It's Still All About Peer-to-Peer Connectivity

Alex Winter raps about Napster with Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker

It's Still All About Peer-to-Peer Connectivity

At this morning's Downloaded: The Digital Revolution roundtable, Alex Winter discussed digital media with Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow and Napster co-founders Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning.

Much of the conversation focused on why Napster proved so successful. Sure, free music. But the panelists argued that, first and foremost, Napster tapped our deep-seated desire to connect and share with one another. Napster's second strength? Convenience.

“There is an impulse in the human mind that is as firmly imbedded as sex and hunger and probably related,” said Barlow, author of the seminal 1993 Wired article “The Economy of Ideas." “If you hear something or experience something that you can share with another person, you want to do that.”

It’s from this desire that Parker believes Napster grew. “Just about every interesting, meaningful, large-scale shift introduced [on the Internet] has something to do with connecting people to one another and to this idea of global community,” said Parker. “You see it in Napster. You see it in Facebook. It’s all about how do we connect people in ways that either approximate real-life connections or [are] completely novel, new ways we’ve never seen before. Napster is really the first company that harnessed the underlying true potential of the Internet as a peer-to-peer communication medium.”

Winter joined Napster back in 1999. Its unique level of connectivity and ability to foster conversation around art, music, film, and books produced a ”seismic shift” in his life, and it inspired documentary film Downloaded that Winter brought to SXSW for its world premiere. “My embracing of Napster was about global community,” said Winter. “Suddenly there was this fluid, robust, global community that worked, and I was making friends in Japan and Finland and Russia.”

In general, the panelists seemed to agree that if industries could find a way to enable this type of community, while maintaining the convenience of Napster, then communities would embrace legitimate file-sharing – even pay for it – because most people value community and convenience over “free.” But as Parker pointed out, any such network would have to “exceed the convenience of piracy-based networks in order to create a model that people are willing to pay for.”

While this position might seem a bit one-sided (coming from a co-founder of Napster), it’s not entirely unique. And upon ending the panel, Parker encouraged attendees to see Downloaded at SXSW, lest they have to wait months for it to come out in theatres… and then maybe on TV a couple months later… or potentially, a year or so from now, on iTunes. (Fair point.)

The panelists all seemed hopeful of a way to balance convenience and community with fair compensation. Barlow said that “those models are developing,” but they rely on us “valuing the original relationship you have with a creator, and their contribution and making sure those creators are being supported, not through some very elaborate system that generally ends up taking all the money and giving it to people who never created a goddamn thing, but actually gets it directly to the folks [who] deserve it.” There are examples of industries moving in that direction.

Downloaded screens again Saturday, March 16, 4:40pm, Vimeo.

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SXSW Film, SXSW, Downloaded, Alex Winter, Napster, Shawn Fanning, Sean Parker, John Perry Barlow, Bill S. Preston

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