shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Content Shifts to the Edges, Redux

Its not enough that Napster is erasing the distinction between cleint
and server (discussed in an earlier column); its erasing the
distinction between consumer and provider as well. You can see the
threat to the established order in a recent legal action: A San Diego
cable ISP, Cox@Home, ordered customers to stop running Napster not
because they were violating copyright laws, but because Napster allows
Cox subscribers to serve files from their home PCs. Cox has built its
service on the current web architecture, where producers serve content
from from always-connected servers at the internet's center, and
consumers consume from intermittantly-connected client PCs at the
edges.  Napster, on the other hand, inaugurates a model where PCs are
always on and always connected, where content is increasingly stored
and served from the edges of the network, and where the distinction
between client and server is erased. Set aside Napster's legal woes --
"Cox vs. Napster" isn't just a legal fight, its a fight over the
difference between information consumers and information
providers. The question of the day is "Can Cox (or any media business)
force its users to retain their second-class status as mere consumers
of information."  To judge by Napster's growth and the rise of
Napster-like services such as gnutella, freenet, and wrapster, the
answer is "No".

The split between consumers and providers of information has its roots
in the internet's addressing scheme. A computer can only be located on
by its internet protocol (IP) address, like 127.0.0.1, and although
you can attach a more memorable name to those numbers, like
makemoneyfast.com, the domain name is just an alias -- the IP address
is the defining feature. By the mid-90's there weren't enough to go
around, so ISPs started randomly assigning IP addresses whenever a
user dialed in. This means that users never have a fixed IP address,
so while they can consume data stored elsewhere, they can never
provide anything from their own PCs.  This division wasn't part of the
internet's original architecture, but the proposed fix (the next
generation of IP, called IPv6) has been coming Real Soon Now for a
long time. In the meantime, services like Cox have been built with the
expectation that this consumer/provider split would remain in effect
for the forseeable future.

How short the forseeable future sometimes is. Napster short-circuits
the temporary IP problem by turning the domain name system inside out:
with Napster, you register a name for your PC and every time you
connect, it makes your current IP address an alias to that name,
instead of the other way around. This inversion makes it trivially
easy to host content on a home PC, which destroys the assymetry of
"end users consume but can't provide". If your computer is online, it
can be reached, even without a permanent IP address, and any material
you decide to host on your PC can become globally accessible.
Napster-style architecture erases the people-based distinction of
provider and consumer just as surely as it erases the computer-based
distinction between server and client.

There could not be worse news for Cox, since the limitations of cable
ISP's only become apparent if its users actually want to do something
useful with their upstream bandwidth, but the fact that cable
companies are hamstrung by upstream speed (less than a tenth of its
downstream speed in Cox's case) just makes them the first to face the
eroding value of the media bottleneck. Any media business that relies
on a neat division between information consumer and provider will be
affected. Sites like Geocities or The Globe, which made their money
providing fixed addresses for end user content, may find that users
are perfectly content to use their PCs as that fixed address.
Copyright holders who have assumed up until now that large-scale
serving of material could only take place on a handful of relatively
identifiable and central locations are suddenly going to find that the
net has sprung another million leaks.  Meanwhile, the rise of the end
user as info provider will be good news for other businesses. DSL
companies will have a huge advantage in the race to provide fast
upstream bandwidth; Apple may find that the ability to stream home
movies over the net from a PC at home drives adoption of Mac hardware
and software; and of course companies that provide the Napster-style
service of matching dynamic IP addresses with fixed names will have
just the sort of sticky relationship with their users that VC's slaver
over.

Real technological revolutions are human revolutions as well. The
architecture of the internet has affected the largest transfer of
power from organizations to individuals the world has ever seen, and
Napster's destruction on the serving limitations on end users
demonstrates taht this change has not yet run its course. Media
businesses which have assumed that all the power that has been
transferred to the individual for things like stock broking and
airline tickets wouldn't affect them are going to find that the
millions of passive consumers are being replaced by millions of
one-person media channels. This is not to say that all content is
going to the edges or the net, or that every user is going to be an
enthusiastic media outlet, but when the limitations of "Do I really
want to (or know how to) upload my home video?" go away, the total
amount of user generated and hosted content is going to explode beyond
anything the Geocities model allows. This will have two big effects:
the user's power as a media outlet of one will be dramatically
increased, creating unexpected new competition with corporate media
outlets; and the spread of hosting means that the lawyers of copyright
holders can no longer go to Geocities to acheive leverage over
individual users -- in the age of user-as-media-outlet, lawsuits will
have to be undertaken one user at a time. That old saw about the press
only being free for people who own a printing press is about to take
on a whole new resonanace.



Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

Mail a copy of this essay:

Enter the email address of the recipient. Multiple addresses should be separated by commas.

Add your own message(optional):

Your name:(optional)

Note: Your name, and your recipient's email address, will only be used to transfer this article, and will not be stored or used for any other purpose.

Send the article URL only
Send the article as HTML
Send the article as plain text

shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source