The Internet is not Content

On Techdirt, Mike Masnik debunks a copyright maximalist who argues the Internet would be empty without the content industries. But in the discussion, someone suggests that what the point is that the Internet would be empty without content – that the Internet is, in his words, “digital paper.”


Conversation is not “content”, and the Internet is not “digital paper.”

Most culture is not “content.” Is a pick-up street hockey game “content”? Is a conversation with a neighbor over the backyard fence “content”? Is a romantic dance “content”?

For most of human history, human culture has not been “content”. Even today, most culture – human interaction and activity – is not content. It is a practice and a flow, not a thing. The fact that human communication online happens to leave a trace does not make it “content.” It’s “content-ness” is a side-effect. It is an epiphenomenon. It is not the thing – or rather the activity, the practice, the experience – itself.

Treating it as “digital paper” reduces practices to things. This is like reducing the journey to the map. Here I paused to admire the view, there I sat on a bench and ate my lunch, over there I watched a beautiful woman. You can draw a line to show my trajectory, but the essence of it, the point of it, the reason I turned this way and not that: all will be lost. (Credit to Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life for this example, and the next.) Or take a Chinese character. It appears to be a pattern on paper. But it is not just a shape in space. It is a movement in time. First I place my brush here, then I sweep there, I press, I lift and turn.

The Internet would no more be empty without content than would be a playground or a sports field or a sandy beach. The Internet would be empty without people. Digital paper. Hah.