shirky.com Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source
Time-Warner and ILOVEYOU
5/11/2000
 
Content may not be king, but it was certainly making headlines last week. From the 
"content that should have been distributed but wasn't" department, Time Warner's 
spectacularly ill-fated removal of ABC from its cable delivery lineup ended up cutting 
off content essential to the orderly workings of America -- Who Wants to Be A 
Millionaire? Meanwhile, from the "content that shouldn't have been distributed but was" 
department, Spyder's use of a loosely controlled medium spread content damaging to the 
orderly workings of America and everywhere else -- the ILOVEYOU virus. Taken together, 
these events are making one message increasingly obvious: The power of corporations to 
make decisions about distribution is falling, and the power of individuals as media 
channels in their own right is rising.  

The week started off with Time Warner's effort to show Disney who was the boss, by 
dropping ABC from its cable lineup. The boss turned out to be Disney, because owning the 
delivery channel doesn't give Time Warner half the negotiating leverage the cable owners 
at Time Warner thought it did. Time Warner was foolish to cut off ABC during sweeps 
month, when Disney had legal recourse, but their real miscalculation was assuming that 
owning the cable meant owning the customer. What had ABC back on the air and Time Warner 
bribing its customers with a thirty-day rebate was the fact that Americans resent any 
attempt to interfere with the delivery of content, legal issues or no. Indeed, the 
aftermath saw Peter Vallone of the NY City Council holding forth on the right of 
Americans to watch television. It is easy to mock this attitude, but Vallone has a 
point: People have become accustomed to constantly rising media access, from three 
channels to 150 in a generation, with the attendant rise in user access to new kinds 
of content. Any attempt to reintroduce artificial scarcity by limiting this access 
now creates so much blind fury that television might as well be ranked alongside water 
and electricity as utilities. The week ended as badly for Time Warner as it began, 
because even though their executives glumly refused to promise never to hold their 
viewers hostage as a negotiating tactic, their inability to face the wrath of their 
own paying customers had been exposed for all the world to see.

Meanwhile, halfway round the world, further proof of individual leverage over media 
distribution was mounting. The ILOVEYOU virus struck Thursday morning, and in less than 
twenty-four hours had spread further than the Melissa virus had in its entire life. 
The press immediately began looking for the human culprit, but largely missed the back 
story: The real difference between ILOVEYOU and Melissa was not the ability of Outlook 
to launch programs from within email, a security hole unchanged since last year. The 
real difference was the delivery channel itself -- the number and interconnectedness of 
e-mail users -- that makes ILOVEYOU more of a media virus than a computer virus. The 
lesson of a virus that starts in the Philippines and ends up flooding desktops from 
London to Los Angeles in a few hours is that while email may not be a mass medium, 
that reaches millions at the same time, it has become a massive one, reaching tens of 
millions in mere hours, one user at a time. With even a handful of globally 
superconnected individuals, the transmission rates for e-mail are growing exponentially, 
with no end in sight, either for viruses or legitimate material. The humble practice of 
forwarding e-mail, which has anointed The Onion, Mahir, and the Dancing Baby as 
pop-culture icons, has now crossed one of those invisible thresholds that makes it a new 
kind of force -- e-mail as a media channel more global than CNN. As the world grows 
more connected, the idea that individuals are simply media consumers looks increasingly 
absurd -- anyone with an email address is in fact a media channel, and in light of 
ILOVEYOU's success as a distribution medium, we may have to revise that six degrees of 
separation thing downwards a little.

Both Time Warner's failure and ILOVEYOUs success spread the bad news to several 
parties: TV cable companies, of course, but also cable ISPs, who hope to use their 
leverage over delivery to hold Internet content hostage; the creators of WAP, who hope 
to erect permanent tollbooths between the Internet and the mobile phone without enraging 
their subscribers; governments who hoped to control their citizens' access to "the media" 
before e-mail turned out to be a media channel as well; and everyone who owns copyrighted 
material, for whom e-mail attachments threaten to create hundreds of millions of small 
leaks in copyright protection. (At least Napster has a business address.) There is a 
fear, shared by all these parties, that decisions about distribution -- who gets to see 
what, when -- will pass out of the hands of governments and corporations and into the 
hands of individuals. Given the enormity of the vested interests at stake, this scenario 
is still at the outside edges of the imaginable. But when companies that own the pipes 
can't get any leverage over their users, and when users with access to e-mail can 
participate in a system whose ubiquity has been so dramatically illustrated, the scenario 
goes from unthinkable to merely unlikely.  


Write clay@shirky.com with questions or comments.

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