Give people the opportunity to do something great, though, and they’ll inevitably do something human. As it turns out, people took to the ARPANET for simple purposes—like e-mail, as Bob Kahn had noted. “Network message service was an immediate success,” wrote D. Austin Henderson and Theodore Myer in a 1978 paper. “Message flow grew in volume to become the most visible (if not the heaviest) traffic component on the network. Use of the service has had a substantial impact on the organizations involved, stimulating dramatic shifts of dependence away from the traditional media (postal service, telephone).”

As Ian R. Hardy related years later in “The Evolution of ARPANET email”, Licklider didn’t see this coming:

Licklider aimed to make computers active participants in the formation of ideas rather than mere calculators of formulaic algorithms or digital transmission belts for ideas already formed. Electronic mail would simply have been too trivial an application to take its place among Licklider’s plans for achieving ‘man-computer symbiosis.’

Licklider and his colleagues didn’t predict the human communicative aspect of the ARPANET, but, in retrospect, they shouldn’t have been so surprised. They had built a network infrastructure that was reliable, adaptable, scalable, and inexpensive, with no central authority controlling how it was used. Its utility was defined by its users.

In a 1968 paper entitled “The Computer as a Communications Device,” Licklider and Robert Taylor wrote about how they thought networking would impact people’s lives: “[W]e are entering a technological age in which we will be able to interact with the richness of living information—not merely in the passive way that we have become accustomed to using books and libraries, but as active participants in an ongoing process, bringing something to it through our interaction with it, and not simply receiving something from it by our connection to it.”

But Licklider and Taylor were wrong. The Internet was paradigmatic not because it improved on the library, but because it improved on the telephone.


Everybody’s Talkin’

In 2001, a mathematician named Andrew Odlyzko published a paper entitled “Content is not king,” in which he argued that the Internet’s utility as a content-delivery system paled in comparison to its utility as a communications medium. (Odlyzko defined content as “material prepared by professionals to be used by large numbers of people, material such as books, newspapers, movies, or sports events”—material primarily created for passive consumption. It might spur thought, discussion, or action—but those are secondary, incidental goals.) Odlyzko suggested that you could use economic criteria to assess how people actually used the Internet. Historically, he noted, people were willing to pay eight times as much for point-to-point communications as for content. When given a choice between giving up e-mail or the Web, people overwhelmingly chose to give up the Web.

Odlyzko was making a deceptively simple point. You might assume that the great attraction of the Internet is the easily accessible content found online. Not so, said Odlyzko: what people really like is the way the Internet enables and enhances opportunities for interpersonal sociability. Although Odlyzko’s thesis might sound heretical, a quick look at Internet history confirms its general validity. An examination of a few seminal Internet applications indicates how thoroughly the Internet is defined by its communicative aspects.

As Hafner and Lyon note in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, ARPANET e-mail was immediately popular—the network’s first “killer app.” “It just happened,” wrote Henderson and Myer, “and its early history has seemed more like the discovery of a natural phenomenon that [sic] the deliberate development of new technology.”

While the ARPANET was still used for transacting “serious” scientific business, its users eventually realized that these incidental communications were a serious business, too. As Ian R. Hardy notes in “The Evolution of ARPANET email”:

Electronic mail over the ARPANET quickly became an integral component in institutional communications patterns. Primarily for this reason the ARPA community began to view the ARPANET as an essential utility on a par with the telephone system, electricity, or jet transportation. “People began to depend upon it,” Frank Heart recounts. “Especially as electronic mail became an important component of the use of the system, people began to assume it was going to exist.” This general assumption demonstrates a profound reliance on email within the ARPA community. The ARPANET came to be viewed as an indispensable resource precisely because it carried network mail.

The world does not operate under monastic rule, with its inhabitants locked in their cells, reading and learning only for purposes of quiet contemplation. When most people learn or read something interesting, they want to take that material and pass it along.

Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review.