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.)

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