    (Note: the cern address will soon change to telnet.w3.org)
  lynx.cc.ukans.edu  (login: www)

Any one of these should connect you to a line-oriented browser like mine. However, some will only allow you to use the browser client to view their Home Page, but not to navigate freely to the URL of your choice (more about Home Pages and URLs in the next lesson).

Also in the next lesson, we'll examine how these URLs (WEB addresses) are deciphered, and we'll look at Web search and indexing tools.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:

If your Web connection gives you the option of OPENing a specific URL, try out the following sites:

READ MORE ABOUT IT

     Crump, Eric
       _English Online: a Student's Guide to the Internet and the World
       Wide Web_.  Houghton Mifflin, 1997.


* "BCK2SKOL" is a free electronic library classroom created by Ellen Chamberlain, Head Librarian, University of South Carolina Beaufort, and Miriam Mitchell, Sr. Systems Analyst, USC Columbia. Additional support is provided by the Division of Libraries & Information Systems, University of South Carolina Columbia.


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