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

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Monday, 27 Jun 2005

'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
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