The Internet -- and by default its hard-to-separate little brother, the World Wide Web -- was initially conceived with the high-minded goal of instant global communication and top-speed world-wide commerce.
According to some local and national experts, though, what people actually use the Net and the Web for has veered slightly off course into the nether realms of cyberspace.
"It was a good dream," said Cape Girardeau resident Jack Rickard, the former editor of a now-defunct Internet trade magazine in Denver. "It started out as a dream to communicate on a global basis. They wanted to create a world-wide network of information."
No one can question that part of the dream has been realized, as the Internet has become a massive network of networks, a hard-wired infrastructure that connects millions of computers and users globally.
Its popularity has been greatly increased by the World Wide Web, the means to access information -- from instantaneous stock updates to Paris Hilton's infamous amateur video -- over the medium of the Internet.
In fact, while the roots of the Internet can be traced to the 1950s, the development of the World Wide Web began on Aug. 1, 1990, meaning that the WWW turns 15 years old today.
Unfortunately, Rickard said, along the way, what the Internet and the Web also has become good at is sending him unwanted e-mail offerings -- selling discounted prescription drugs, offering low-interest home mortgages or even hawking products that promise to make certain body parts bigger.
"That's not what the dream was about," Rickard said with a chuckle.
It's been a debate for 10 years, since the Internet and Web really first took off, jumping from a few thousand users to nearly everyone either working with computers and the Internet or using them for entertainment.
Has the Internet and the Web been good for the wide world?
It's easy to make the case against it, with child pornography running rampant, identity theft becoming more common, Hollywood raging against pirated movies and music and plagiarism becoming harder to detect by academia.
But Rickard and others say, overall, the good outweighs the bad.
"The power to create is the power to make ugly," Rickard said. "It's done that. But this network can be used to make good and it's done that, too."
In sectors across society, from education and commerce to communication and information, the Internet has been "a minor revolution," said John Weber, assistant vice president for information technology at Southeast Missouri State University.
The Web has been good for schools like Southeast, he said, where only 20 percent or so of students live on campus and 30 percent are considered "non-traditional students," because they are married, continuing their education later in life or some other reason.
More than 100 classes are offered online, he said, which makes it easier for students to do work outside of the classroom.
Even classroom settings are changing he said, thanks to the Web. Many classes are now "mixed," meaning that part are taught in the classroom and part online.
"All sorts of different methods and modes are coming into play," he said.
But it hasn't been all good at places of higher learning. Some students use the Web to cheat, according to Dr. Jim Dufek, who teaches television courses at Southeast.
"You can cheat," Dufek said. "I have found students who have done it. Some have turned in the same paper that had been on the Web. I try to keep current, but it changes every day. It's difficult. There are even Web sites out there that sell research papers."
In the world of commerce, the Internet has changed the way people do business, according to Dr. Bruce Domazlicky, director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Southeast.
It also affects consumers, who can save money by buying online if they choose to.
"They no longer have to get in the car and go somewhere to buy something," he said. "What the Web has done is reduce the cost to the consumer. In a matter of a few mouse clicks, you can buy something."
That means that businesses are almost required to have a Web presence to succeed, Domazlicky said.
"It's a necessity anymore," he said. "The Web has had a very important impact on business. And it's going to grow over time, as more people get connected. All that feeds on itself."
But it also draws out scam artists, who con people out of their money through phony promotions or stealing personal information to gain access to personal online accounts.
Steve Maldanado, project development manager for Internet provider Big River Telephone, said it's harder to spot con artists because of the Web.
"Thirty years ago, they would have been on the street corner flipping cards around," he said. "Now they're sending you e-mails."
All in all, for ill or good, the Web has changed the world.
"It's what you make of it," Rickard said. "You can create something great or you can create something ugly. It's the people using it who have to decide what they're going to do with it."
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Internet or World Wide Web -- what's the difference?
No, they're not interchangeable. They are two terms that apply to two separate, but related, things. The Internet is the network, or infrastructure, that actually connects the computers. The World Wide Web, or simply Web, is a way of accessing information over the medium of the Internet. The WWW is an information-sharing model that it built on top of the Internet.
World Wide Web timeline
* 1957: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite. In response, U.S. forms the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) within the Department of Defense to get ahead of the Soviets in science and technology that could be used for military purposes.
* 1965: ARPA sponsors a study on the "cooperative network of time-sharing computers," allegedly to figure out a way to keep communication flowing in case of a nuclear attack. The TX-2 computer at MIT and a computer at a systems development corporation in California are directly linked via a phone line.
* 1969: The ARPANET is commissioned. The precursor to the Internet, ARPANET was a large wide-area network that served as a testbed for new networking technologies, linking many universities and research centers. The first two nodes, or processing locations, that formed the ARPANET were UCLA and the Stanford Research Institute, followed shortly thereafter by the University of Utah.
* 1971: By this year, there are 15 nodes and 23 hosts.
* 1975: First ARPANET mailing list, MsgGroup, is created. Meanwhile, a science fiction list, SF-Lovers, was to become the most popular unofficial list in the early days.
* March 26, 1976: Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, sends out an e-mail.
* 1984: Domain name system introduced.
* Nov. 2, 1988: Internet worm burrows through the Net, affecting 6,000 of the now 60,000 hosts on the Internet.
* 1989: Number of hosts breaks 100,000.
* Aug. 1, 1990: Development begins for the world's first Internet browser called the World Wide Web, which culminates in the first Web-client communication over the Internet in December 1990.
* December 1992: First Web server outside of Europe set up at Stanford University.
* Today: The Internet has become a massive network of networks, connecting millions of computers globally, forming a network in which any computer can communicate with any other computer, as long as they are connected to the Internet. The World Wide Web is the means to accessing information over the medium of the Internet.
Sources: World Wide Web Consortium, Webopedia.