Content was King. Then social media came along. Now it’s all about the experience, the social graph, the interaction. The King is dead.

But wait. Look at those social media. Twitter? A significant percentage of tweets contain URLs. URL-shortening services are thriving. And what do those URLs point at? Content. One of Twitter’s prime uses is to draw peoples’ attention to content. That’s why Twitter is such a great marketing tool – it’s a way to get people’s attention.

Google talks about proactive search, about alerting people to interesting content before they’ve even thought to look for it. Twitter is there already.

Likewise for the other flagships of social media. Flickr – lots of photos. Facebook – more photos, plus discussion, apps and suchlike. Facebook has packaged it all nicely. It’s added the social graph. But there’s an awful lot of content there. Delicious? A content tagging service. YouTube? More content. The list goes on.

So what is going on here?

We’ve moved from an age of content scarcity to one of content abundance. 25 years ago, content was rare. When we stumbled across something useful, we grabbed it and filed it away. In big boxes called “filing cabinets”. People called “filing clerks” or “archivists” had fulltime jobs to tend these boxes, practising arcane arts like defining file plans and maintaining index cards. All in all, we invested heavily in protecting and preserving that rare (but expanding) content.

As content went digital, we realised we could index it digitally too. Search engines evolved to build and access the indexes. They became the way to find those rare items of relevant content within the ever-growing corpus.

Now content is everywhere. The problem isn’t finding content. It’s filtering out the good content from the stuff that looks plausible enough at the level of keywords and syntax, but which is evidently crap to anyone with any interest in the domain. Your valuable stories, product brochures, etc, are lost in a sea of lookalike verbiage. Search engines can’t help people find it.

Here’s an analogy from biology. The human body evolved to deal with scarcity of food. It learnt to store every spare calorie as fat, ready for the famine that was always just around the corner. Nowadays food is plentiful. That stored fat has become an obesity problem. Social media is emerging as a tool to help deal with information obesity. A fitness regime for our content.

How so? It’s brought people into the heart of things. Rather than relying on specialists to assess, classify and tag that rare and valuable content, we’ve “democratised” the content lifecycle. That is, people on your social graph look out for new content, assess its quality, classify it, etc. (All the things that archivists used to do.) And because there are now so many people on the case, there’s some hope they can keep up with the every-growing weight of content that is being produced. Your social network is filtering out the unfit content, alerting you to the valuable stuff.

Search simply can’t keep up with the volume of content. It can index a lot of it, at least at the level of keywords and phrases. It can use proxy measures, such as pagerank, to help filter it a little. But it can’t understand the content. And without understanding, there’s no way to truly assess relevance.

This was tolerable when content was rare – you could accept that a percentage of the small number of hits from a well-formed search would turn out to be irrelevant. When content is abundant (and filled with spam designed by search engine optimisation specialists to defeat the search algorithms), even a small percentage of false hits becomes overwhelming.

Someday semantic search may solve this problem. But that’s all a long way off. Why wait, when your social network can do the filtering already?

Search has its place when we’re clear about what we’re looking for. But it can’t alert us to new content that we don’t even know we’re looking for. For that, we need people who understand the content and can point us at the good stuff. And if our social network can’t cover quite the same proportion of the web as Google? That doesn’t matter: what it does cover contains more than enough content to overwhelm us. The problem isn’t finding enough content; it’s filtering the huge volume that’s out there.

Social media is changing the way we create, classify, tag and view content. Adding the social graph has enriched a lot of content that would otherwise be lost. But content is still right at the centre of things.

Nonetheless, there is some truth to the commentary. Social media has democratised things. Content is no longer King. Content is now President.