This glossary offers introductory definitions (aimed at non-technical audiences) of common terminology frequently used on this website, as well as in hosted or linked primary sources.

General Terms

  • Microcomputer: A term describing small, inexpensive computers that use microprocessor chips for the CPU and include pre-embedded memory and input/output (I/O) slots. Originally, the term was used to differentiate these small, personal machines from larger multi-user computers, such as a mainframe or supercomputer. By the 1990s, however, “microcomputer” had largely been replaced by “personal computer” as the term of choice.

  • Computer Storage Media: Any medium for storing and moving data from one computer to the next. For definitions and examples of relevant consumer-grade storage media, see the Rhode Island Computer Museum’s History of Computer Data Storage

  • ISP (Internet Service Provider): An organization, either commercial, non-profit, or community-owned, that provides the services needed to access and use the Internet. Though the NSFNET (the backbone of what would become the Internet) wasn’t fully opened for commercial use until 1995, the first ISP offering Internet access opened in 1989.

  • IP Address: Short for Internet Protocol address, a numerical designation used to identify a device connected to a given network. Two addressing standards are currently in use, Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4), which commonly look like, and  Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), which commonly look like 2001:db8:0:1234:0:567:8:1. Most home networks use IPv4, and certain addresses (such as are reserved for private network use.

  • Modem: Short for modulator-demodulator, a device that converts digital data to an analog format for transmission. Early consumer-grade modems primarily audio format for transmission via commercial phone lines. Since the mid-2000s, the variety of transmission media available to consumers have grown to include both conventional cable and fiber optic cables. In contrast to standalone modems, modems in cellular phones use radio signals for transmission.

  • Router: A device that manages internet traffic between different computer networks. Upon receiving a data packet, the router reads the attached address information in order to know where to “route” the data next.

Digital Platforms and Networks

  • Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET): An early experimental government-funded computer network that fostered some of the modern Internet's core technologies, such as TCP/IP protocol. Development of ARPANET was funded through the U.S. Government's Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency, and many of its early nodes were U.S.-based research universities. ARPANET officially launched in 1971 and continued to grow until the mid-1980s, when it was gradually phased out in favor of a series of smaller networks focused on specific needs, such as MILNET for military use and NSFNET for networking university supercomputing centers. NSFNET would eventually be privatized in 1995, providing the early physical backbone for modern Internet networks.

  • Bulletin Board System (BBS): One of the earliest publicly available computer-based digital communication media. Specially designed BBS software allowed a microcomputer to be used as a server other users could dial into via modem. Logged in users could access all of a given board’s available functions, including downloading files, sending and receiving messages, playing games, or synchronous chat. BBSes first emerged in the late 1970s and grew in popularity, hitting their peak in the mid-1990s. The introduction of the World Wide Web and browsers, however, led to their rapid decline beginning in 1995.

  • FidoNet: The first national (and eventually international) BBS network. FidoNet used a store-and-forward system that allowed BBS users to exchange both private emails and and public forum messages, as well as files and protocols, between BBSes. Files were "stored" during the day and then "forwarded" overnight via telephone line to other nodes on the network, in order to take advantage of cheap call rates. The network is divided into Zones (roughly based on geographic continents) and networks within those Zones. Finally, each participating BBS is assigned a node number. While FidoNet remains active to this day, its membership and use shrank alongside the declining BBS format in the mid-1990s.

  • Usenet: A system of distributed discussion groups, or newsgroups,  accessible via any internet-connected device. Initially founded in 1980, Usenet’s core architecture is distributed across a large, constantly shifting collection of servers ferrying user messages to subscribers across the network. Using specialized newsreader software or a web-based service, an individual can both read and post to newsgroups. While it’s possible to moderate a newsgroup, most newsgroups were unmoderated—which also allowed users to engage in frequent trolling and flaming. Usenet saw frequent usage throughout the 1980s and 1990s, though use began to decline in the early 2000s as users migrated to newer discussion formats, such as social media sites.

  • IM (Instant messaging): A chat format that describes protocols which allow real-time synchronous transmission between at least two parties which are all connected to the same network. IM includes a variety of different open source formats, such as IRC, and proprietary commercial clients, including ICQ, AIM (AOL Instant Messenger), WhatsApp, Slack, or Discord.

  • IRC (Internet Relay Chat): A chat protocol that enabled stable, synchronous chat between users in labeled rooms, known as channels (such as #gayteen). Channels are maintained by administrators and moderators, who retain control over room content and user participation. Notably, most IRC servers allow users to self-assign their username, or nick, and change them over time. While IRC remained popular throughout the 1990s into the early 2000s, its users have gradually declined since then.

Digital Tools and Terminology

  • Baud: A unit used to measure data transfer speeds. The baud rate of a given modem determined how many bits per second (kbs) could be transmitted. A 9600 baud modem from the 1980s, for example, can transmit 9.6kb/sec, while a 1990s-era 56K modem (56,000 baud), could transmit 56kb/sec. BBSes would often include baud rates in their listings to indicate their overall speed.

  • Sysop: Short for System Operator, the individual responsible for maintaining a system with multiple users, such as a Bulletin Board System. Unlike a moderator on a commercial service, the sysop is often the primary or sole operator, including paying all operating costs and moderating user disputes.

  • Killfile: A file used by some Usenet reader software to discard Usenet posts matching some unwanted patterns of subject, author, or other header lines, as assigned by the user. Much like a contemporary block or mute button, being added to a killfile meant the user would avoid encountering posts about killfiled topics or individuals.

  • Internet Filter: Software that restricts what a user can access online. Access restrictions vary based on the different products - while some require an administrator to define what is blocked, others use premade blocklists. Sometimes filtering software is described as “nannyware,” a reference to a specific branded product, Net Nanny, while opponents of filtering use the term “censorware.” Within the United States, interest in filtering software rose following the overturning of the Communications Decency Act. For more information on this case, see the associated teaching guide.

  • Hypertext: Any text displayed on a computer that contains links to other documents that can be accessed immediately. Notably, hypertext differs from other organizational systems in its branching nature, in contrast to other existing linear or hierarchical approaches. Webpages are written in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).

  • Hyperlink: A link that connects a source document to another piece of data. Hyperlinks are a key feature of hypertext documents.

  • “Walled Garden:” A phrase used to describe a platform that was a fully enclosed ecosystem, wherein users can only access content and areas within the platform. Pre-web services such as America Online (AOL), which often restricted what its users could access outside of their proprietary client, was often described using this term.

This work was completed with the generous support of Humanities Washington as part of the Public Humanities Fellows program.