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


Öcame up after the applications it was meant to describe. Napster, SETI@home, ICQ, their 
cousins. So peer-to-peer is a label and not a definition. The idea of computers 
communicating with one another as peers is the founding idea of the Internet itself. So 
the mere fact of peers communicating with one another cannot be the big deal. That canít 
be the full explanation of why whatís happening now is different from what happened 
before. What is a big deal about what we see happening now is what and where these new 
peers are. The new nodes in the peer-to-peer systems are devices, and principally PCs, 
connected to the edges of the Internet cloud. In the early 90ís, when the launch of 
Mosaic started to drive real connection of PCs to the Internet for the first time, a PC 
was really used as nothing more than a life support system for a browser. And thatís 
pretty much the status quo weíve had from then until now. PCs have always existed behind 
a veil of second-class connectivity. Because you could not get a permanent IP address for 
your PC, you could not get a domain name, and because you could not get a domain name 
you could not really host anything. People at the networkís edges were relegated to being 
always consumers of resources but never providers of resources. The veil of second-class 
connectivity created a second class of users - the people at the edges of the network. 
Now, in engineering terms this was not such a big problem in the early 90s. The PCs we 
had then were essentially toy computers. They were flaky, they were crash-prone, they 
were weak, they were slow. But look whatís happened in the last five years around the 
edges of the network - the operating systems have gotten distinctly less flaky, the 
applications have gotten less crash-prone. Thanks to Mooreís Law and the growth in data 
density, you can now for a thousand bucks buy a server class machine and stick it under 
your desk. At the edges of the Internet, thanks to both the increase in the quality of 
hardware as well as the massive increase in the number of devices connected, there are 
now, at a conservative estimate, ten quadrillion clock cycles per second of compute time, 
there are ten thousand terabytes of storage space. These are resources you could do 
something with, if you could get to them. PCs are the dark matter of the Internet, the 
part of the fabric of the Internet that is there but has not yet been woven into the 
whole. There is a vast array of resources behind that veil of second-class connectivity, 
resources that are inaccessible because they exist in a world of variable connection and 
unpredictable IP addresses, and P2P is a way of piercing that veil, P2P is a way of 
aggregating those resources. 

So hereís my working definition of P2P. An application is peer-to-peer if it aggregates 
resources at the networkís edge, and those resources can be anything. It can be content, 
it can be cycles, it can be storage space, it can be human presence. Iíd like to echo 
Timís picking up on Dave Weinerís point about the P in P2P is people. ICQ is an example 
where instead of making variable connectivity a disadvantage, it makes it an advantage 
because it tells you something important about whether that person is there or not. And 
we donít know all of the resources that are going to be aggregated in P2P systems yet. 
We havenít seen a P2P app that requires 30,000 sound cards, or 30,000 video cards but 
weíre going to, someday. The other half of my definition is this: In order to get to 
those resources , P2P applications have to solve what I call the addressing problem. 
P to P applications have to find some way to address the nodes outside of the DNS system 
that weíre used to, usually by creating an alternative namespace managed by the service 
itself. Napster manages the Napster namespace, ICQ manages the ICQ namespace, and so 
forth. And this is whatís required in order to be able to reach those nodes that are 
variably connected, and because of this variable connectivity, the nodes themselves have 
to have significant or total autonomy from any central server. This is what makes peer-
to-peer distinctive. Peer-to-peer applications create new addressing schemes for the 
resources of the networks edge and then they use those resources to create new functions. 

Now Iíd like - A couple of caveats about this address, about this definition. Several 
people have asked about wireless and why in this version Iím so focused on PCs. Thereís 
no engineering reason that PCs are the important resources. Itís really just a fact of 
history - to echo Willy Sutton, PCs are where the cycles are. But as Steve Birbeck from 
IBM has pointed out, in a billion-device future, all of the devices are going to have to 
be peer-to-peer, because we are going to have to find ways to connect them all to one 
another without central management. So as wireless devices, and as things like the TiVo 
and WebTV grow, they will also become part of peer-to-peer systems. The other thing 
about this definition is that this is not what makes peer-to-peer applications important, 
itís just what makes them possible. What makes a peer-to-peer application important is 
what it does with the resources of aggregates. 

With that general background, Iíd like to turn my attention to Napster for a moment. As 
Tim noted, an ocean of ink has been spilled about Napster, and another ocean of ink is 
in the process of being spilled thanks to Mondayís ruling. But so much of this has been 
a kind of hysteria about intellectual property or strange inquiries into the nature of 
the law and popular culture and I want to leave that aside - Napster has obviously 
succeeded in large part because itís about music, which is something people love. But 
Napster also has lessons for us in terms of engineering and structure. And I think the 
first lesson for this group is about decentralization. And it may seem like coals to 
Newcastle to talk to a group thatís come together to think about peer-to-peer and say 
that Napster has lessons about decentralization, but I think the lessons arenít the 
immediately obvious ones. Napster, as has been noted, is not fully decentralized. Napster 
maintains two critical central resources - a database of songs and a database of user 
addresses. And there has been some criticism from a group of people I guess I would call 
peerier-than-thou, people who never saw a centralized service they didnít want to smash 
into shards. And I would like to suggest that instead of being random or a mistake, 
Napsterís mix of centralization and decentralization is not random, but itís actually 
split very savvily along very particular economic lines. Itís been widely noted in the 
literature regarding free markets that it is very difficult to coordinate group behavior 
among anonymous, autonomous self-interested actors. The classic thought experiment for 
this is the tragedy of the commons, where a group of shepherds each individually grazes 
their sheep as much as possible on commonly owned land, in order to exercise their 
selfish interests. And the result of this is the land is overgrazed and the group as a 
whole suffers. And yet Napster has crossed the 50 million user threshold without suffering 
from the tragedy of the commons. I believe that what Napster has done is that itís 
decentralized the aspects of the system that you would do for yourself anyway. It has 
decentralized the aspects that can be handled by selfishness but it has centralized 
the things that have to be coordinated away from the behavior of the individual actors. 
You would buy that PC anyway. You would pay for that hard disk anyway. You would get 
that Internet connection anyway. And you would be happy to have the music you like on 
your hard drive. Those are all of the things Napster decentralizes. You would not be happy 
to maintain a database of music you donít like, or of other users whose taste you taste 
you donít share, on your PC. Youíre not going to give your resources away for that while 
pursuing your own selfish goals. So Napster has centralized the things that require a kind 
of organized coordination away from the autonomous actors at the edges of the network. I 
believe that Napster is the best example we have of a class of applications that I would 
call ďdecentralized enough.Ē Napster has mixed centralization and decentralization in a 
really canny way to create what is obviously the most explosively adopted peer-to-peer 
application on the Internet. And by suggesting that Napster is decentralized enough, I 
hope to suggest, even of my own definition, that rather than having a perfect test for 
ďis this inĒ or ďis this outĒ, that we recognize people who share our goals. Many people 
have contested with me my focus on what I consider the brokenness of the DNS system, and 
consider that a sideshow, and my definition I recognize doesnít include a lot of work on 
the two-way Web or dynamic DNS, but I recognize that people working on the two-way Web 
and dynamic DNS are fellow travelers. Anyone thinking about ways of decentralizing power 
and putting it back into the hands of users, what Larry Lessing has called the end-to-end 
internet, shares a goal with me, and rather than worrying too much about whether things 
are completely perfectly decentralized, Iíd like to suggest that we think about whether 
things are decentralized enough to achieve their goals. I think what Napster has shown us 
decentralization is better as a tool than a goal. 

Another lesson I think Napster has for us is about usability. And this, again, might seem 
almost tautologically daft - if tens of millions of people use it, it must by definition 
be usable, right? But Napster has a very different kind of usability than the one that 
weíre accustomed to. With the launch of the Web, and in particular with the ease of use 
of HTML, average network citizens could create a user interface, and of course the result 
was mostly dreck, it was badly scanned pictures of peopleís pets and favorite band lists 
and so forth. And this incredible literature of concern about how terrible websites are 
has grown up to the point where we now think of usability as relating primarily to what 
users see and interact with at the surface of an application, and where in conversation 
we use the word usability to be synonymous with good interface design. But a funny thing 
happens when you apply this definition to Napster, because Napsterís user interface is 
completely terrible. Itís really, really dreadful. If Photoshop is a 10, Napster is about 
a 3. So here we have a bit of a paradox, which is: hereís an incredibly usable 
application, by definition, 50 million users canít be wrong, with a terrible user 
interface. So where is the usability in Napster? I think Napsterís main innovation is 
that it provides usability for the network layer. Napster makes the Internet itself 
usable. In particular, what Napster does is it lowers the barrier to network 
configuration. The current deal we have with our end users is, you can do anything you 
like with that hunk of silicon under your desk. You can consume any publicly available 
resource on the Internet on demand without apology. But the minute you want to provide a 
resource, the minute you want to create a network name for yourself, thatís some powerful 
juju and you have to get some experts involved. A thought experiment I think might 
illustrate this - letís say I came to your house, and I put a PC under your desk, 
connected it to the Internet and handed you a file. And said here, serve this from that. 
How hard can that be, right?  Build a website on that PC, take this file, serve it. What 
would you have to do? Youíd have to go to your ISP and youíd have to convince them to 
give you a fixed IP address, the chances of which are approximately forget it, but letís 
say that they let you do that. Then youíd have to go to a registrar and youíd have to 
fill in all sorts of weird information, like whoís your technical contact and whatís a 
NIC handle and hello, I just wanted to serve this file. But once you get through that, 
and pay the registrar for the privilege, you then have to sit around for a few days. 
Actually, you have to go back to your ISP and convince them that you want to use their 
DNS servers to point to your PC in your house which is sort of forget it squared, but 
letís pretend it happened. Then you have to sit around for a few days and maybe when 
someone types that domain name in, packets will show up at your box. Well, hallelujah, 
youíre done, right? But no, not yet. You still have to download Apache, and then you 
have to put on your hip waders because you have to go into httpd.conf and the Apache 
configuration files are a travesty of user hostility. So your computer, you own it, your 
file, you own it, and you have to involve several other parties, pay them for the 
privilege, and the time spent can be measured in both hours worked and days wasted. And 
then, maybe, you can serve that file. If, however, the file is a music file, you can 
download Napster and in five minutes you can be serving it on the Internet without 
having to involve anyone else. Napster creates usability at the network layer. Using 
Napster, I can create a human readable, permanent internet address for myself, and the 
best part is, I can do it all for free without having to ask anyone else for either help 
or permission. That is a revolution. And for the people working on the two-way web, make 
that your benchmark. Donít accept the current difficulties of configuring a domain name 
and configuring a web server. When I can serve a HTML file from my PC as easily as I can 
serve an MP3 file from my PC, then youíre done. Then youíve really achieved something.

The third lesson that I believe Napster holds out for us is a message bout how we interact 
with the user base. As the network grows, the intelligence of the average user converges 
on the intelligence of the average member of the population as a whole. And thatís not 
sociology, thatís math. In the old days, the average computer user was in the John von 
Neumann range, they are now in the Alfred E. Neuman range, and that is never going to 
change. So, this is our world. This is the world we live in. The difficulties of network 
configuration must go away for this to succeed. There is a parallel here. Twenty years 
ago, when the PC first arrived, the mainframe people scoffed. Because they knew that no 
one could run a computer without special training, and in particular no one could run a 
computer on their own. And so people smuggled PCs into the enterprise through the back 
door behind the backs of the people running the mainframe. Thatís whatís happening with 
network configuration today. People are smuggling peer-to-peer applications into the 
enterprise under the noses of the IT department. And that is a critical - that has 
happened because Napster and ICQ and their cousins, rather than saying, oh, weíre going 
to educate the users about IP addresses and network configuration, has said instead, 
weíre going to lower the threshold of adoption until the average network user can create 
their own network address, their own network identity for themselves. 

The fourth and last lesson Napster has for us is short and itís bad. Despite all the 
talk about how IPv6 was going to bring this unlimited new future of manageable addresses, 
it was totally apparent by the late 90s that absolutely no one who had any responsibility 
for the public Internet was going to lift a finger to allow users to create their own 
network addresses for themselves. So Napster and ICQ and their cousins stepped in and 
simply solved the problems themselves. You have to admire the entrepreneurial force 
behind this, but you also have to worry about control. The WHOIS database contains 23 
million addresses. The Napster database contains more than 50 million. The AOL database 
for AIM and ICQ contains more than 150 million. The universe of peer-to-peer addresses 
in four years is already much vaster than the universe of DNS addresses, centrally 
managed DNS addresses and it is growing at a much faster rate. So, ironically, Napster 
has brought back end-to-end connectivity, itís brought back what Larry Lessing, and John 
Udell, and Dave Weiner have been focusing on about restoring power to the people at the 
edges of the nodes, Iím sorry, in the nodes at the edges of the Internet. But it has done 
this by creating a privately managed address space. And the risk we face with peer-to-
peer applications is a rise in balkanization even as we get ease of use. We are seeing 
private databases to public networks, and the risk of that cannot be overstated. Resist 
this. Whatever else you are thinking about when you think about peer-to-peer, think about 
interoperability. Donít worry about standards yet. Take the message of the earliest days 
of the DARPAnet, where they werenít trying to force computers to adopt common standards, 
they were trying to provide a layer of interoperability, and only after they did that did 
things like TCP/IP become implemented at the machine level. Think about interoperability. 
I believe this is both the biggest opportunity and the biggest challenge facing this 
group. A little over fifty years ago, Thomas Watson from IBM said that he could foresee 
a need for perhaps five computers worldwide, and we now know that that figure was wrong, 
because he overestimated by four. I donít know what the framework for that one global 
computer is going to look like, but I do know two important things about it. Itís not Sun 
One, and itís not dot-net, and itís not any other corporate press release you might have 
read about. It will have elements of those things, of course, but the challenge is too 
big to be done by one company and itís too important to be owned by one company. And the 
other thing I know about it is this: there are better than even odds that the people 
responsible for really getting that framework going are in this room, and they are not 
necessarily going to be on this stage in the next three days, so I want to echo what 
Tim said: Find each other. Talk to each other. If this is going to happen, this is going 
to be the group that gets it done.

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Send the article as plain text Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source