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Home > Publications > Quill > This Is How the Internet Works (And Why You Need To Know)



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Friday, June 20, 2014
This Is How the Internet Works (And Why You Need To Know)

By Andy Boyle

If youíre a journalist, understanding how the Internet works is probably the most important thing you can do to benefit your career right now.

No, I donít necessarily mean learning how to code, although that would boost your career immensely. (See the January/February Quill cover story on coding.) I mean the actual mechanics of the Internet: how information gets from a place and turns into a website, or an email gets sent, or how a Skype chat session works.

Before you scoff, letís do a little experiment. Think back over your day. Count how many times you did one of these tasks:

ē Did you check your email?

ē Did you look at anything in a Web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, etc.)?

ē Did you check social media?

ē Did you buy anything anywhere today, whether online or in person?

ē Did you call, text or Snapchat anyone?

ē Did you read or hear any news stories today?

Yeah, you probably did a lot, right? Almost every part of everything you do today as a journalist involves the Internet.

You may think, ďBut my newsroom said social media was what I had to learn! Or data journalism! Or multimedia storytelling! Or insert buzzword here!Ē OK, sure. But what do all of those things live on? Thatís right: the Internet.

And for those of you who might say, ďIím just not a computer person,Ē youíre not allowed that excuse anymore. Itís 2014. If you started in journalism anywhere in the past 30 years, a computer has probably been on your desk the majority of your career. Itís like a cop saying, ďIím not a radio communication person.Ē Itís a cop out (yeah, I made that joke), and we got into journalism to learn new things every day.

ďBut Andy, I donít plan on ever becoming a Web developer,Ē you might rightly say. Thatís cool. But if you want to commit any sort of journalism in the future, youíll probably need to chat with nerds like me. And if you better understand the vocabulary, weíll be able to communicate more effectively and churn out better journalism that can have a greater effect on and increase engagement with our audiences.

If thatís not good enough for you, ask yourself if youíd like a job in five years. How about in 10 years? 30? Because as hard as curmudgeons in journalism may try to make it so, the Internet isnít going away. It will continue to permeate every part of the industry, not to mention become a larger chunk of how everything we cover as journalists operates. Iím talking education, business, governments, military, the arts.

Just like if you were expected to know how an engine works if you reviewed cars for a living, you should know about the main thing ó the Internet ó that fuels, shapes and disrupts almost every industry and coverage area journalists report on.

That still not enough to convince you? How about this: Did you hear about Edward Snowden and the NSA? Did you hear about the Heartbleed bug? Or about data breaches at any major retailers lately? The mechanics of the Internet ó and general computer technology ó are at play. Being ignorant of them makes you more susceptible to compromising your sources, your security and more. If you care about protecting your sources from eavesdropping in the digital world, you need to learn how to protect them.

So, commence with the learning ...

INTERNET BASICS

First, letís start with basics. Iím going to leave out some of the higher-level technical explanations to make it easier. So if youíre smarter than me and saying to yourself, ďAndy, you forgot about (very in-depth thing that isnít necessary to understand Internet basics),Ē yeah, I know. But this is a magazine article, and space is limited.

So what happens when you visit a Web page? To put it in terms many journalists can understand: Itís like going to a bar and ordering a beer. And how does one order a drink? You go to your local watering hole and ask a bartender for a tasty brew. She walks to a specific fridge, grabs your drink and brings it to you. Then you drink it and maybe peel off the label, for kicks.

Letís try to use that same analogy with its more technical components. Letís say you want to visit my website, andyboyle.com. When you type a website into your browser (such as Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.), thatís like you asking your bartender for a drink. Your bartender then needs to figure out which fridge your drink lives in. In technical terms, your browser is using what are called DNS servers ó which are basically the phonebooks of the Internet ó to figure out the IP address ó a string of numbers that points to a specific server ó of what youíre trying to fetch.

In our case, the DNS servers tell you that andyboyle.com lives on something called Amazon S3 (Iíll explain this later), and then Amazonís servers give your browser all the items (HTML, CSS and JavaScript; again, Iíll explain this more later) it needs to assemble a totally rad website. So just like getting a beer from a fridge, the IP address hits a server and gives you back the information you want.

And now you enjoy your beer, which is like looking at a Web page. But the way you, personally, experience a beer is different from how the person sitting next to you at the bar may experience it. She may pick up on the flavor of the hops, you may only notice the beerís bitterness. This is like the difference between viewing websites in different browsers.

Put another way, your browser translates HTML, CSS and JavaScript and displays it the way that browsersí programmers decided it should look. Itís kind of like if you give five different bands the sheet music to a song by The Replacements. Theyíre not all going to cover it the same way, even though theyíve been given the same instructions.

INTERNETíS BASIC VOCABULARY

Letís learn the Internetís basic vocabulary. The building block of the Internet is HTML, which stands for Hypertext Markup Language. These are the basic tags, such as These are the basic tags, such as < p > or < strong > or < h1 >, that tell your browser a basic way to recognize what to do with the text inside them. Think of these as the frame, walls and floor of a house.

Next come CSS, which stands for cascading stylesheets. This allows you to say, ďHey, every time we have a paragraph tag on an article page, make it size 14, use this font type and make it this color.Ē This way you donít need to specifically repeat yourself over and over. Think of this as being able to decide what the frame, walls and floor of a house are going to be colored, what material theyíll be made out of and how they will be different on each floor.

Last comes JavaScript. This is something that actually ďrunsĒ in your browser. This allows you to manipulate the CSS or the HTML on your page, dynamically changing them. For instance, on many news sites, when you hover over your navigation bar, a dropdown menu pops up. Thatís generally powered by JavaScript. Think of this as a contractor who you can tell to run through your house, change one wall to purple, write ďAndy rulesĒ on the floor and add a garage.

The way most websites work is by contacting a database and displaying information. If youíve ever used a spreadsheet, thatís basically a simpler way of thinking how a database stores information, in fields and rows. When you go to an article on a news website, thatís talking to a server and saying, ďHey, send me the information stored in your database about this article.Ē It sends you the byline, the photo if there is one, the article copy, maybe links to similar stories and more.

Most modern news organizations have content management systems -- thatís the fancy way of saying the place you store and manage your website content. These systems are backed by databases so they can quickly update stories or other pieces of content. Think of when you make a Facebook status and then update it; it works in a similar way.

WEB DEVELOPMENT COSTS

The way we make the Internet is now cheaper than ever before. And itís only getting cheaper. To store one terabyte of data -- about 500,000 photos from your smartphone, for instance -- the hardware in 1992 cost about $400,000. In 2012? On Amazon Web Servicesí S3, which is a system Amazon uses to store static content (images, HTML, etc.) it costs $128 a month.

To build something on the Internet, you used to need to buy expensive servers in the tens of thousands of dollars and have pretty brainy staff support. Now servers like the ones Amazon and others provide allow you to basically ďrentĒ portions of servers for much lower costs, sometimes around $50 to $100 a month. And because theyíve made it easier to administrate your servers, this can also lower your personnel costs because you donít need someone sitting in a hot room making sure servers donít literally catch on fire.

At the Chicago Tribune, we try to use a way of making Web projects where we ďbakeĒ them out into static assets -- the barebones HTML, CSS and JavaScript (and also images). This means we donít even necessarily need to have a real server running, so we just pay for storage on Amazon S3, which has relatively cheap costs for storage and traffic. Our users canít tell the difference between these sites and something being served by a fancy database. And these websites donít go down because thereís no server to go down.

NOW GO FORTH

There. Now you know everything about the Internet. Just kidding; thatís not even remotely true. But now you have a bit more knowledge of how things work and how information gets from one spot to another, at least on a website. If youíd like to know more, take the folks who work on your website out to lunch or beers (or beers at lunch). If you donít have those people in your newsroom, Google for your answers.

I previously did a presentation on this topic at SPJ's 2012 JournCamp in Chicago. You can get the presentation materials here.

The Internet is always changing, but the fundamentals have stayed relatively static for a few decades. And if you start understanding how it works now, it will not only help better inform your coverage, but it will open your eyes to new ways of displaying that coverage online, make your work more appealing to your audience and hopefully be of more value to them in years to come, as our online audiences continue to grow.

Andy Boyle is a developer for the Chicago Tribune's TribApps team, a journalism graduate of the University of Nebraska and an SPJ trainer. Reach him at andymboyle@gmail.com or interact on Twitter: @andymboyle

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