Archive for March, 2010

Communicating via the web

28 March 2010

I started trying to communicate via the web before I knew anything about it; I’m still pretty ignorant. My big question was: How is anyone going to find what I have to say? It’s its own whole technology.

So when you ask a search engine something, it tries to list out for you all the thousands of people screaming for your attention. And the ones who scream the loudest are at the top of the list. To me, the whole thing’s pretty primitive.

In school I’ve been learning how the web works. But the earlier questions don’t get asked: Is the web still being used for what it was designed to do? (And by the way, what WAS it designed to do?) Is the web a well-thought-out activity with a definite philosophy behind it, a set of design goals, etc.?

Most people either asked these questions long ago (and presumably received some sort of answer) or else have never bothered to ask.

Now: I know what I can do on the web. I can e-mail people and get e-mails from people, and we can exchange files and links and stuff like that over these channels.

I can also buy all kinds of stuff online if I am willing to expose my debit card number on a public network.

And I know what I can’t easily do on the web: Easily find reliable information about specific subjects I am interested in. Some info is harder to find. If it’s techical, especially computer-related, it’s easier to find. The more into the humanities you go, the harder good information is to find.

Now here are some basics which I may get back to in more detail at some point. No one really talks about these things that much. It’s the age-old question: Does the end-user need to understand the technology behind what he is using or not? My answer is that life would probably go better if he did.

The web is a public computer network based on the client-server model and using a set of control software, most of which are known as “protocols” and which is known collectively as “TCP/IP” or the “Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol.” The current version of this software was designed to exchange text messages over long distances using mostly publicly-available transmission media such as tlephone lines and microwave radio links. It was not designed to transmit data in a particularly secure manner.

Internet content providers have SERVERS connected to the network that make content available to CLIENTS connected to the network. A client uses software called a “browser” to communicate to a server. When the server receives a request from a client it initiates a “session” to keep track of that connection until the client signals that it wants to end the connection. A server may provide simple “static” pages, as requested by the client. These are text files coded with a system known as HTML (HyperText Markup Language). This system provides “tags” on content that instruct the browser how to treat or display that content.

“Active” pages change their content in response to user input. HTML provides only limited funtionality in this regard. Thus languages were developed to enhancce this functionality either at the server (“server-side”), when the server receives data from the client, or in embedded scripts (“client-side”) which the browser is capable of running that will allow it to change the content in a page by itself. Shopping sites, for instance, use server-side programming to choose what products and data to display based on requests sent by the shopper from his or her browser.

In the class I was taking at Seattle Central Communitiy College from Bill Neuman (ITC 280) we were using an open-source server-side scripting language called PHP to display content from a database according to user selections. PHP is only one of several server-side programming technologies.

When you build your own content page at a site like squidoo, you are using some sort of server-side application customized for that site. It uploads content after you type it in and creates a web page for you.

You can also develop your own web pages and upload them to a server as a complete finished site. Such matters were being discussed in my various “ITC280” posts to my instructor.