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Hypergene MediaBlog » 'Community' as a term to mask dirty acts by dirty people
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'Community' as a term to mask dirty acts by dirty people

In today’s Wall Street Journal, columnist Lee Gomes’ veers off course in a piece on ethical responsibility and the Grokster ruling:

Grokster is a peer-to-peer software system widely used in the file-sharing community to exchange music. Those, at least, are the euphemisms invoked by Grokster’s supporters. In fact, the software’s main job is to help people get CDs and other digital goodies like video without paying for them.

(Note how often the word “community,” with its warm, fuzzy connotations of Little League and bake sales, is invoked to provide an aura of decency and respectability to a crowd that doesn’t particularly deserve it. If there is an “online file-sharing community,” shouldn’t there also be, say, an “online pornography community?")

What would should we call it? The file-sharing affinity club? Fellowship of the file-sharers? The insane file-sharing posse? The contra-copyright cartel?

Online file-sharing community is a perfectly viable, accurate and appropriate term to describe Grokster users. Academics, market researchers, journalists, portals and countless others have used it to describe the individualized and flexible social networks that enable millions of people to share digital media (to paraphrase sociologist Barry Wellman).

To say that the word “community” has been misappropriated by losers to legitimize their daily-porn-exchange or free-software-utopia is like saying Steve Nash or Dwayne Wade dominate the court with their “athleticism.” It’s cheap, boring and lacks clarity.

Just like we need to praise our athletes (politicians, journalists, et al) for their specific remarkable skills and accomplishments, journalists (lawyers, politicians, judges, et al) need to attack the precise actions that are problemmatic in file-sharing, because the underlying technologies of peer-to-peer networks are too valuable to lose.

Later in his column, Gomes says:

"The original golden vision of the Internet — that of a wired global village — is rapidly being replaced by a dystopia of thefts, scams, phishing and viruses. Programmers and engineers can make choices about whether to make the world better or to make it worse. That means, among other things, being honest about what people might do with the code or the information that gets put out into the world. (Of course, this is a rule that applies to just about any profession.)"
A profession like, say, journalism? Okay, that was cheap, boring and lacked clarity. Listen, Gomes’ “be good” message is admirable. But the idea that engineers can program “goodness” into the code underlying the Internet and web software is absurd. That’s like saying we can re-engineer our society to get rid peepers and flashers if we just wrote better Bibles.

As Doc and Dave say, “The Internet isn’t a thing. It’s an agreement.

What makes the Net inter is the fact that it’s just a protocol — the Internet Protocol, to be exact. A protocol is an agreement about how things work together.

This protocol doesn’t specify what people can do with the network, what they can build on its edges, what they can say, who gets to talk. The protocol simply says: “If you want to swap bits with others, here’s how."

Next thing you know, communities (both good and bad) are flourishing everywhere.

Posted on Jun 27, 2005 | 10:55 pm EST

READER COMMENTS


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Ach, I think you’re both off the mark.

What Gomes seems to have been clumsily trying to say is that the word “community” is overused and in this case misused. Example: Here in Clarksville I’ve seen the term “Clarksville’s African-American community” tossed around in print. I rewrite it every time because every black person I talk to will tell you there’s no such beast—as if being black made you at one with every other black person in town. It’s an imprecise way of saying “Many black Clarksvillians” or “the leadership of the local branch of the NAACP.”

Similarly, Gomes and others should use the term “file sharers” rather than “file-sharing community.” If I go online and swap a few files with some folks I’ve never met, does that make me part of a community? No. Don’t be silly. If I go to Lowes and buy a hammer, does that make me part of the “Lowe’s shopping community”? Seems to me Gomes is muddying his point about Internet honesty with a badly articulated argument on semantics.

But, to the posting author, by insisting on calling file-sharers a “file-sharing community,” you’re repeating the logic error of lumping all file-sharers into one group—one group that necessarily takes on the virtues and sins of individuals who, for the most part, share nothing in common but a hobby. While communities of file-sharers surely exist—folks who know each other by screen names, know one another’s music tastes, share reviews, maybe even chat on other topics, etc—the entirity of file sharers is no more a community than the entirity of people who like to drink Molson beer and write overly long blog comments at night.

Posted by: Chris Smith on Jul 01, 05 | 3:17 am EST

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So, Chris, does that mean there is no blogosphere? A distributed community, is still one nonetheless, despite the presence or absence of communication intimacy among the participants.

Still, the original point - which is the same one you are making - still stands: Gomes, et al, should attack the problem actions, not the terminology they are supposedly hiding behind.

Posted by: Shayne on Jul 06, 05 | 4:51 pm EST

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Yes, Virginia, there is a blogosphere, but I wouldn’t call it a community. I guess it all depends on your definition of “community.”

Example: My wife is on a couple of boards online. Over the years she’s gotten to know these women—though purely over the Net. She knows the names of these women’s kids. She knows their philosophies. She knows their life stories. Now, some would argue that because she’s never actually met these women in person, it’s not a community (in fact I used to say that), but I think this is a community. This is a group of people who interact with one another in a social network.

Taking part in the same activity as another person does not, in my definition, make you part of a community.

Humans are social beings, and as such we form communities. That’s not the same as being in the same room together and not looking up. When I walk in Lowe’s and buy a hammer, I’m not “in community” with other Lowe’s shoppers. When I walk in Lowes and start a conversation with a checker and we start talking every time I go in, and those conversations spread to other regular Lowe’s shoppers, we are beginning to form a community.

To suggest otherwise undermines the essence of the word “community” and undervalues our social nature.

The dictionary allows your usage of the term. But I don’t like it. It lumps all members together as if they were not distinct, and it assumes a level of interaction across the entire “community” that doesn’t exist. The blogosphere contains communities. It is not, in itself, a community any more than there is a community of telephone users or newspaper readers or concert attendees. It’s a platform for forming communities, not a community in itself.

Posted by: Smitty on Jul 07, 05 | 12:31 am EST

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