I generally hate to think about What’s Next because it implies that there’s going to be a Next Big Thing. As I see it, the very best next big thing we could hope for would be to transcend big things altogether.

Who needs them, except marketers, Wal-Mart, and business plan writers hoping to demonstrate how their brilliant schemes can “scale” to infinity and beyond? But what is next? I can deal with a bit of that by projecting forward from what’s now.

As far as the Internet is concerned, what’s next is not pervasive computing or technology. It is the coming realization of the real role that content plays in our lives. We think of a medium as a thing that delivers content. But the delivered content is a medium in itself. The many forms of content we collect and experience online are just forms of ammunition, an excuse to start a discussion with that attractive person in the next cubicle: “Hey! Did you see that streaming video clip at streamingvideoclips.com?”

Take a look back, for a moment, at some content of the past. When my father was growing up, for example, bubble-gum companies competed by offering free trading cards inside their packages. But the little pieces of cardboard bearing images of baseball players proved the more desirable, and soon children were buying whole packs of baseball cards that contained only a single stick of bubble gum. Today, baseball cards are sold without any bubble gum at all.

Despite gum’s textural attributes, baseball cards proved to be the “stickier” content. Why? Because they provide a richer experience. Not only can collectors look at pictures, but they can compare and analyze the player statistics available on the back of each card.

This depth of data allows the card to serve as what I call “social currency.” Children can debate the merits of one brand of gum over another for only so long, but they can talk endlessly about the players whose cards they’ve collected, trade them, or even just peruse one another’s collections. The cards aren’t ending in themselves; they are a basis for interaction. Johnny got some new cards, so the other kids come over to see them after school. The cards are social currency.

Social currency is a good joke, for example. When a bunch of friends sit around and tell jokes, what are they doing? Entertaining one another? Sure, for a start. But they are also using content (mostly unoriginal content that they’ve heard elsewhere) to lubricate a social occasion. What are most of us doing when we listen to a joke? Trying to memorize it so that we can bring it somewhere else. “Invite Harry. He tells good jokes. He’s the life of the party.”