Something to Talk About

The Internet as a communications tool

The irony is that in all its various guises—commerce, research, and surfing—the Web is already so much a part of our lives that familiarity has clouded our perception of the Web itself. To understand the Web in the broadest and deepest sense… one must understand how the Web came to be.” - Tim Berners-Lee, Weaving the Web

The inventors of the Internet knew what they thought they were doing. In the mid-1960s, the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency initiated a project called the ARPANET: a network that would link computers at affiliated research institutions around the country. In October of 1972, ARPANET made its public debut at the first International Conference on Computer Communications, a meeting of about 1,000 scientists and engineers who shared both an interest in the nascent field of computer networking and an inarticulate hunch that digital networks would, in some way, change the world.

For three days, as if on an excursion to the future, DoD scientists demonstrated the network’s myriad possibilities. Conference attendees ran air traffic control simulations. They accessed the AP news wire. They even played remote games of chess. As Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon tell it in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, their history of the Internet’s early days, “Executives, engineers, and technicians from the telecommunications and computer industries, a good number of them, entered the room skeptical of the ARPANET and packet switching. Many left believing the technology might be real after all.”

The success of the ARPANET demonstration suggested that truly great things were on the network horizon. And yet, as Hafner and Lyon relate: “Bob Kahn [best known as the co-inventor of the TCP/IP data transfer protocols] had just devoted a year of his life to demonstrating that resource-sharing over a network could really work. But at some point in the course of the event, he turned to a colleague and remarked, ‘You know, everyone really uses this thing for electronic mail.’”

News organizations have had trouble adapting to the digital world because they operate under a broadcast sensibility. They produce discrete bits of content—finished products meant for passive consumption.

In many ways, the story of the Internet is a story of mistaken identity. From the 1960s to the present, networking enthusiasts have consistently imagined the Internet in their own images, confusing what it actually is with what they have wanted it to be. The Internet is the shopping mall to end all shopping malls. The Internet is the ultimate home entertainment system. The Internet is the future of education. The Internet is the world’s greatest library. The Internet will democratize the entire planet.

To varying extents, the Internet fits all of these definitions. But, then, they are primarily aspirational. (“Wouldn’t it be great if the Internet could be used as an educational tool?” “If only we could use computers to sell more shoes!”) Strip away the ambition and rhetorical grandiosity, however, and the Internet, at its base, is revealed as something far more humble but no less transformative.

The lasting takeaway of the ARPANET demonstration and the topics discussed at the conference was a strangely old-fashioned one: computer networks would have the greatest impact not in the way that they connected computers to one another, but in the ways that they connected people to one another. Like the telephone and the postal service before it, the ARPANET—and its successor, the Internet, which debuted in the mid-1970s as a “super network” that linked other extant computer networks—was and is a communications tool that eases human efforts to share information and experiences, and to form interest groups through these communications. Arguably, it has found its greatest use as an instrument of sociability, rather than edification.

Whether via direct communications (e-mail, instant message, etc.) or display communications (newsgroups, bulletin boards, Facebook, etc.), the Internet has always been good at connecting its users to one another, and its utility in that function has been the key factor in its widespread adoption. The most popular and powerful network applications—for instance, the ones mentioned immediately above—are the ones that understand and acknowledge this point.

News organizations have had trouble adapting to the digital world because they operate under a broadcast sensibility. They produce discrete bits of content—finished products meant for passive consumption. After all, print, radio, and television aren’t two-way media; it is hard to foster communications when only one side is able to speak.

But the Internet, like the telephone, is a two-way medium. Early telephone entrepreneurs thought that the telephone might be used to broadcast dramas and lectures into households. They were wrong. Most news organizations tend to treat the Web in a similar manner: broadcasting their articles into the receiver, unconcerned that the other party might also have something to say.

Those news organizations that would build a successful site or forge a valid online business model would do well to remember—or realize in the first place—that the Internet is a medium in the word’s truest sense. It is something that exists in the between. It is connective tissue. “Neither utopia nor dystopia,” writes Manuel Castells in The Internet Galaxy, “the Internet is the expression of ourselves—through a specific code of communication, which we must understand if we want to change our reality.”

”The Library of the Future”

Perhaps the most enduring metaphor used to explain the Internet is that of the infinite library—a limitless store of human knowledge and experience that can be accessed, modified, and disseminated by anyone with a network connection; a collaborative, communitarian information utopia that exists in order to set things free. That was J.C.R. “Lick” Licklider’s idea, at least.

There were many, many people involved in the creation and construction of what would come to be called the Internet, but most historians agree that Licklider was the conceptual mastermind behind the initial project. Licklider was an academic psychologist and MIT professor who, by the mid-1950s, was spending much of his time imagining new and edifying uses for computer technology. “The idea on which Lick’s worldview pivoted,” write Hafner and Lyon, “was that technological progress would save humanity.”

Networks were the key. By easing human access to and interaction with information, Licklider believed that networks could facilitate a sort of “man-machine symbiosis” that would make the world a smarter, happier, and more productive place. Humans would use the networked computers’ superior speed and memory to help refine and advance their own thought processes. In a 1965 book entitled Libraries of the Future, he presented his outline for what he called a “procognitive system”— a library/computer amalgam that would “make it easy to transmit information without transporting material, and that will not only present information to people but also process it for them, following procedures they specify, apply, monitor, and, if necessary, revise and reapply.”

Hired in 1962 by the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), Licklider soon proposed building a network that would allow ARPA researchers across the country to share information and avoid redundancies in research. The project didn’t actually get started until 1966, when one of Licklider’s successors at ARPA, Robert Taylor, got funding for what came to be called the ARPANET. (Licklider left ARPA in 1964.)

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.

While people disagree about the extent to which military priorities influenced the ARPANET’s design philosophy, the network was nevertheless a system that emphasized survivability in the face of failure. A distributed network, there was no central machine that was “in charge” of the system. (You couldn’t destroy the ARPANET by destroying its mainframe, because there was no mainframe.) Decentralization improved the network’s speed and reliablility, made it easier to add new access points, and allowed computers—and computer users—to communicate without outside mediation.

In a 1998 interview with the online magazine PreText, ARPANET contractor Frank Heart further characterized the network as a supremely open system:

The project was entirely unclassified. The project had no access controls on people. Anybody who could get near it could log on. The project provided access as a free good; nobody had to make a tough cost-benefit analysis as to whether they wanted to try the network.

Now these things - unclassification, no access controls, and a free good - despite the fact that this was being done by the U.S. government and the Defense Department; it’s really quite amazing in retrospect.

This openness was thoroughly rooted in Licklider’s belief that the world would change for the better once its inhabitatants could easily and infinitely interact with information. Network users would be in constant dialogue with the connected computers. The users would form something like a society of activist librarians, constantly improving the quality of the information stored on networked computers by refining, editing, and adding to the collection. The original text would matter less than the ensuing marginalia. As Licklider wrote in an essay entitled “Social Prospects of Information Utilities,” humanity faced a choice between “enmeshment in the silent gears of the great electronic machine or [becoming] master of a marvelous new and truly plastic medium for formulating ideas and for exploring, expressing, and communicating them.”

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.

Usenet was, in its way, just as important as e-mail in the role it played in the development of the Net. Dubbed “the poor man’s ARPANET” by early users, Usenet consisted of a collection of discussion groups devoted to single topics—the programming language Unix, to start, but later involving a cornucopia of topics ranging from koala bears to the Chicago Cubs. Before Usenet, online communications had been primarily restricted to scholars, students, and scientists with access to ARPANET terminals—a fairly limited group. But Usenet was open to anyone with a Unix machine. In “The Social Forces behind the Development of Usenet,” Michael Hauben observed that Usenet became popular among “people who didn’t have access to the ARPANET [but] were hungry for similar opportunities to communicate.”

The appeal—one that will seem familiar to modern Internet users—was in chatting with people who shared your intense interest in certain topics, and participating in distinct communicative groups. “The ideas that exist on Usenet come from the mass of people who participate in it. In this way, Usenet is an uncensored forum for debate—where many sides of an issue come into view,” writes Hauben. More so than e-mail and listservs, then, Usenet used the Internet as a medium for unexpected yet engaging communications—an important step in the development of any human communications system.

In his ICCC ’72 paper “Three Characterizations of Communications Revolutions,” Bell-Northern researcher Gordon Thompson noted Jane Jacobs’s characterization of the city sidewalk as a communications medium: an environment that “permits interesting and unexpected messages to be exchanged at a low level of commitment.” Usenet was, initially, the sidewalk of the Internet.

Although Usenet still exists, it has largely been made obsolete by the World Wide Web, which is what most people now mean when they discuss the Internet. (“Internet” is simply a term for the infrastructure through which network data are transferred—Web sites, e-mails, instant messages, file transfers, and so on. “World Wide Web” specifically refers to the hyperlinked pages generally accessed by a browsing utility like Firefox or Internet Explorer.)

When the World Wide Web debuted in 1991, it seemed that we were finally at the point of a true procognitive system, where people would be edified and improved by virtue of the information with which they were now able to freely interact. (In his book Weaving the Web, Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee echoed J.C.R. Licklider when he wrote that “the Web will be a place where the whim of a human being and the reasoning of a computer coexist in an ideal, powerful mixture.”) But the information itself wasn’t the point.

On the Internet—as in life—information is primarily important as a discussion topic. 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—tell friends about it; debate and discuss it; link to or write about it. People want to interact with information insofar as it enhances the way they interact with other people. And what Web users value isn’t primarily the information itself or any instructional value it might hold, but the opportunity to discuss that content—via links, blog posts, comment sections and so on.

In the 1990s, people regularly referred to the Web as the “information superhighway”—but it would have been more accurate to call it the “information sidewalk.” Like Usenet before it, the Web presented a new way for unexpected messages to be exchanged at a low level of commitment. Hypertext linking made it easier than ever for network users to stumble upon unexpected information—or, indeed, to broadcast their own. The Web makes it easy for users to react to this unexpected information—to directly respond to material formerly known as “broadcast content.” You see versions of this with comment sections on Web sites; or blogs that exist to analyze and critique articles of news; or on YouTube, where users often react to videos by shooting and posting their own videos in response to the original.

These reactions are often derided as irrelevant, unfocused, and insular; as detracting from the value of the Internet. (A recent study by a firm called Pear Analytics found that 40 percent of Twitter messages were nothing but “pointless babble.”) But, seen from a different angle, these often-bland reactions and interactions reveal themselves as the primary value of the Internet. Much of what you find on the Internet can also be found elsewhere. It’s convenient, sure to watch a movie online at a time and place of your choosing—but, if you had to, you could see that same movie in a theater or on a DVD. You can determine Brazil’s GDP with a ten-second Google search—but, if you had to, you could also find that information in a book. If you want to read The Christian Science Monitor, you have to go online—but, generally speaking, you can get comparable news and commentary from other sources. People certainly do go to the Web for content—but they would still be able to find the same or similar content if the Web didn’t exist (even though the finding would be less convenient).

What you can’t get anywhere except the Internet, however, are the numerous speedy, uniquely low-risk communications opportunities found therein, and the specific sense of community that can result from those interactions. Online, content is fungible. Sociability is less so. That, perhaps, is the Web’s real value. As Clay Shirky quotes Cory Doctorow as saying in Here Comes Everybody: “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.”

Social Studies

In America Calling, his social history of telephone usage before the Second World War, Claude S. Fischer observes that “the promoters of a technology do not necessarily know or decide its final uses; that they seek problems or needs for which their technology is the answer, but that consumers themselves develop new uses and ultimately decide which will predominate.”

In the nineteenth century, writes Richard John in Spreading the News, the U.S. government saw the Postal Service as a means by which to distribute newspapers—but this distribution was subsidized by personal mail, which generated an overwhelming percentage of postal revenues. (In 1832, although they comprised 95 percent of total postal weight, newspapers generated but 15 percent of total postal revenue.) “The Post Office would have thrived on letters alone, but would have gone bankrupt instantly had it been forced to survive on newspaper deliveries,” Andrew Odlyzko writes. “Thus content was king in the mind of policy makers, but it was definitely not king in terms of what people were willing to pay for.”

In America Calling, Fischer writes that early telephone entrepreneurs complained about “the transmission of large numbers of communications of the most trivial character,” and that they considered social usage of the telephone to be a frivolous and unnecessary pursuit. But by the mid-1920s, thanks to “new leaders and a half-century’s experience,” most companies had accepted the notion that the telephone was well-suited for social communications.

Individuals tend toward informality. That’s why people like the Internet. That’s also why organizations often do not use it well.

Sociability trumps edification. And in democratic terms, sociability might be just as important as edification, too. All true communications advances are hierarchy-destroyers, helping to level the inequalities that organizational society creates. Feudal manors, modern corporations, the military—societies and groups define themselves by their organizational divisions. The powerful consolidate and exert their power and status by accepting and promoting these divisions. Lord/peasant. Boss/worker. Reporter/reader.

By promoting individual agency and encouraging informality in discourse, communications advances empower individuals, consciously or not, to reject these divisions. The printing press promoted literacy—still the most powerful weapon against the class divisions created and perpetuated by society. Postal correspondence promoted personal contact with individuals outside of one’s immediate geographical orbit. (Perhaps more important, postal mail encouraged individuals to acknowledge and write their own stories, so to speak; to record the circumstances of their own lives and take interest in the lives of others—and, by so doing, to start defining themselves by narratives other than those being imposed upon them by society.) The telephone made it easier than ever to informally contact anyone in the world. (In college, using a number we found in the library, my friends and I would regularly prank call the Duke of Devonshire’s estate.)

The Internet subverts hierarchical structures both in the way it was built and (perhaps as a function of that) in the way it was used. Built as a decentralized system, the network’s architectural informality carried over to usage patterns. In a 1978 paper entitled “Applications of Information Networks,” Licklider and Albert Vezza noted that, “in an ARPANET message, one could write tersely and talk imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much like the telephone.”

Individuals tend toward informality. That’s why people like the Internet. That’s also why organizations often do not use it well. Especially news organizations. Of late they have struggled, unsure whether they should adapt themselves wholly to the Web, force the Web to adapt to them, or creat some wishy-washy hybrid borne out of confusion about the roles that the news and the net will play in the new digital world.

There is no one clear way. The functions of news are different than the functions of the Web, and news providers should be wary of those who claim that online news must adapt itself completely to the characteristics of the digital medium. While the news is inherently communicative in certain ways, in other ways it is not; and it is a hasty and ill-considered strategy that emphasizes the one at the expense of the other.

But the Internet is communicative, and news organizations, if they are to use the Internet to its greatest potential, need to acknowledge this as they devise their strategies for the years to come. In his manuscript Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, Michael Hauben quoted one early Internet user as saying: ‘“When access to information is as ubiquitous as access to the phone system, all Hell will break loose. Bet on it.’” But that’s not quite right. When information is understood as a key component of a discursive, social system, the value of which is defined by its use and its users, then all hell will break loose.

Until then, it pays to keep a close eye on the flames.

For a list of suggestions for further reading, click here. For Megan Garber’s companion piece on communal news in a fragmented world, click here. To read a conversation between Garber and Peters on the topics covered in their essays, click here. Thanks to Megan Garber and Josh Young for reading drafts of this essay.

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