Rebellion on Automattic

Online piracy is a pretty fascinating phenomena if you think about it. In the beginning it was pretty much petty hacker theft; people sharing files because they could. If athletes celebrate their talents by winning races, hackers celebrate their skills and intellect by getting away with things most people can’t. In that vein, there’s a fascinating article in Rolling Stone about a blind phreaker who used to terrorize late-night voice chat lines, bizarre and fascinating – article here.

File sharing is an evolutionary meme. Today, the phrase “meme” is usually synonymous with internet jokes – lolcats, orly owls and the like. However, the idea behind a meme is so much bigger and stronger than internet jokes. By definition a meme is a unspoken idea or agreement that’s transferred around a culture through indirect communication. No one defines it, no one writes it down. Internet jokes are a great example because it’s impossible for everyone to get together and agree something’s funny, it’s funny because everyone’s simultaneously getting the joke. Meme’s are sort of the basic principle behind humor, obscenity, justice, and community – all those very abstract concepts. You know them when you experience them, you’re able to know what it is because you get all the meme.

So back to file sharing. It’s an evolutionary meme because it’s been growing in fabulous and twisted ways. As it’s moved beyond hackers sharing files to become applications with features that help you share files. What’s really fascinating is this punk product manager phenomenon. People that spend their time trying to make the software or the services easier for non-hackers. Over time these punk product managers have spent their time building better file sharing applications, the normal capital enterprises have had to keep up. The act of piracy is happening because people have a need and that need doesn’t necessarily have to do with getting things for free – people spend all sorts of time and effort pirating media. The normal music industry for multiple reasons just isn’t cutting it, so people are spending extra time, finding new ways to fulfill their needs. These punk product managers are showing up trying to fill that gap between what people want and what the record companies and others offer.

Looking back, this is why the Napster thing was so fascinating. They weren’t interesting because they were a platform for free music, it’s more because they were trying to figure out how to make things easier and more enjoyable – they were trying to figure out how to close that gap. Most people liked Napster because if you found someone with good music taste, you could look at their libraries and find more stuff. They made it easy to explore. This exploration was ultimately letting you connect to like minded people and see what else they we’re listening to. It was better than a recommendation engine because you might find something completely unexpected.

Another site, that was probably more phenomenal, but less notorious was Oink. Oh what I wouldn’t give to have Oink back. It was, bar none, the best recommendation engine I’ve ever seen for music. It had a few really appropriate barriers.
1) You had to be invited – so no spammers,
2) You had to upload as much music as you downloaded – so the community stayed in balance.
3) You could see what other people were downloading which became an amazing recommendation engine.

Lots of recommendation engines draw causation when there’s not enough data to create a reccomendatio. Through mathmatical regressions, they try to predict what you’ll like. Which usually means you move from the niche to the mean. With any recommendation engine, you have a greater chance to be pushed toward JayZ and Beyonce because they’re on averaged more loved than some obscure artists in the niche…we regress to the mean. Oink was different, like Napster, it used actual user data. So on the siet would see indirect linkages around the albums you were downloading. You could find other bands a singer had been in, b-side collaborations artists had done with each other, and other albums people had downloaded along with this one. The service was so solid, after it was taken down Trent Reznor, Saul Williams and a few others admitted to frequenting the service because they could find music there they couldn’t find anywhere else.

Back to the piracy meme, it the last few weeks it seems to have taken another evolutionary step. To this point, most file sharing sites are created to point to bit torrents. A bit torrent is a file that will refer you to a network of computers where you can access a file you’re looking to download. The Pirate Bay is a filesharing service that uses bit torrent technology. It’s easily the largest and most notable piracy tool which has managed to dodging authorities for around 5 years now. At one point they even talked about buying a island that was a sovereign nation, to dodge their legality issues. Ironically, the site doesn’t host any files, it just points to the millions of computers all over the globe that host the files. This creates some legal loopholes that they had been skipping through until recently when judge basically told them that the joke was up and the had to cease service.

So, in the final days, someone took and entire copy of the site and started to host it through, you guessed it, The Pirate Bay. So now the software meant to share music is now sharing the software to share the music. Which means a handful of pirate bay sites can take the place of the original site. In addition, there are now search engines that do nothing but search all the various files sharing sites.

So the original purpose of the Pirate bay, being a central directory to all things pirate, has sort of outlived itself. Now if these smaller Pirate Bay replicas pop up, these search engines will connect users to the smaller sites. Because of the legality issues, the overall system gets more and more disintermediated. It’s like the giant beast has been cut into thousands of smaller beasts making it harder and harder to slay. So again, more punk product managers will now try to figure out how to help people who have a need bridge the gap to the technology.

This is a culture that is stronger than legislation. This is a meme that has learned to replicate itself.

(NOTE: If this sort of bridge between consumer need and piracy is interesting to you, you might check out The Pirate’s Dilemma. It’s a pretty quick read and has tons of great examples in area. I think it’s mostly seen as a culture commentary book, but I think there’s some inspiring points there. The writing could be a little sharper, but if you’re reading this blog you know I’m no one to judge anyone’s writing.)

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