Monthly Archives: September 2005

when media becomes culture: rethinking copyright issues

After listening to representatives from the RIAA and EFF speak past each other, i found myself frustrated at how to push the debate further. It looks like such a religious issue (two sides who simply can’t understand each other) but i have to think that there’s a way of progressing the debate. I turned to Mimi and asked her what she thought. She pointed out that the most important issue is always lost in these discussions: the use of media in remix (and other “infringement”) is primarily not about art or creative expression, but about communication. This hit me over the head like a hammer.

Mass media has done such a good job at embedding their copyright into culture that it has become culture itself. The watercooler effect is what happens when media becomes the bits of communication – it’s what lets us share our values and interests, determine common ground, etc. Conversations swirl around TV characters, brands and movie quotes. I remember two kids in college deciding to only express themselves through Monty Python quotes in conversation. They felt that every question or comment necessary was already present in the movie. Of course, much of the language that i use is straight from media. Take a look at my posts and you’ll find littered references to songs and movies, sometimes cited, sometimes not. Perhaps the language of cinema truly is universal?

With new media, we have begun to communicate using more than just words. You see LJers use different photos and animated gifs on different comments as their signature of sorts. Personalized ringtones are all about associating sounds with people, building in-jokes and cultural references into the communication channels. Hip-hop certainly has an artistic bent but there’s also a long-standing tradition of telling your story. Remember mixed tapes as a way to say something to someone? Or when girls made collages out of YM magazines? Lives are littered with media and as we become adept at using it to communicate our thoughts, it will appear more and more, in spite of copyright.

To magnify the issue, our communications have become increasingly persistent. While we still produce a great deal of ephemeral communications, digital and mobile technologies make much of our communication persistent. The remixed sounds of the local club suddenly have mass appeal. But at what cost? On one hand, folks want to get their expressions out to the masses, but when their expressions include copyrighted material, they are at risk.

But with media saturating our culture, how do we express ourselves devoid of references to copyrighted material? Why can’t a kid wear a hand-made iPod costume for Halloween? Why can’t i tell my story through the songs that i’ve listened to over the years? Media is the building block of storytelling and it has become so essential to what we do.

The RIAA (and other such organizations) have been so successful at getting their media distributed that they have become culture. In turn, this means that they are the building blocks in which communication occurs. At this, they balk. Do they have the right to? Do they have the right to limit culture built on top of culture? If i want to tell my story using the cultural elements that have become a part of my life, do i need to recognize the RIAA and such as the controllers of culture? This is a dangerous limitation.

Copyright was meant to help artists get their work out. Mickey Mouse is out there; they were super successful and the copyright owners made billions. But now Mickey Mouse is culture – it symbolizes far more than Disney. Do the copyright holders have the right to control culture in this way? They’ve succeeded beyond most artists.

We have rights for parody and fair use, but perhaps we need to push it further, to make space for when copyright becomes culture. And then let it at the hands of the culture.

Of course, power likes to maintain power, even when it means forgetting what it was originally fighting for. The RIAA and such want to own culture – that power is so tasty. But why should we let them? When they restrict the growth of culture, they are no longer serving the people or the intentions of copyright – they are simply serving themselves. They are also unfortunately doing a good job of convincing artists that the only way to become part of culture is to go with their model. I realized that we don’t need to educate the masses – we need to educate these behemoths about culture, its creation, their role and the intentions behind the laws that they’ve used as shield for so long.

Creative Commons is fighting the RIAA on their terms, helping cement the legal structure as is. But honestly, CC is not creating culture in the same way that mass media products are. Sure, many of us want that to be the case, but will Christina and Britney ever be CC artists? Will Fox ever make its TV shows CC? Will indie ever overcome pop? The very nature of pop is that it’s about mainstream and this means buying into the power holders instead of the underdogs. That makes it really hard to overturn the cultural empire. Perhaps we should think about how to reframe the debate, focusing on the cultural output of mainstream artists rather than trying to play on their turf?

Honestly, i don’t know how but i definitely agree with Mimi that the debates miss the communication and cultural sharing aspect, focusing instead on the material component.

Update: i wrote a Part Two

mainstream-ification and podcasting

This week, i went to Duke to participate in the Podcasting Symposium. It was a great opportunity to talk to folks dealing with podcasting from different roles – podcasters, lawyers, scholars, businesspeople, etc. I participated on the Identity and Performance panel; here’s a synopsis of what i said.

I began by quoting James Polanco of Fake Science:

“The issue with today’s community is not a lack of professional content or a lack of audio quality that many listeners or media would assume. In my mind it’s the almost cult like adoration and exclusionary attitudes that is causing many of my fellow podcasters much grief. Too many of today’s major community leaders are playing in a popularity contest instead of focusing on what I feel podcasting should be about, creating interesting content… Over the last year, Adam Curry has re-emerged as a public icon and with urging from the community he is now the golden-child and the face of podcasting. The community worships Adam in a sycophant, cult-esque way that really frustrates me. The community has deemed titles upon him such as the ‘podfather’ which Adam then quickly embraced. Look at the front page of the podcasting iTunes site for the graphic for his new show ‘podfinder’. Adam is dressed in an all white reverend suit with a rainbow over him and his hands are out like he is giving podcasting to us straight from God.”

(I apparently hit a nerve using this quote since many in the audience were quite ecstatic to hear someone throw a punch at Curry. ::sigh:: It is sad when movements acquire leaders at the expense of other practitioners.)

Next, i talked about how the rapid mainstream-ification of podcasting has really splintered the early community and made it difficult for an organic community to grow and learn from each other. The combination of mass media podcasts and iTunes popularity systems make it very difficult for amateur production to emerge and for groups to actually support each other. This is quite sad because i think about how valuable the community element of blogging was, even though it was quite diverse and there were many different communities – it let a wide range of practices emerge under the header “blogging.”

Podcasting mainstream-ification has cemented the idea that podcasting is about one-to-many. For those allured by this mass audience possibility (preachers of religion, culture, news and politics), this is *fantastic.* But it also leaves behind those invested in one-to-few. People talk about podcasting being about niche markets, but it’s still visioned as getting everyone of some particular niche. When i think of one-to-few, i think of my grandfather leaving audio recordings of his life or families in India talking about what they see out in their hometown for their loved ones who are far away. I think about audio storytelling for groups who know each other, not just gossip for the masses.

Finally, i talked about how remix is about mixing consumption and production and allowing communities to come together through shared cultural references. Remix has its roots in the ephemeral, not the permanent. Yet, the persistence of things like podcasting means that it is not only public but very very public. Remix was always available at the local club, but now that niche community can be observed by anyone.

I also included a bunch of questions:

  • Who are podcasting creators/consumers? Who are we supporting? How are we supporting them?
  • How has the emphasis on one-to-many and popularity affected podcasting?
  • What about one-to-few populations? Do we care about them?
  • Do we want to make the new radio? Is this only about create mass audiences? What about helping people express their thoughts in audio?
  • How are technology and business choices affecting practice?
  • How do people deal with different constructions of ‘public’?
  • What happens when underground behavior goes mainstream?

cruises for evacuees

“Sweetheart Deal” for Carnival Cruise Lines:

If the ships were at capacity, with 7,116 evacuees, for six months, the price per evacuee would total $1,275 a week, according to calculations by aides to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). A seven-day western Caribbean cruise out of Galveston can be had for $599 a person — and that would include entertainment and the cost of actually making the ship move. “When the federal government would actually save millions of dollars by forgoing the status quo and actually sending evacuees on a luxurious six-month cruise it is time to rethink how we are conducting oversight.”

::grumble::grumble::grumble:: I so don’t understand how this administration could keep fucking up so badly.

porn distribution on Friendster and MySpace

When Paul posted about odd messages from girls on Friendster and MySpace, i couldn’t help but break out in giggles.

In most free hetero online dating sites, the vast majority of girls are fake. They write men (which gets them all excited because few women write to men). Guys write back, curious to learn more. And when the girl writes back, she tells you about how you can visit her site to learn more. Of course, the site is a porn site where you have to pay to enter. This works well because a fraction of the men ::shrug:: and figure it could be hot and another chunk think that they are conversing with a porn star, which would be super hott.

When companies take down these hott girl profiles, it disrupts the whole economy. “Real” girls don’t want to participate because the caliber of women just went down and most women want to be connected to other hot women. Men leave because the quality was diminished. And down the spiral we go.

Well, it seems like fake profiles have taken on a new form on Friendster and MySpace. Sure enough, in writing back, Paul got a link to photos. Hot girls, happy to sell you their porn. Yay! (But why aren’t they contacting me???) So how bad will it get? (And does the same thing operate in gay male culture?)

Why Web2.0 Matters, Round Two

This week, SIMS students came together to discuss Web2.0 – what is it and is it relevant to us? In the process, i found myself expanding my own understanding of what’s going on and i wanted to share my thought process here, mostly to get push-back. Some of this is repetitive of others and my own thoughts, but i needed to write it all down for sanity sake.

Ebbs and Flows

I don’t know many people who are a fan of the term Web2.0, but i also don’t know a better term. Sure, folks talk about the semantic web and the read/write web but this is only a fraction of what’s going on. Of course, Web2.0 is a business term… and for good reason. Let me explain.

The technology industry has its phases. Long before the masses were online, people were breaking down boundaries and talking to others across space and time. We were working towards a global village where everyone could share their ideas and passions. For all intents and purposes, it was small, intimate and homogenous. And then some businesspeople realized there was money to be made and we rushed full-speed into the boom.

Looking back, there are a lot of reasons to twitch about the boom (and they usually involve ill-will wishes directed at MBAs). Beneath the hype and chaos, there was genuine enthusiasm. This motivated so many people to think creatively, to expand their horizons, to envision a future and work towards it. It was like MDMA was being pumped through the faucets – serotonin was flowing everywhere.

And then, ::crash:: the Tuesday blues set in and people wandered the streets of SF looking like corpses without a bride in sight.

There is no doubt that things are uber hyped up right now. And that folks are a bit wary of hype. But why do ravers roll even when they know about the Tuesday blues? Because the high is worth it. Folks are brimming with creative thoughts, engaged with glitter in their eyes and really really wanting to innovate. Hype does that, even if it has a cost.

More than anything, what Web2.0 is demarcating is this hype, the next rush of enthusiasm that is hitting web developers. And it’s already playing out in creativity, in passion, and in money. Of course, i saw enough MBA types at LoveParade yesterday to make my hair curl.

Economic Pressures

In Code, Lessig reminded us to always pay attention to four pillars that work as forces in all sorts of change: market, law, society and architecture (code). When all four align, evolution leaps forward. The boom emerged when market and architecture aligned in a way that brought society along. By and large, law stayed out of things. And then, it all came crashing down with the market and architecture splintering (no business model), the realization that society wasn’t as enthused (“why do i want to buy everything online?”) and increasing pressure from law (MS vs. Netscape, Napster).

We’re in the next wave of collusion – the market and architecture are back at it, only this time, they’re a little more aware of the importance of society (but still terrified of law). Web2.0 is the business term for this collusion, an attempt to mark a shift.

I’ve heard lots of folks bitch about labeling something to create a shift. “There is no sudden shift!” they complain. Technologically, they’re right. Things have been progressing pretty linearly. Most of what is marked as Web2.0 technology is nothing new – glorified javascript, newly packaged publication tools, explicitly acknowledged openness. There’s no technological shift happening but there is a very noticeable business shift.

Let’s back up a bit. After the crash, left in the ruins were a handful of big companies in various degrees of shambles. Microsoft, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Macromedia… For the most part, these companies weren’t in competition and they spent the next couple of years trying to retrofit their companies, trying to make them a little more earthquake-resistent. Along came Google. At first, no one cared and many loved to quirky search company. But, slowly, Google has come to compete with every one of the boom survivors on their own turf. Alongside Google, energy re-emerged and start-ups began popping up, innovating in entirely new ways. This re-awakened the big beast-like survivors of Round 1 and we are back in full competitive swing. Of course, the competition is fascinating because people are having different approaches. Acquisitions are happening left right and center (four billion dollars!?!?!?). Google has never really seen competition before. Microsoft is more afraid of D.C. than other tech companies and so they’re innovating in Asia to compete. Adobe is playing a Microsoft and simply buying their competitor (under the polite term “merger”). Web2.0 is a marker of the re-invigoration of competition more so than technology.

The fun thing about academics is that we’re obsessed with long-term frameworks and we like to understand patterns situated in some broader body of knowledge. Some of us are sitting back trying to make sense of what all is emerging and what its economic, legal, social, and technological implications are going to be. We are the meta.

And we’re off…

There will be increasing technological advancements, but to be significant will require adoption on a social level. Yeah, javascript and amateur publishing have been around but in the last two years, we’ve seen genuinely mass adoption because of AJAX and blogging tools. Of course, the funny thing is that i keep seeing adverts for “Web2.0 Developers” but i still haven’t seen an advert for “Web2.0 Social Scientists.” We are still working in an advertising economy which means eyeballs matter and acquisitions have shown that adoption matters. So why not hire people who understand people’s needs? Anyhow…

I think that the biggest loose canon is the business model of all of this. Are we really comfortable relying on advertising still? How long will that last? Is there an economic innovation this round?

I also still believe that the answer to figuring out a lot of this is glocalization. It is not just about the social component, but introduces the legal, market and technological needs. We’ve got to move beyond the global village and focus on how people will repurpose it for their needs. This is why i think that issues of remix are essential to this narrative. What hiphop artists and anime remixers are doing is teaching us what it means to consume and produce as a connected process. In tech land, this is the value of OpenAPIs – this is fundamentally about remixing technology. Of course, all the efforts to legitimize this are dangerous. Part of the glory of hacking and remixing is the rebellious feeling of resistance. More importantly, anyone remixing is understandably wary of the institutions who are opening up or creative commons-ing the process. Aside from not wanting to be told what to do, there is fear of being too reliant on the master. This is part of the trick of OpenAPIs and CC licenses – they allow the owners to maintain power through a different incentive system. You are meant to feel like you have access as long as you want, but the one who giveth can taketh away. That, of course, is a longer conversation. But it’s important to remember that the power issues in remix are not solved by OpenAPIs and CC licenses. Of course, i’m all in favor of OpenAPIs because i think that they will push us further into remix culture, much to the chagrin of current hegemonic institutions. We just need to be careful so that we don’t get it all banned.

So what will Web2.0 be? Right now it’s hype that’s motivating innovation. Should it be slowed down for fear of another crash? Or should it be encouraged because innovation will occur? How do we keep greed from running the innovation ship aground? How can academics provide valuable frameworks and how can academia and industry learn from each other? How does business innovate on a social level without just simply trying to hoc their wares? How is law going to try to slow this down (remix is definitely playing with fire)? How will it support or disrupt hegemony? How can this innovative energy move beyond a few regions?

I know a lot of folks who don’t want to engage because of the hype. (It’s funny – business gets energized by hype; academia gets cynical.) For me, i think that everyone who cares about the next 5 years of technological innovation and techno-social culture needs to be involved and help move the big ship in a positive direction. Otherwise, it will collapse in the hands of business rather than pursuing its potential to affect people’s lives for the better.

YASNS by any other name

I was talking to a friend and somehow social networking services came up and she said her boyfriend referred to them all as “my live tribester space.” I like that sooo much more than YASNS. ::giggle::

animated boinking on furniture

Matt wrote the most hysterical entry about Brazilian furniture store Tok&Stok’s furniture selection interface which focuses on how you can have sex on various furniture items. Not only can you choose pre-selected positions, you can create your own sexual favorite and animate it (complete with hearts).

Presumably they created their Valentines Book of Styles after receiving too much icky returned merchandise or witnessing too many unmentionable incidents on floor demos. “Try before you buy”? Not so much. “Um, yeah, Union of the Tiger isn’t compatible with these arm rests. Oh, sorry if the cushions are stuck together.” — Matt

The humor in this overrides the heteronormativity that Matt rightfully points out. (Ah, fellow Brownies…)

an update

School is back in full-swing and my classes and professional interactions are colliding in fantastic ways. I’m taking a group study on sociological social networks, a class on search (mostly guest lectures from key figures in the big search companies), a reading group on participatory media (with Xiao Qiang and visitor Howard Rheingold), and a reading group on identity and storytelling (with visitor Quentin Hardy). Outside of classes, i’ve already gotten into fascinating conversations about everything from the nature of the public to Web2.0 and academia (notes coming soon). The Macarthur project on digital youth is underway and we’re negotiating everything from ethics of human subjects to how to get good data from teens.

In professional land, i’m having a blast at Yahoo! as the socio-technical research gets underway. Plus, Yahoo! hired a friend of mine from the Media Lab – Cameron Marlow. I had totally missed the east coast way of debating everything to smithereens so it’s nice to have someone around who thinks i’m full of shit 99% of the time. Other people that i’ve read and respect also keep popping up at Yahoo! making meetings utterly fascinating.

On a more personal front, i’ve decided to try living alone (well, with feline) for the first time in my life; this is going to be a fascinating experiment. I’m not sure that Marbellio is prepared for this plan and she knows that something is up and feels the need to continuously meow at me – i think she’s more social than i am.

Honestly, life is good and i feel completely spoiled. My biggest challenge is that writing is still brutally brutally painful and i feel like i’m swimming in molasses as i try to finish book chapters and a book proposal.

Of course, because life is good, my workaholic-ness has soared to a new level. I’ve decided to force myself into one social activity per week. This week, i will be going to see Ray Kurzweil at the Long Now talk series. Long Now rocks for bringing in fun speakers and i had a blast at the Jared Diamond talk. I’m quite fascinated by Kurzweil and The Singularity is Near is on the stack of must-read books for this fall, if for no other reason than i always find his ideas push me to think (usually in the process of disagreeing). I will reserve my critiques until i read the book but i figure that the lecture will be a good soft introduction. Hopefully, i’ll see some folks there!

Pledge-a-Picket at Planned Parenthood

i passed their handheld signs
went through their picket lines
they gathered when they saw me coming
they shouted when they saw me cross
i said why don’t you go home
just leave me alone – Ani

Anti-choice protesters make it very difficult for Planned Parenthood clinics to provide information, support and a choice for women in need. Protesters work in the most egregious ways to emotionally wreck these women, many of whom are already suffering tremendously. So, when i saw that Planned Parenthood started a campaign called Pledge-a-Picket, i had to pledge. Basically, you can pledge to contribute based on the number of picketers that visit. Thus, every picketer gains Planned Parenthood money by engaging in their egregious behaviors. Their activities are no longer purely destructive – they are inverted to help PP do its work!

Please join me – pledge some picketers.

Note: i know this happened last year too – this is a new campaign that ends November 30