Social Media Should Drop Dead

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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:


  1. Interesting stuff, Mitch. I saw on Charlie Rose recently Eric Schmidt talking about the increased importance of social search. That kind of ties into this.

  2. Does anyone out there now share my concern that Facebook will get whacked by governments worldwide that now see it as challenging their old perceptions of what borders should look like? With people truly becoming “one world” through the “fastest growing community in the world”, when will the hammer drop for their old “control paradigms” to remain intact. And if indeed the true democratization is now going offline, then what is to be said for “big brother 2010” and where we truly let freedom reign without the invasion of the privacy we used to hold so dear?

  3. I saw an article the other day about the Dead Drop USB hubs in NY and thought it was a really interesting idea.
    I think that social media always has been a way for real people to connect online, but those relationships that we build online can transfer into real-life relationships as well. I think that this idea of moving peer-to-peer sharing into the real world can work the same. Imagine bumping into someone walking away from the Dead Drop port just as you’re walking up to it. You can ask them “hey, was there anything good on there?” or “What did you leave there?” rather than just taking files from a faceless (and probably also nameless) person on the internet.
    The main word in social media is of course “social”, and while some people say that social media is making us less social I would argue against that. The internet has just opened us up to more connections that weren’t possible before, but they mean more when we transfer these online interactions into real-world interactions.
    A year ago you were just a face on Twitter and the guy who wrote a book I read, but thanks to social media I’ve had a few opportunities to meet you in real life and it didn’t need to be a weird awkward experience of introducing ourselves and whatnot because we had had many exchanges before that online.
    I think that the internet opens up the real world to whole different experience than it used to be. I think it will be interesting to see how things like this progess.
    Sheldon, community manger for Sysomos

  4. Having the ability to get information (and share it) via the people you are really connected to is important, I’m not sure it ties in (directly), because the more we do this, the more we are making everything we do public. It seems to me, like the ideas brought forth in this post are about regaining control over your data (and not sharing it so publicly), but I’d love to hear more about how you see the connection.

  5. Kind of like Financial or Tax Regulation. No matter what barriers you put up people always find ways around them. I love the USB drive idea. Very clever. When I am finally located in the city will be fun to track some down and participate.
    Plus so many people have portable HD’s anyway its easy to swap music in person with friends. I mail DVD’s with 2 days worth of live DJ mixs to friends all the time with much of the sets legal and freely available online but since I actively collect them its easy to burn 48 hours for my friends who appreciate all the music. Most of the underground electronic music scene (and much above ground now) uses the Grateful Dead Marketing!
    But then this all explains why show tickets cost so much!
    as always when it comes to creativity with humans, where there is a will there is a way!

  6. Big Brother? I think it’s the opposite… now it’s not one centralized unit recording, watching and broadcasting… it’s everyone doing it to everyone. Why do you think government would have an issue with this? Beyond digital rights management by location, there doesn’t seem to be too many issues here (unless you’re talking about the non-democratic unions – but those folks are already blocking and tackling the online channels).

  7. On my wavelength again, couple of days ago I was sharing on thread that I ran over the following anime, and how it’s like a copy paste of matrix, dune, H1N1/V-Chip and so is the music features Basement Jaxx, Boom Boom Satellites, Asian Dub Foundation, Dead Can Dance, Carl Craig, The Prodigy, DJ Shadow, M.I.A, with singer Mink providing the theme song Together again and Paul Oakenfold handling the music:

    Yesterday I got a response that it was dl-ed and much enjoyed! I get that people don’t want to pay the overpriced $30 and buy this from Fry’s or Bestbuy but why not Netflix? that’s what I do. Here was my response to the thread more or less:
    I still like Animatrix better, specially when the ‘machines’ are forced to relocate to babylon(cradle of civilization) by the ‘humans’ due to their ‘culture’ (or lack of a better one) and then the scene where the ‘humans’ are performing inception on the robot to force metamorphosis. It works, but when the robot tries to connect back to one of the humans through the matrix after saving her life, she freaks out! I mean comm.on, it’s just Netflix not commun.ism!

  8. That’s pretty cool stuff. I think people don’t like the way big businesses marginalize people and that is why peer to peer is so popular. People don’t want to help the super rich become richer, and why should they? What is needed is more creative, collaborative, and humanity enriching business models. I don’t think people have a problem paying for things especially if most of the profit was going to actual creator. I know I would much rather be dealing directly with the author, musician, artist, etc.

  9. Sharing is as sharing does. And, while Forrest Gump, never said that, I like this blended attack of online/offline to meet, connect and share. I also think that sometimes a semi-closed network (one you have to work harder to connect with) can be a very valuable place to connect.

  10. You can see extensions of this… whether it’s protected online spaces or people sharing with DropBox and/or YouSendIt. The channels exist, but moving it out into the wild and having these data dump places be real… like trees… is both fascinating and scary.
    Once the technology advances (faster transfer rates and small file sizes), we’ll quickly be able to use apps like “bump” to shoot stuff over to one another.

  11. Personally, I take pride in paying for both my art and entertainment. Even if I don’t always like what I receive, I can usually appreciate the value in the creative and production process.
    That’s my side… and I’m well aware that I fall into the minority (which I am fine with).

  12. But those rich people still pay the artist (who won’t get paid if the companies don’t get paid). Artists create and the businesses’ role is to market and distribute that. I don’t love the model, but no one is forced to do it.
    In the end, is screwing the big, bad corporations worth it if you’re ensuring that the artists even gets less?

  13. It sounds like a lot of work. With the rise of bittorrent sites, I don’t think this kind of offline music sharing network is ever going to take off. What has always fascinated me the most about illegal online file sharing thing is that it’s being treated as a moral issue by record companies and lots or ordinary people too…as if it’s wrong to deny music artists their CD profits. If you look at the issue long term though, we’re kind of reverting back to the way things used to be before record companies came along and invented physical formats to house music. So historically, music has been a service much more than it’s been a product. And even during the LP and CD era, music wasn’t the product being sold. That’s why a CD with 12 songs can cost the same as a CD with 18 songs on it. People are paying for the plastic. The companies could charge us for pretty looking plastic because human beings tend to overvalue physical things. The Web made plastic obsolete. The music will never go away, but it looks like the medium is just reverting back to live platforms. So there’s nothing morally wrong with reduced profits for musicians.

  14. This doesn’t sound like a mass audience play, but think about what it can do niche groups and those interested/connected around those similar interests? It could wind up making the sharing quite social as well.
    As for the the music and the physical-ness of it, it’s not cheap to run servers and bandwidth either… there are costs on both ends.

  15. Love this. The physicality of sharing & respective data (or content for that matter) is ultimately where the world leads. This is the true essence of the social network.
    To some of the responses here, the bigger challenge to me is not so much how we distribute, but how we attribute value (some might say value lies in the distribution, but I think we’ve seen that argument blunted). Specifically, how does transactional & reciprocal value blend?

  16. To me, all of this begs the question: where is social media heading? What does this mean for us as a society (don’t start me on the music industry preaching about morality–what a paradox!).
    This seems tribal on a deeper, more personalized level. The internet leading to real, physical connections with people who share your interests. It’s like Facebook leading to reconnecting old relationships. I read a crazy quote that puts 20% of current divorces having started out as friends as Facebook.
    I think these networks are an interesting reflection of the reality of people doing what they want to do. I won’t steal music anymore, I don’t like who I become when I do that.

  17. again, it’s a communication and education problem, for example if the artist had or access to or knew about revShare models like iTunes instead of having to sign contracts. I would not have to buy the whole Christmas cd, if I just wanted to enjoy my favorite Christmas song:

  18. Talk about pushing it further… is it possible that we’re evolving beyond Maslow and his famous hierarchy of needs – in that we’re no longer going to need that self-actualization and that the value comes from the act of the exchange and the people you know?

  19. As long as the “social” stays in Social Networks, all will be fine. You will connect to those with shared values and within that will be serendipity and new learning. For me, the key is always to connect to new and interesting people (in industries that aren’t always obvious to me).

  20. oh I completely agree, the notion that some artists and engineers have that business people are not necessary and vice versa, I was alluding to the model and the culture which is again not value driven. Problem is most intermediaries put profit first. hey I’ve done it, I still do it and have to pinch myself every once in a while

  21. Excellent blog story; there are multitudes of questions that need to be answered. The crazy thing is, while formulating a response, there arises a new question. Mainly because we don’t know the future of social media. This is partially due to the flow of information, rapid rate of technological improvement, and legal problems connected to the new technology.
    I for one, would like to see a happy medium. Where the artists make their money while open source is still utilized. Though a system like that would be fair, I’m not sure how it could be achieved.

  22. I like that too. My full disclosure: I was in the music business for 15 years and I just don’t believe any of this to be realistic. The majority of artists I met (from uber-famous to indie) simply don’t know, care, or want to handle this business-y stuff. They just want to create. Yes, there were some exceptions… but not many.

  23. I have two brothers in the music business. One is a event planner in the San Francisco Bay area; the other a guitar playing attorney. Mitch, your comment on the artists not wanting to know, care, etc. hit it on the head. My attorney/guitar playing brother could care less about anything besides writing and playing the music, and he’s an attorney!

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