After an enlightening conversation with an anonymous benefactor, I feel obligated to summarize my newfound understanding of how website ownership works. I’ll write this as a high-level walk-through from the point of view of somebody trying to create a new website.
Buying an Internet Property
The first thing you need is a domain name. That’s the address of the ‘house’ where your website will live. You need to buy this from the domain name ‘police’. They call themselves ICANN, and they are an international organization that regulates domain names. You can imagine the shenanigans that might arise if nobody was making sure domain names were only used once at a time. You might go ahead and buy a ‘house’, only to find that somebody else is already living there.
In practice, many (if not most) domain names have already been bought up in bulk by companies such as GoDaddy. Think of these as landlords. You will probably end up buying or renting your address from one of these companies, who will in turn inform the ICANN that your website is now ‘living’ at that domain name.
Managing Your Internet Property
You just bought an empty house. Now you had better put something there! Your domain name is like the street address of the house, and typing the domain name into your browser is like driving to that address. At this point, visitors would arrive and find only an empty house. Things would be rather boring.
You need to ensure that somebody is home to answer the door when people come a-knockin’. Since you can’t do the job yourself, you need to hire a ‘butler’. When people visit your domain name, the butler will answer on your behalf. It will greet your visitors, and guide them through the house.
Visitors can ask the butler to show them a room of the house, and it will, if you have instructed it to do so. Visitors can deliver messages to your butler, and it will write them down and pass them along to you, if you have instructed it to do so. Visitors can ask the butler to show them a picture of a cat wearing a hat made of bread, and it will, if you have instructed it to do so, and if you have such a picture somewhere in the house.
The butler is controlled by a computer program that you will create. It has access to any files you have given it. You need a computer, known as a server, to run your butler.
You can use a personal computer as your server, if you like. However, whenever your computer is off, the butler will be asleep. Visitors may come to the house and knock on the door, but nobody will answer. This is known as the server being ‘down’.
The other option is to rent a server from some company that will ‘host’ your website. Again, GoDaddy is one of the major players in this business. When you rent a server to host your website, you’re ensuring the butler is always ready to welcome your guests.
So now you have hired a butler. It will answer whenever someone comes to visit your website. The final step is to decide what your butler will do with the visitors once they enter your website.
You give your butler instructions by writing them in files, and then storing those files on the server. Anytime a visitor arrives at your website, the server will read those files, run the program they describe, and relay the output to your visitor’s browser.
You also need to fill the rooms of your butler’s house with any images, videos, or other documents that your butler will need. These data files are also stored on the server, and the butler will access them when your instruct it to do so.
The butler program, in combination with your data files, form the heart and soul of your website. From this point onwards, website design is a matter of choosing what data to store on your website, and when and how your butler will relay that information to your visitors. This can get as complicated as you like, and I won’t say anything else on the matter for now.
A website has an ‘address’, called a domain name. Visitors come to your website by typing the domain name into their browsers. You need to buy a domain name on which to locate your website, just like you need to buy a plot of land on which to locate a home or business.
The website you build will have two parts: a ‘butler’ program designed to meet and greet visitors, and a ‘house’ filled with data files needed for the operation of your website.
Finally, you need a physical computer to run the butler program and store your data files. This computer is called a server. You can use your own computer as a server, or you can rent a server from a website hosting company.