Explaining the Internet to a Five Year Old

This post originally appeared on my Conchango Blog in 2007.

I was having a chat with some friends the other day and we ended up talking about how one might describe the internet to a child.
One of my friends described how, whilst fixing his router, his flatmate’s 5-year old boy asked him, “Why isn’t the Internet in my computer anymore?”. My friend was a little stumped by this question, so he asked the boy what he thought the Internet was. The boy replied, “Google”. Funnily enough, we all pretty much joked that this was the sort of answer our parents would give too. So we started trying to come up with a nice simple definition he could give to the boy.
One of my friends, who hails from Israel, came up with this analogy:
  • Imagine your fingers are numbered 1-10.
  • You can touch each finger to another finger.
  • Imagine that one of your fingers is your computer.
  • You can touch a finger to the neighbouring computer-fingers on your hands, but you can also touch the fingers of other people anywhere in the world.
  • Touching fingers communicates with them and shares information with them.
  • If you can’t directly touch another person’s finger, you can pass messages through someone else.
Another, from Missouri, suggested: “The internet is computers in the world connected to each other, each computer can see stuff that is on the other computer”.
One friend, from Glasgow suggested, “It’s where daddy looks at ladies”.
Another chap, from Croydon, suggested that we should think of tubes or pipes, with water flowing through them.
Of course, there’s always wikipedia, for those of us who like to skip through thinking about how we would define the internet and instead get our definitions ready-made. Well, I say “ready-made”, but of course these ideas are “ready-made” by an ocean of users generating entries at a rate of 200 articles per day.
The other interesting thing about this whole conversation was the group of friends, and the way we were having the conversation. We’ve known each other for years and do things as a group very frequently. What’s remarkable about them is that I would never have met them if it wasn’t for the internet, and apart from meeting up with them in “Real-Life” a couple of times a year, most of our contact is over the Web. Our whole conversation was conducted in our own bulletin board forum. Perhaps this is what we should be using to explain the internet to a child – the internet is a place where people from around the world can share ideas, and build bridges to each other.
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