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.”

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