The policy of the U.S. government to promote newspaper “content” at the expense of person-to-person communication through letters may or may not have been correct. It would be a hard task (and one well beyond the scope of this work) to decide this question. However, there are reasonable arguments that the preoccupation with newspapers harmed the social and commercial development of the country by stifling circulation of the informal, non-content information that people cared about….
A skeptical reader might say that all this historical stuff is amusing but irrelevant. We live in the 21st century, and our high-tech present as well as our future are on the Web, where content is universally regarded as king. Studies of the Internet regularly find that Web traffic makes up 60 to 80% of the bytes that are transmitted. Certainly most of the commercial development effort on the Internet and almost all the attention are devoted to content. Thus even if content was not king in the early 19th or late 20th centuries, it might be king in the 21st.
There are three counterarguments to the above objection, all of which support the “content is not king” thesis. All argue that the dazzling success of the Web has created a misleading picture of what the Internet is, or is likely to evolve towards. One argument, to be discussed in more detail later, is that the future of the Internet is not with the Web, but with programs like Napster or (even more, because of its decentralized nature) Gnutella, which allow for informal sharing of data.
The second argument is that content is not king of the Web. Most of the traffic on the Internet is corporate (especially if we include internal intranet traffic that is not visible on the public backbones)….Because browsers are a user-friendly tool that is ubiquitous, a multitude of services have been squeezed into a Web framework. They help perpetuate the image of the Internet as primarily a content-delivery mechanism. (Note that the Web was invented to allow scientists to communicate with each other and access data, not for content delivery.)
The third and final argument is that even if content were king on the Web now, the Web is not king of the Internet. This may again seem absurd, especially in view of the statistics quoted above, that most of the Internet traffic is Web transfers. However, consider again the U.S. postal system of 1832. Content certainly dominated in terms of volume of data. Newspapers sent by mail weighed about 20 times as much as letters. Further, the density of printed matter is higher than of handwriting, and a typical copy of a newspaper was likely read many more times than a typical letter. Hence newspaper “content” was probably delivering at least a hundred times as much information as letters. But volume is not the same as value. Letters were bringing in 85% of the money needed to run the postal system in 1832. On the Internet in 2000, it is e-mail that is king, even if its volume is small.
– Andrew Odlyzko, Content is not King
I’m not sure I agree with Mr Odlyzko, entirely, but that may only be a matter of semantics. My feverdream defense of ‘content’ a couple of days ago took as its launchpad an understanding of the word that is broader than the one Mr Odlyzko uses (and in some ways is actually diametrically opposed to it, but that’s a side-issue, I think). Blogs as open letters, as content rather than Content….
One of the things Mr Odlyzko is saying is that the internet is not a broadcast medium. As obviously wrong as it seems, thinking it is was one of the core dumbass mistakes that businesses were making before the bubble burst, one of the dumbass mistakes that’s still being made. AOLTimeWarner indeed. LOLTimeWarner, maybe. (Ba-dump dump tish! Thank you, you’ve been a great audience. I’ll be here until Thursday!)
One-to-oneness is where value (questions there are aplently about the word ‘value’, too) lies, more than one-to-manyness (Mr O talks about letters and newspapers, about email and the web). The bridge between the two concepts is (ta-daaa!) the weblog, of course. It’s not email, but it shares much of the intensely personal nature nature of correspondence. It’s not ‘Content’, at least not in the way that Big Media regards it, as a ‘non-recoverable expense‘. But it is true that blogspace contains some of the most compelling writing and imagery and pure fun that’s available on the internet or elsewhere, ‘content’ that’s constantly renewed by the passions of thousands of individuals singing their individual songs for the pure joy of the singing, and for the comradeship that comes from finding people who hear similar music in their heads…
This message of Mr O’s reminds me very much of the sort of thing that a certain Mr Locke (quoted recently here: “You can broaden the pipe as far as you want, but if everybody can play, it’s not broadcast any more. There isn’t that control of the passes. The channel is out of control and that makes it a different game…”) and his cohort of merry cluesters have been saying for a while, and are still saying.
I like it when things come together like that.