The internet is a super highway of information. It helps us to do research, complete purchases and even watch funny cat videos if you want. In fact, you can use the internet to find or do practically anything.

If you’re new to using the internet, this beginners guide will help you understand what the internet is and how it actually works.

If you’ve come here to find out how to get started with the internet, our basics of browsing the internet will help you understand how to do things like choose an internet provider, get connected to the internet and learn how your device works.

What is the Internet?

The internet is made up of a huge network of interconnected computers, servers and devices that enable information (data) to be shared around the world in the blink of an eye. It’s pretty impressive when you think about it. When you’re connected to the internet you can watch videos, play computer games or shop from your own device from anywhere in the world and at any time. There so much you can do online, but how does it work? Watch this short video* to find out:

What is the Internet used for?

We use the internet for many things, and due to the pandemic even more of us than ever before are using the internet regularly as part of our everyday lives at work and at home. Here are a few of the things you might be using it for:

  • Email: short for electronic mail, it’s a digital way to send and receive information over the internet including text, images, attachments and links.
  • Ecommerce: Online shopping can be a convenient way to shop. You can find most things online: groceries, clothing, and even gardening equipment and plants. The things you buy can usually be delivered straight to your door.
  • Research: If you’re looking for a particular item, or writing a paper about something you’re not familiar with, the internet can help you find out more. It’s worth knowing how to spot fake sites though – check this page to find out how to avoid misinformation. (link to wings)
  • Education: the internet allows teachers, parent and students to access important educational resources online. Online learning platforms have helped many families get through home-schooling. Find out more here. (link to wings page)
  • Data storage: Who hasn’t received a data storage warning on their device? Not many of us. Fortunately, data can be stored online through the internet allowing you to free up space on your devices so they work the way they’re meant to.
  • Video conferencing: During lockdown many of us had to work from home and couldn’t attend face to face meetings. The Internet has enabled us to talk to other people and still see their faces, allowing us to gauge how the meeting is going, and ensure everyone is participating.
  • Social media: being able to see what your friends and family have been up to, hear their ideas, and even share pictures of your own proud moments remotely can be facilitated by using social media.
  • Online banking: If you have digital banking, you might not need to visit a bank in person to complete the majority of simple bank transactions. Your computer can’t print money, but depending on your banking facilities you can pay bills, create saving accounts, or even apply for a loan.

You can even look down on Earth from the international space station using the internet, via streams provided by NASA.


What are Internet Services?

The internet uses internet services to allow you to do all the things listed above, let’s take a closer look at some examples of online services to see how they work and how to use them:

1. Communication Services

Being able to communicate using the internet can help us stay connected with people wherever they are in the world. Email is a prime example of a type of communication service that many of us use regularly at work and for personal use too. Email helps us to keep in touch in a really efficient way, but it’s not the only type of communication service.

You can communicate online in a variety of different ways including instant messaging using tools such as Messenger or WhatsApp, and through video calling using applications like Microsoft Teams or Zoom. The rollout of super-fast broadband networks has meant that these services are easier and can be more practical than sitting together in an office.

Colleague connecting to a video call

2. Information Retrieval Services (IRS)

If you’ve ever been to a library to find a specific book, chances are that you or the librarian would use the library IRS to find it. When the name of the book is entered into the system, its unique index code or number will tell you exactly where you can find it in the library – as long as it’s been put back on the right shelf. Every single book in the library will have a unique code on it to help readers find the book they want.

This is a very basic type of IRS, but it’s pretty much the same on the internet. Instead of having to walk around a library with a piece of paper and a number written down, you type what information you’d like to retrieve into a search engine and hopefully, the IRS you’re using will take you straight to the right place to find the data you’re after. It does this by using metadata stored in websites to calculate whether the information is what you’re looking for.

Watch this short video* to see what metadata is:

3. World Wide Web Services

Most people have heard of the World Wide Web (WWW), it’s the collection of information and webpages found on the internet. Invented by computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989, he wanted an easy way to share data and documents about his experiments with other scientists. He suggested using three main technologies and computer languages to do this - HTML, URL and HTTP, all of which are still in use today, enabling us all to find the things we’re looking for quickly and easily.

4. eCommerce Services

The internet and the world wide web has helped the introduction and growth of ecommerce globally, enabling you to buy or sell almost anything, from anywhere in the world across a variety of online shopping sites, marketplaces and auctions.

To be able to sell things online, retailers will use a variety of ecommerce services to help them. These types of services use data to help them manage things like pricing, stock levels, and payment processes so that when a customer looks at an item, they’ll be able to find out if the item is available, how much it costs and the expected delivery fees.

When items are sold, data is then shared in another part of the ecommerce service which will do things like update the warehouse, create an automated email to the customer, and instruct bank payments to be processed.

It’s really important that anyone buying or selling online uses secure payment methods. You can find out more about shopping safely online in this Digital Wings article.

Young couple browsing the internet on a tablet

The internet allows us all to discover and enjoy the world we live in, providing a vast amount of information at our fingertips. Used well, it can open our eyes to parts of the planet we’d never normally see, provide the answers to questions that stump us, and buy things that arrive the very next day. Knowing how the internet works, can help us understand why things work the way they do.

Now you know the basics of how the internet works, take a look at these articles to learn about how to stay safe when you’re online.


Find out how to start using the internet

Basics of using the internet

Find out more about staying safe online

Keep safe online


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This article is an independent document and is neither affiliated with, nor authorised, sponsored, or approved by any of the brand names mentioned within. All trademarks are the property of their respective owners. There are other services available and Barclays does not specifically endorse or recommend the use of the services mentioned in this article.

* The content in these videos is independent and is neither affiliated with, nor authorised, sponsored, created or approved by Barclays. All trademarks are the property of their respective owners. There are other services available and Barclays does not specifically endorse or recommend the use of any services mentioned in this video.