Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
November 9, 2010 6:36 AM

Social Media Should Drop Dead

You can't kill a good online social network.

The music industry cheered a very small (and mostly unheard) victory a few weeks ago when a court ruling ordered a complete shutdown of the peer-to-peer file-sharing network called Limewire. If you've had your head in the sand for the past few years, you may not have known that since Napster closed its doors to the illegal trade of file sharing and went legit, the elicit world of leveraging everyone's hard drive to create a connected network that allows people to grab parcels of similar files and pull them together to deliver everything from music and movies to TV shows and e-books has (obviously) continued to flourish. People have a strong appetite to share (or steal - depending on where you stand with this controversial issue) music, movies, books and much more -much to the chagrin of the big entertainment companies and the struggling artists.

Plus ca change.

While the core concept of peer-to-peer sharing hasn't changed all that much since Napster was first introduced by Sean Fanning in 1999 while he was attending Northeastern University in Boston, the connectivity speed and file compression technology has advanced. This makes it increasingly as easy to grab a HD bluray version of Avatar as is it to grab a copy of Lady Gaga's latest single. The software has also become ubiquitous and simple to use, which has also added to the mass adoption of these platforms. If grabbing a file is as simple as doing a search for it (as you would on Google, Bing or Yahoo!), there's not much of a barrier for the average user to begin grabbing any and all files. I remember asking a close colleague who uses peer-to-peer networks if he felt bad for the artists and producers who were not being paid for their work? The response back was, "if it's online, they're giving it to me." As cold as that sounds, it is the reality behind why most people do grab files for free vs. paying.

It changes. It evolves.

With the shutdown of Limewire, you can rest assured that newer alternatives will grow in popularity and be used just as quickly. It is very complex and challenging for a centralized organization (like government and the authorities) to attack and shut down these decentralized organizations that have no physical space, and that are usually a construct of many individuals who are connected through these virtual channels. Pushing peer-to-peer networking to a whole other new and interesting level is a new form of real world peer-to-peer sharing that is happening in different parts of the world through publicly assessable USB memory sticks.

Drop dead, Internet.

Dead Drop is an anonymous physical file-sharing network that is the brainchild of Aram Bartholl (a resident artist at Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York City). While he is describing this more as a creative project, Bartholl is actually inserting USB flash drives into cracks in walls and other public places. People, literally, sidle up to the USB key, plug in their laptops and then share or copy files much in the same way they would on the Internet. These "secret" ports are currently available in five locations throughout the greater New York City area, and each drive also contains a readme.txt file (which was written by Bartholl) explaining the project.

Dead Drop to deadSwap.

Another play on this theme is deadSwap, which bills itself as "a game of cloak and data." DeadSwap removes the need to go to a fixed location and turns the off-line file sharing system into a real-world social network where individuals secretly pass USB sticks from one person to another (in a very James Bond-ish kind of way). The passing of the data is centralized and controlled by local, independently operated SMS (text message) gateways. Leveraging a wiki disguised as a message board to figure out what is on the USB stick (or what you would like to have on it), individuals text message this centralized numbers which keeps everyone's mobile device number secret, and then the participants are notified of the rendezvous.

Why the move offline?

This all sounds like a lot of work to get the latest Taylor Swift album. But, that's not the point. The deadSwap "artistic statement" on their website explains the new phenomena of physical file sharing networks: "The new 'Social Web' has fundamentally replaced the peer-to-peer Internet, and remaining peer communications technology has become marginal or even contraband as participants on peer networks face increasing legal attack and active sabotage from groups representing the interests of Capital. The Internet is dead. In order to evade the flying monkeys of capitalist control, peer communication can only abandon the Internet for the dark alleys of covert operations. Peer-to-peer is now driven off-line and can only survive in clandestine cells."

Is it the red pill or the blue pill?

If you're having flashbacks to the movie, The Matrix, you're not alone. Perhaps the only way that we'll derive true value from data in the future is when that data is no longer available so readily and easily to anyone and everyone who is connected to both the Internet and the mobile platforms. In the meantime, before we all decide if we're going to pop the red pill or the blue pill, you can't help but be curious about how projects like Dead Drop and deadSwap are helping us to rethink how we're connected, who we're connected to, and what value we derive from one another's data and information.

How cool is that?

The above posting is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

By Mitch Joel