I taught at Northeastern University in Boston in the 1980s, sandwiched between two men who would become famous there. One was crime writer Robert B. Parker, creator of the Spenser and Jesse Stone detective novels, who served on the English faculty at Northeastern until 1979, three years before my arrival.
The second was Shawn Fanning who was fooling around in his dorm room while a student in 1999 and came up with a little music file-sharing system called Napster. That was 12 years after my departure.
I could be bitter about not finding the fame these two did, but I have a consolation: I don’t have to worry about how to spend all that money.
Brainstorming in Boston
My thought this week is about what Fanning created: that first popular file-sharing system. I also find it ironic that a few years later — just across the Charles River — Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg would create Facebook before he and the Crimson administration would part company somewhat abruptly. I’ll leave you to see the current film, “The Social Network,” to see how and why that parting occurred.
Fanning’s Napster was, of course, the online music peer-to-peer file sharing service that operated successfully for, albeit a short two years before the courts shut it down in July 2001, calling it copyright infringement on the music industry. Napster’s technology allowed users to share their MP3 files with other users, passing right by the long-established music and film distribution system. The band Metallica sued, then A&M Records sued, and the race was on to the courtroom.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Although the original Napster was closed down, Fanning’s creation pioneered the idea of decentralized peer-to-peer file distribution programs. And these have been much tougher to shut down or even control. Even the name Napster is still around, after the brand and logo were bought and the service turned into a pay music download service.
It is interesting to note the connection between music file-sharing and information file-sharing which, of course, is done all the time on the Web. A journalism professor at Ball State University, Brad King, wrote this month in MediaPost Magazines that the newspaper industry can learn a lot from the Napster story.
King writes that, after Napster was shut down, more than a dozen music-selling Web sites secured rights from the record companies and seemed poised to take us into a new digital entertainment era.
“But looks can be deceiving,” King writes. “With Napster no longer a threat, the labels scaled back their licensing initiatives and within a year most of those 12 sites weren’t around. Instead, the labels pushed forward with MusicNet and PressPlay, digital retail stores they wholly owned, creating a walled garden where consumers needed to subscribe to both … If someone wanted to purchase a song, that ran another $2.50 per track.”
King continues, “The move showed an incomprehsible misunderstanding about the reason for Napster’s success. Predictably, the two digital stores faded into obscurity while file-sharing networks continued tothrive. And herein lies the fundamental problem facing nearly all traditional media companies as they move into the digital age: identifying the problem customers have already solved.”
And the problem was …
According to King, the music industry was just flat wrong when they didn’t think people would be willing to pay to download songs. The problem was they just didn’t have an easy way to pay for them, let alone find the music in the first place.
“The Web showed them they could access information quickly, yet when they tried to find music online in 2001, it was nearly impossible, because the record labels steadfastly held music back. but the customers didn’t, ripping their CDs into digital files, which Napster made searchable.”
“The fact that Napster was free was incidental. The fact that Napster was easy, wasn’t.”
Under this thinking, the music industry went wrong when it tried to protect its franchise, by putting up walls between content and consumer, rather than adopting a customer-friendly solution. In the end, instead of protecting its business model with MusicNet and PressPlay, they damaged it severely.
So what can the news industry learn from this?
King asserts that the news industry confronts a similar scenario where file sharing has been replaced by user-created content on blogs and Twitter as well as social networks.
“The story of Napster … gives modern media executives an interesting roadmap for successfully building communities and tapping into the user-generated involvement that can open up new growth and revenue opportunities if they understand one simple idea: User-generated content isn’t the problem. It’s the solution ot the problem the traditional media didn’t know it had.”
Slashdot solves a problem
King cites Metafilter, Boing Boing, and Slashdot as successful examples of user-generated content information sites. And Shashdot has even taken a good stab at solving the credibility problem that many user-generated sites have. Shashdot is one of the key Web sites of choice for those interested in techno geek culture. Users post information from around the world, and that data is a mix of information from traditional sources, blogs, and personal experience. There, however, King notes Shashdot diverges from similar sites like Boing Boing.
“Once a user submits a story, the Shashdot crowd helps determine which ones are ‘greenlit’ … a story is pushed to the front page by voting the story up or down, by giving a particular story an up or down rating. That ranking helps the Shashdot section editors determine which stories are promoted to the main Slashdot pages. It’s a rather ingenious scheme … to create a trustworthiness scale … That scale is even more important considering the site has 5.5 million readers each moth, each of whom can submit stories.”
To make this site even more amazing is to note that, if Slashdot were a newspaper, it would rank as the second largest news organization online, according to to the Newspaper Association of America.
“Yet with millions of readers submitting content, Shashdot retains strong editorial oversight with the help of its ‘karma’ system,” King says.
The BSU professor concludes, “The traditional news industry, particularly newspapers and magazines, are facing a similar decline (as the music industry). Like the music industry nearly a decade ago, executives have a choice. Do they follow the music industry, erecting walled gardens around their content, fighting consumers and forcing them to segment themselves? Or do they embrace what their readers, who are also their paying customers are doing?”
In our spotlight-crazy age, it’s hard to imagine an individual relatively unknown to that spotlight engaging an audience as much as a celebrity. But that’s what happened Friday night on the Indiana campus of Ball State University.
The relative unknown was Biz Stone, not exactly a household name but who nonetheless is co-founder and creative director of a Web 2.0 enterprise with a name you may have heard of: Twitter.
The celebrity was David Letterman.
An intimate chat
Ball State’s most famous alum and the boyish-looking Stone were on campus to have an intimate conversation (with some 3,500 students, faculty, and staff listening in) about the impact that the three-year-old Twitter and the rest of the social media are having on all of us. The event was part of the Late Night entertainer-funded program called the David Letterman Distinguished Professional Lecture and Workshop Series.
“We had a vision of a flock of birds grouped around a bird in flight,” Stone, 36, said of his start-up venture Twitter. If you’ve wondered why the Twitter logo is a bird, that’s the reason. It’s an image that mirrors the human essence of that interactive service.
Boredom pays off
“I was working on a different startup at Google,” Stone explained. “I was getting a little bored and we took two weeks off to work on something else.”
That was in 2006, and that something-else evolved into Twitter and grew out of Stone’s focus interest in combining texting into an interactive Web service. Stone, together with friends Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams, worked on the prototype for nine months and realized they were having a lot of fun doing it, so they must be on the right track.
Today Twitter has some 160 million users around the world, and its owners turned down a purchase offer of $500 million for it last year. Stone himself was named one of Vanity Fair’s 10 most influential people and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential.
A site about nothing?
Not bad for the co-founder of a service that many discount as meaningless and who are confounded about its popularity. Even Stone acknowledges that.
“Twitter has been called the Seinfeld of the Internet,” Stone said, referring to the immensely popular TV series of the 90s with little plot structure but great characterizations. “It’s about nothing. Right on!”
About nothing? Really? If so, then how do you explain Stone’s assertion about how helpful it has been to people around the world?
Not about technology
“Twitter is not about a triumph of technology,” Stone said. “It’s a triumph of humanity.” He told Letterman, “In Silicon Valley there is this thinking that technology is a solution to all our problems. But it’s not. It really has to do with what people are going to do with technology.”
Stone added meat to that appetizer by noting that, “People have used Twitter in ways we never anticipated.” For example:
• In the earthquake that rocked Haiti, the only communication many people had with victims in that country, and vice versa, was through Twitter. It helped greatly in getting news in and out of the island nation about who was alive, who was missing, who was dead, and what was needed.
• People from around the world were tweeting messages like, “Keep hope alive,” to the victims in the devastated areas.
• The same has been true with the more recent flooding of Pakistan.
• Last fall, when the world was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Germans established a “Twitter Wall” where people from around the world could post tweets about other walls of oppression that still need to fall. Many Chinese were the first to post such Tweets, before the Chinese government blocked access by their people to that site.
• Some of the 2008 presidential debates incorporated real-time tweets from the public in a crawl along the bottom of the screen, showing what America was thinking about the give-and-take of the candidates.
When Twitter is used to aid disaster victims, it may be showing its most valuable feature, Stone believes.
“We get in touch with our empathy … and think of ourselves as global citizens who care about others,” he said.
Nevertheless, the amount of time people spend on Twitter on a day-to-day basis causes many critics to wonder if all the short blurbs about who is doing what when, is really necessary or just a waste of time.
In his on-stage conversation with Stone, Letterman admitted he does not tweet, nor is he sure he understands why he should.
“I would be tweeting but I feel I don’t have anything to say,” Letterman said. “Moreover, why should I care that Justin Bieber is at the 7-Eleven right now?”
Find your own interest
Stone replied that people don’t need to tweet to get value out of Twitter. He suggested using it to get the information that is relevant to you. If you’re interested in baseball or, more specifically, the Red Sox, dig out those tweets to see what people have to say about your team.
“Twitter is not a social network,” Stone said. “It’s an information network.”
Stone also surprised the audience by noting that 90 percent of all tweets are accessible by the public and that all tweets are archived by the Library of Congress. Other stats he revealed are that 78 percent of all Twitter usage is through Twitter.com, while the other 22 percent come through mobile phone usage. In fact, if you’ve ever wondered why Twitter messages are kept to 140 characters, it is to keep it within the 160-character maximum length of cell phone text messages, allowing for the adding of a username.
Although Letterman couldn’t resist being Dave – he once noted he was wearing socks he had borrowed from the husband of BSU President Jo Ann Gora and took them off on-stage at the end of the program – he did turn serious in displaying his interest over Twitter.
Damage to language?
One of his more serious questions to Stone was asking whether such heavy usage of Twitter would affect people’s use of the English language and subtract for their ability to write well.
Stone responded, “When you’re given less to work with, you often have to be more creative.” He noted that Twitter forces users to come to the point and be concise in their writing. He also noted that many people provide links in their tweets to longer-form messages.
No boredom here
As interesting as the on-stage conversation was, however, it was just as fascinating to watch how the audience of young people responded. It is rare that a speaker event on campus doesn’t result in scattered groups of students talking among themselves and seeing several of them get bored and leave before the end.
But few did that on Friday night, and the silence during the program and standing ovation welcoming Stone and Letterman to the stage showed the degree of interest college students have in the social media phenomenon.
As a writer, I often find it easier to communicate via the written word than orally, so I tend to write long. I want to be sure my meaning comes through as I plan it. That works sometimes, and sometimes it doesn’t. But when I give thought to an e-mail and produce one that runs a few paragraphs, then get back a quick one-liner in response, I wonder, What’s up with that? Isn’t this guy treating my thoughts seriously? Is he angry with me for some reason? Or am I just being paranoid?
Apparently others are in the same boat, too. A few months ago I posted an entry that drew some discussion about the shortcomings of e-mails, text messages, and Facebook messages in conveying true meanings of the senders. I cautioned against trying to resolve disputes via e-mails, for example, because of this very problem.
So I wasn’t too surprised this week when I picked up a copy of the Ball State Daily News and found an interesting, albeit disturbing article from Kelly Dickey, about how serious electronic messaging can be.
Lost in translation
Entitled, “Conversations being lost in translation,” the article quoted students and counselors about the damaging effect these kinds of messages can have on individuals.
For example, one victims advocate noted: “From what I’ve seen and experienced, technology can be a wonderful resource to connect but, on the flip side, it can be a communication gap. If you’re texting back and forth via e-mail and Facebook, (the other person) may not know how to take what you’re saying.”
A loss of humanity
Therein lies the rub. The victims advocate, Michele Cole, said a decrease in human connection takes place when two people communicate through technology, and it can definitely have negative effects on relationships. One reason is the oft-stated fact that most electronic communication is devoid of that all-important nonverbal communication.
Cole continued that, in the Ball State University Counseling Center, “We strive for better communication with partners and conduct programming on healthy relationships. We focus on interaction. The nonverbals are such a large component of our everyday communication that, if you’re trying to just text back, and forth there’s that communication gap.
You don’t have to have counseling credentials to recognize the problem. Sophomore speech pathology major Laura Albers sees it, too.
“There’s a disconnect, and it’s just going to get worse,” Albers said. “You can be in a room with your friends, and there’s no point being there because they just text other people.”
Another student, Freshman Jordan Oppelt said she’s bothered by this, too.
“When that happens I just think, ‘What? You don’t want to hang out with me? I’m not good enough?” she said.
Another vexing issue concerning the flood of Facebook and Twitter communications is the public exposure or private matters involving the sender or other individuals. This comes under the heading of, “When does interpersonal communication become mass communication? When it goes on Facebook or Twitter.”
The domino effect of Facebook message distribution thrusts a knife into the heart of one-on-one messaging. There is an illusion that you are only communicating to a few close friends about yourself or someone else, but the audience is often much larger than you anticipate.
Even a simple act by one person of expressing her love for a guy she’s dating, can be very embarrassing for the guy if she hasn’t asked him first if it’s okay that she posts that message on Facebook. Suppose he doesn’t feel the same way but just hasn’t told her yet? Or suppose she hasn’t even told him yet, but thought it would be less stressful on her to pop it onto his Facebook page rather than telling him face to face?
Before Facebook, this act would be like hiring a pilot and his plane to trail a huge banner across the sky over the neighborhood where the guy lives.
Michele Cole of Ball State notes a lot of people assume a false sense of security when they send messages via text on or on Facebook.
“It goes back to, ‘I would text it but wouldn’t say it to your face.’ You get that false sense of courage.”
I’ve been teaching at the university level for many years, and it has been interesting to watch the evolution of students’ feelings regarding their privacy. As late as a year or two ago, many of my students didn’t seem to care if they were abandoning their privacy by posting private facts about themselves or others on the social media.
But lately I’ve been seeing the opposite: more and more students are thinking less and less about rushing onto Facebook with a revealing personal message unless they convince themselves they know who is receiving that message.
And that, by the way, is harder and harder for any of us to control in this age of the virtual unknown.