Online Family: Your Guide to Fun and Discovery in Cyberspaceby Preston Gralla
Featuring sites on everything from health and safety to parenting advice, personal finance to family games, the Internet is a veritable cornucopia of resources for families. Now, following in the footsteps of his award-winning Online
A parents' guide to making cyberspace a safe, virtually inexhaustible source of information and entertainment for the whole family.
Featuring sites on everything from health and safety to parenting advice, personal finance to family games, the Internet is a veritable cornucopia of resources for families. Now, following in the footsteps of his award-winning Online Kids, nationally recognized family computing expert Preston Gralla provides parents with a complete guide to making the most of a potentially inexhaustible family resource. In addition to profiles of hundreds of family-related sites currently available on the Net, Gralla tutors parents in the basics of cyberspace navigation and offers valuable advice and guidance on how to keep kids safe online, how to use email effectively, and how to do everything from getting kids help with schoolwork to planning family vacations online.
Preston Gralla (Cambridge, Massachusetts) is executive editor of ZDNet and has been managing editor of PC Week, editor of PC Computing, and a regular contributor to Family PC and Computer Life. His other books include Online Kids, and two titles in the popular How It Works series.
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HOW TO GET CONNECTED: USING THE INTERNET AND ONLINE SERVICES
Cyberspace. Internet Online. The Information Superhighway. Whether or not you've been online, you've heard those words enough to last you a lifetime. Whether you're a cyberpro, or a flatout newbie, you can use a bit of help understanding it all. That's what this book will do for you.
Most of the book will be made up of listings of the best sites for families to visit on the Internet and online services. But before checking out those sites, we'll start with the basics: What cyberspace is, how you can get there, and what you can do once you've gotten online.
What Is Cyberspace?
Put simply, cyberspace is that place you visit when you hook your computer up to another computer--specifically to an online service or the Internet. What you're doing is dialing into a large computer or bank of computers that give you access to all the resources of cyberspace. Once there, you'll be able to send and receive messages and electronic mail; find vast sources of information; chat with other people; download software and other files; and even see pictures, listen to music, and watch videos.
Cyberspace generally refers to the Internet or to online services such as America Online, CompuServe, and the Microsoft Network although there are many other smaller online services out there, as well as smaller sites called bulletin boards, which are often small businesses literally run out of someone's basement.
There are many different kinds of resources you'll find in cyberspace. The most important follow.
Bulletin Boards, Forums, Newsgroups, and Chat
What may be the most important part of cyberspace is something that often gets the least attention: the ability to talk to others--for example, to talk to other parents who can advise you on the best family-friendly ski resorts in Utah, or can share their experiences toilet-training their child.
You'll mainly talk to parents and other people about topics like these by participating in public discussion areas about a specific topic, such as family travel. These areas go by a variety of different names, including bulletin boards, forums, message areas, and, on the Internet, newsgroups (sometimes called Usenet newsgroups). On the Microsoft Network they're called forums. On CompuServe they're called forums as well. On America Online they're called message boards. Figure 1.1 shows CompuServe's gardening discussion forum.
Another way to communicate is to "chat"--that is, communicate with other people live, who are online at the same time and in the same area as you, and interested in chatting about the same subject. When you chat, you don't actually speak. Instead, you type messages on your keyboard that everyone else chatting can see and respond to, and you can see and respond to what they are typing on their keyboards.
Software to Download
You'll be able to find tens of thousands of pieces of software you can download and try out for free online. Most of these files are what is called "shareware"--software you get to try out free, and only pay for if you decide to keep it. Increasingly, though, you'll even be able to try out commercial software free by downloading it before deciding whether to pay for it.
To get these files you visit an online site such as the ZDNet Software Library at http://www.hotfiles.com, and then download the files to your computer-that is, you transfer them from the Internet or an online service to your own PC or Mac. You'll find programs such as personal finance software, educational software, games, word processors, Internet-related software, and reference files as well as pictures, sounds, and videos-pretty much anything that you can view, run, or use on your computer you can download from an online site
Special Interest and General Interest Areas
Most of the areas you'll visit online are special-interest areas-areas on the Internet or an online service devoted to special interests such as parenting, travel, or computing. And there are many general-interest areas as well: large all-in-one sites run by major publishing companies such as Time Warner that cover everything from news to entertainment to travel.
Using the Internet
Before understanding how to use the Internet, it might help to first get some background about what the Internet is. The Internet is a worldwide network of computers that are hooked up to one another-in fact, it's actually a global network of networks made up of millions of computers.
Unlike online services such as America Online or CompuServe, no one owns or controls the Internet; there's no central location or group of people that runs it. Because of that, it's either the purest form of electronic democracy or the wildest form of electronic chaos on Earth, depending on your point of view.
The Internet was first created by the federal government, primarily as a way to allow the military, scientists, and universities to communicate with one another more easily and share computing resources, and also to provide a fail-safe method for them to communicate in case of war.
It began in 1969, when the Department of Defense created an experimental computer network called the ARPANET. That network soon grew into a larger network called DARPA. DARPA was used primarily by the government and by universities to communicate, share information, and share computing resources.
Gradually, more government agencies, universities, and students began using the Internet, and then businesses and finally consumers, parents, and children got on as well. The creation of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s is what led to the massive use of the Internet so that today it's nearly ubiquitous.
There are many things to do on the Internet, but three of the most popular activities are sending and receiving electronic mail; reading newsgroups (also called Usenet groups); and browsing the World Wide Web.
You get onto the Internet either through an online service such as America Online, or else by directly dialing into it via an Internet Service Provider (also called an ISP), such as AT&T WorldNet.
If you're getting onto the Internet via an online service, you'll want to visit the special areas devoted to the Internet on each service. On America Online, use the KEYWORD INTERNET. On CompuServe, GO INTERNET. The Microsoft Network is essentially built using Internet technology, so when you dial in there, you won't need to go to a special area to get onto the Internet--you're already there.
The most popular part of the Internet is the World Wide Web, a massive collection of "home pages." Home pages are a lot like online magazines and newspapers, and books that can use sounds, video, and a variety of interactive technologies. They also use hypertext, which allows you to link from one page to another just by clicking on a word or picture.
You'll be able to find just about any kind of information you can imagine on the Web. The problem is that there's so much out there that it's often hard to find what you want.
A solution is to use what are called indexes and search engines. Indexes organize the tens of thousands of sites on the Internet into an easily browsable format so that you can find what you want by looking into the proper category such as health sites, parenting sites, or vacation sites.
Search engines, on the other hand, find the information you're looking for by going out and searching the Internet for you, and then reporting the results back to you.
There are many indexes and search engines on the Internet, and more new ones are popping up every day. Some sites combine a search engine with an index. Here's a list of some of the best.
THE LOWDOWN: Search site for experienced searchers
WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: World Wide Web
If you have a good, basic understanding of how to use keywords to do searching, you'll probably find this the best search site on the Internet. it allows you to search in quite sophisticated ways, and so lets you fine-tune your search to a remarkable degree. But if you're not an experienced searcher, it's not nearly as good as Excite and Lycos, reviewed below.
THE LOWDOWN: Excellent Internet search site
WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: World Wide Web
This is one of the better search sites on the Internet. You type in words that describe what you're interested in, and it reports back on relevant sites, and includes the likelihood that each site will match your search.
The site includes an index as well, although it's not very comprehensive. And there are also links to other helpful areas, such as a comprehensive city guide called City.Net which is probably the best city guide on the Internet, a way to track stock quotes, and more.
THE LOWDOWN: Excellent Internet search site
WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: World Wide Web
This superb search site lets you find just about anything on the Internet. Type in the topic and words you're interested in, and it goes out and searches the Internet for relevant sites. It then gives a list of sites that match your search, including a general rating (0 being the lowest and 100 being the highest) of how likely the site will be of interest to you.
There's much here besides simple searching. There's also an index of sites--similar to Yahoo! though not as comprehensive. There are ways to find people you haven't heard from in years, stock quotes, an excellent guide to cities across the country, and even online road maps. Figure 1.2 shows Lycos.
THE LOWDOWN: Best index of Web sites on the Internet
WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: World Wide Web
If there's a worthwhile site on the Internet, the great odds are that you'll find it at Yahoo!, the premier index on the Internet. The site organizes the entire Internet by category, such as Education, Health, and Society and Culture. Within each category are subcategories, and often within those subcategories are even finer distinctions. When you get down to the subject subcategory you're interested in, you click on it and get a comprehensive list of home pages related to it. For example, when you click on "Children's Health" you'll get a comprehensive list of sites related to children's health. Click on any site and you'll be sent there.
Yahoo! also allows you to search for specific words. For example, if you wanted to find out about childhood diabetes, you'd type in the words "childhood diabetes" and get a list of relevant sites. Click on any relevant site and you'll be sent there.
THE LOWDOWN: Version of Yahoo! for children
WHERE YOU'LL FIND IT: World Wide Web
If your kids are interested in finding anything on the Internet and could use some help, send them here. It's a version of Yahoo! but for kids, so that it contains links to children's sites, and is organized by the kind of categories they'd be interested in, such as Entertainment, School Bell, and Sports and Recreation.
Understanding Uniform Resource Locators (URLs)
To get to any location on the Web, you use a Uniform Resource Locator, more commonly called a URL. This URL identifies the location and allows your Web browser or other Internet software to go there. Mostly, URLs seem like gibberish, but there's some sense to them. If you understand how they work, it should help you get around the Web and find what you want more easily.
The first part of a URL identifies what kind of Internet resource the location is. So http://, for example, means that the location can be found on the Web. (HTTP stands for hypertext transfer protocol, the basic language of the Web.)
Next comes the identifying information detailing where on the Internet that site can be found. If it's a Web site, this often begins with "www" (for World Wide Web). Note, however, that it doesn't have to; some Web sites forgo the "www."
Next comes letters and sometimes numbers that give the precise location of the site on the Internet. The first part of this is often descriptive, such as disney, for Disney, or whitehouse, for the White House. Then finally, at the very end of the location, come three letters that describe the general domain of the site, such as .com for commercial, or .edu for educational.
Here's a list of other common domains, and what they mean:
Other Internet Resources
The World Wide Web, newsgroups, and electronic mail may be all you'll ever use on the Internet. But the Internet is so vast that there are many more resources there as well. Here are some of the most popular.
FTP stands for file transfer protocol, a popular Internet protocol used for downloading software to your computer from the Internet, or sending files from your computer to a location on the Internet. Many of the software libraries on the Internet shield you from having to know about this protocol or how to use it, but at some sites, you'll need to use special FTP software in order to transfer files. (These sites are often called FTP sites). Check with your ISP or with your online service to get FTP software. By the way, FTP is sometimes called anonymous FTP because you'll sometimes have to type in a name and password to use it, and the name you often type in is "anonymous."
IRC is the Internet term for chat, and stands for Internet Relay Chat. You'll need special software to chat via IRC on the Internet. Again, check with your ISP or online service about where to get the best IRC software.
Gopher and WAIS are ways of getting information from databases on the Internet. WAIS is rarely used anymore, so you'll probably never come across it Some Gopher sites are still around, though, so you may still come across them. Gopher is a menuing program that lets you find information in an easily structured way. Online services generally have Gopher software built into them. And you can use your Web browser to access basic Gopher information. For a more sophisticated use of Gopher, you'll need special software. Check with your ISP or online service to see where to get the best.
Telnet is a program that lets you log onto another computer just as if it was your own. You can log onto computers across the world using this tool. Many libraries make their card catalogs available for research on the Internet via Telnet. Online services often have Telnet software built into them. If you get onto the Internet using an ISP and want to use Telnet, you'll need special Telnet software. Check with your ISP on the best Telnet software and where to get it.
Using Online Services
You may opt to use an online service instead of an ISP in order to get online and onto the Internet. When you subscribe to an online service, you're given access not just to the Internet, but also to information only available to subscribers of that service. The three most popular services for accessing the Internet are America Online, CompuServe, and the Microsoft Network. The pricing on all is similar--about $20 a month for unlimited use-and is similar to what you'll pay an ISP. Here's a rundown on what families can expect to find on each service.
America Online is easily the best online service for families. It has the most family-oriented content, areas, bulletin boards, and chats, and adds new services all the time. Figure 1.3 shows America Online's main screen.
The service is organized into general areas, such as Education, Entertainment, and Kids Only. Each area has a large number of sites within it. To get around, you simply click on icons and go.
If clicking icons isn't your style, and you want to go to somewhere fast, you can use a KEYWORD instead. When you use a KEYWORD, you jump straight to the area where you want to go, without having to hunt for icons. To use a KEYWORD, choose "Keyword" from the "GoTo" menu (or else press Control-K), and then type in the name of the keyword.
The service is particularly useful for children. The best general area for children on America Online is the Kids Only area (KEYWORD KIDS). For help with schoolwork, have them go to the Homework Help area (KEYWORD HOMEWORK) or the Reference Desk (KEYWORD REFERENCE). For parents, the Families area (KEYWORD FAMILIES) contains links to all parenting and family-related sites on the service.
Forums. There are hundreds of special-interest areas for parents throughout America Online, such as Parent Soup (KEYWORD PARENT SOUP), a comprehensive site with parenting information, bulletin boards, travel and personal finance information--in short, a one-stop area for the parent who wants to find information fast, and might like to talk to other parents as well.
Chat. The most-used features of America Online are its chat areas. Parent Soup has excellent chats, and they schedule chats just about every day of the week. There are many other chat areas you can check into, though. In addition to the public chat areas, you can also set up your own private chat rooms.
Software to Download. America Online doesn't have as much software to download as does CompuServe or the Internet, but you'll still find a fair amount. Start off at the Computing area (KEYWORD COMPUTING). For Windows shareware, go to the Windows forum (KEYWORD WINDOWS). For Macintosh shareware, head to the Macintosh shareware area (KEYWORD MAC SHAREWARE).
Internet. America Online has done an excellent job of integrating the Internet directly into its service, so that at times it may be unclear to you when you're on the Internet and when you're on America Online. In virtually every major area of America Online, there will be Web sites you can visit.
Additionally, you can read newsgroups, and use other Internet tools such as Gopher and FTP from within America Online. To use the Internet, head to the Internet Connection (KEYWORD INTERNET).
CompuServe has long been the most difficult-to-use online service, and more devoted to business than to families. That's still generally the case, although it's gotten easier to use over the years. And while there's a great deal of business-related material, there are also resources, such as those for travel and personal finance, that are worth checking out for families. You won't find the same number of chats, bulletin boards, or forums devoted to family matters on CompuServe that you will on America Online. However, ifs absolutely tops if you want help with using your computer. Figure 1.4 shows CompuServe.
As with America Online, there are general content areas that you navigate to by clicking on icons. There's also a faster way to get around by using the GO command. You can jump right to any area of CompuServe by clicking on the GO icon (or pressing Control-G), then typing in the GO word of where you're heading.
Forums. The heart of CompuServe is its forums. Each forum is devoted to a specific topic, such as aquaria and fish (GO FISHNET) or science and math (GO SCIENCE). In each forum there will be a public bulletin board where you can post, read, and respond to messages. And there will be files that you can download, such as software, pictures, or information files. Many forums hold regularly scheduled chats as well.
Research Areas. CompuServe is superb if you need to do research. It has vast databases of information, such as magazine articles, or health information, that can be helpful to parents. Unfortunately, though, many of those databases can cost a substantial amount of money to use, and in short order you can spend a fair amount of money. Because of that, make sure you know the costs before you enter a database that charges extra for its use, and make sure you know exactly what you want to find before heading there.
Chat. You won't find nearly as many parents and families to chat with on CompuServe as you will on America Online. Still, there are chat areas. These are generally found in individual forums, so when you find a forum that helps you with family-related information, check to see its schedule.
Software to Download. Here's one area where CompuServe is superior to America Online. It has vast software collections, and many individual forums have software to download as well.
Internet. Like all the other services, you can use CompuServe to get onto the Internet. You can browse the World Wide Web, send and receive e-mail, and read newsgroups. You can also receive files via FTP, and use Gopher, Telnet, and other Internet resources. To do any of this, GO INTERNET
The Microsoft Network
The Microsoft Network is the newest of the big online services. You'll need a copy of Windows95 and a PC in order to use it. In the few years that the Microsoft Network has been in existence, it has undergone several complete redesigns. As this book went to print, it was in the midst of yet another one, and the service remains a bit confusing to use. Figure 1.5 shows its main screen.
The Microsoft Network is much better for families than CompuServe, although still not as useful as America Online. It has some superb sites for families, such as Disney Blast (available from the main page of the Microsoft Network), but there are not nearly as many of those sites as there are on America Online. And in general, the service is somewhat disorganized, so it's not always easy to find the information you want. The Microsoft Network is Internet-based, so there's no separate area where you go to in order to get onto the Internet; once you dial in, you're on the Internet.
You get around the Microsoft Network in two ways. Across the bottom of the screen are a number of different "channels" such as "MSNBC News Info" and "Entertainment Fun Games." Click on any of them to see related areas. What makes things confusing, though, is that those channels don't contain all the sites on the service. To get to other areas, you'll have to click on "Essentials" on the top of the screen, and then look for relevant areas.
You can do the same things on the Microsoft Network that you can elsewhere in cyberspace.
Chat. For a list of all the that areas, click on "Communicate" on the top of the screen, and then click on "Chat Central." The chat areas aren't nearly as frequently visited as the ones on America Online, and there's not as much of specific interest to parents.
Forums. The discussion areas on the Microsoft Network are called forums. There are not nearly as many forums here as there are on America Online or on CompuServe. Still, there are some good ones for parents, and they're worth checking out. Click on "Communicate" at the top of the screen, then go to the "Communicate Home Page" and get the complete list of forums.
Special-Interest Sites. You'll find places on the Microsoft Network that combine pictures, words, and sounds in a kind of multimedia magazine. In fact, the Microsoft Network makes the most sophisticated use of technology anywhere when building these sites, and they're remarkable to visit. The travel site, Expedia, for example, makes great use of technology to help you make travel plans for your family. Unfortunately, there simply aren't enough of these sites yet, and only a handful that are of relevance to parents.
Internet. The Microsoft Network lets you browse the World Wide Web using a built-in Web browser, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. To browse the Internet, you only need to type the URL you want to visit right on the Microsoft Network screen and you'll go to the site.
Meet the Author
PRESTON GRALLA is a journalist, author, and experienced online surfer who writes for Family PC, Computer Life, and other magazines. An Executive Editor at ZDNet, he is the author of Online Kids: A Young Surfer's Guide to Cyberspace (Wiley), PC Computing Guide to Shareware, and How the Internet Works.
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