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Pirates and Philistines

Twitter gets popular

A couple of events occurred last week that might have seemed completely unconnected but were, I think, flip sides of the same coin: in the first case, a Swedish court convicted the owners of the Pirate Bay file sharing site of copyright violations involving facilitation of theft, sentencing them to fines and prison time, and, in the second case, Oprah devoted valuable on-air time to the Twitter phenomenon, introducing her legions of fans to the service and calling out Ashton Kutcher as the first Twitter user to gain over 1 million followers. What ties these apparently disparate events together is the fact that they demonstrate in unique ways the mainstreaming of the internet as a medium and its changing character(s).

Piracy 2.0

As an invention of technology, it makes perfect sense that the early proponents of the internet were members of the “technorati” – the geeky folk who build and fund tech start ups and those who buzz around them. Back in the 90’s as the commercial internet was just taking off, one could read one after another manifesto from these folks proclaiming the nascent medium a digital Valhalla, revolutionary in its potential. A good example was [“Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age”] in which futurist Alvin Toffler, venture capitalist Esther Dyson and others attempted to spell out the game-changing nature of this new technology and what was needed to foster it:

To start with, liberation – from Second Wave rules, regulations, taxes and laws laid in place to serve the smokestack barons and bureaucrats of the past. Next, of course, must come the creation – the creation of a new civilization, founded in the eternal truths of the American Idea.

Likening themselves to frontier settlers, they wanted complete freedom to reinvent commerce on the web any way they saw fit. Such freedom would, of course, lead to the unfettered creation of enormous wealth and that is exactly what happened (well mostly for well-connected technocrats, anyway). But the lack of oversight also led to a Wild West ecosystem online where hordes of thieves committed untold abuses of intellectual property. Sadly, some who should know better even sought to undermine claims of intellectual property by basically implying the [inevitability of theft] and [apologizing] for it under the rubric of “free culture”.

It was just a matter of time before the law caught up with the internet and that is what happened in Stockholm. In a landmark ruling, a Swedish court proclaimed that existing laws covering copyright applied to the online entity. While the punishment meted out by the court (one year of jail time and millions in fines) may be reduced on appeal, the judgment is an important precedent that moves internet transactions more firmly into a legal realm with a long history of addressing intellectual property claims and that can provide content owners greater protection. Though not popular with some zealous internet users, who, understandably might prefer a more lax environment in which to sample from creative works, ultimately it benefits them as well since it hastens the day when there are clear limits to what can and cannot be shared online and the ambiguity around liability is cleared up. The libertarian ethos of the inventor/early adopter crowd is giving way to something more traditional and that’s probably not a bad thing.

The Changing Face of Online Fame

Another example of a “changing of the guard” involved the sudden boost in popularity of [Twitter], thanks to high-profile efforts by Ashton Kutcher and Oprah. Since its release a couple of years ago the service has largely been the province of tech early adopters and their fans. Until fairly recently, the most popular users were the usual Who’s Who of the Silicon Valley scene: Robert Scoble with 80,000 followers; Dave Winer and Jason Calacanis with each about 40,000 and a few others ruled the roost — opining on the virtues of communication in 140 characters installments as if we were witnessing Gutenberg for the 21st century. For most of the rest of us (and, to be honest for the tech stars as well…) Twitter was merely the latest toy for vanity publishing – a way to extend our egos into the network. And, as with all other Web 2.0 inventions, the promise of equal access to audience was trumped by [network effects] – resulting in an “A-list” of users, and everybody else.

What turned out to be somewhat revolutionary was the disintermediation this toy provided to users who were already famous (real world famous, not tech famous). Once upon a time, famous people had to work closely with and for mainstream media outlets whose reach largely determined the public’s perception of them. As the internet fractured old media monopolies it led to a proliferation of new sites that trade on celebrity reputations (e.g., Perez Hilton, TMZ). Managing one’s image became infinitely more difficult in such an environment (just ask Britney). But social media services like Facebook and Twitter shift control away from the media outlets back to the celebrity. What fan wouldn’t prefer getting a message delivered directly to them from their favorite star over reading something about them on a blog or news site? In a celebrity-obsessed soundbite-driven culture, Twitter becomes the apotheosis of public relations image management: stars get to deliver their own sound bites directly into the heads of their fans. So easy even an actor can do it!

Alas, the former A-list is not very happy about these new usurpers of their social media thrones. The Philistines are knocking down the gates and there is [grumbling] about the cooptation of Twitter by “big media”. But that’s just sour grapes by those who see their influence dwindling. The rest of us should welcome the evolution. Imagine if television programming in the early days had been restricted to the offerings of the engineers who invented the medium? It would’ve died a quick death. But, happily, we got to watch Lucy. If I have to have someone else’s words broadcast to me through this new medium, I’d much rather it be someone who can at least entertain me. The New Media, same as it ever was.

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