26 – #SQUARE

Monday afternoon in Australia is Sunday evening in America, and that can only mean one thing: file-sharing. Home Box Office airs their most popular shows on Sunday evenings, series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and, on this particular evening, the premiere of the second series of Game of Thrones. Sitting at the end of a long chain of producers and distributors, Australians always endured long waits before a television series made it to air – if it made it at all. In a still-remembered incident, a commercial broadcaster yanked The West Wing off the air in the middle of its fourth series, leaving hundreds of thousands of loyal viewers up in the air.

At just that moment in time – the middle years of the 2000s – television audiences gained a power that had been tightly held by broadcasters – the ability to distribute a program. A broadcaster raises an antenna (or buys a cable channel), then has the right – a monopoly, really – to use that bandwidth as they see fit. If they want to fill the airwaves with home shopping, car crashes, or haute couture catwalks, that’s their privilege. Scarce, bandwidth had to be meted out carefully, with some lip service to the public interest – hence the public broadcasters – but inevitably creating an interlocking ecosystem of corruption, as broadcasters and public officials worked in lockstep to keep bandwidth a strictly limited resource. Audiences wanting to watch these programs accepted that broadcasters controlled the only mechanism to distribute them.

In 1999, changes in distribution methods emerged on college campuses throughout the United States. Shawn Fanning, a student at Boston’s Northeastern University, developed software that allowed his friends to share their music collections across the campus broadband network. Nicknamed ‘Napster’ after Fanning’s curls, the software quickly mushroomed in popularity, not just at Northeastern, but at every other American university offering high-speed Internet access.

Napster scanned a user’s hard drive, compiling a list of all music files, sending that list off to a central computer. When another user searched for a particular piece of music – perhaps the fourth movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony – they would be presented with a list of the different users who offered it as part of their music collection. A Napster user could then click on a particular user, and the track would be copied directly from the user who offered to share the music to the user requesting it. Napster’s superdistribution essentially converted the Internet into a gigantic disc drive, with the contents of any one computer available to every other computer. This ‘file-sharing’, as it became to be known, created a unified, global platform for the exchange of any type of media.

Napster did not last long. Although each individual user had purchased their music, the recording industry sued Napster, claiming it provided tools which enabled and encouraged widespread copyright violation. Unsurprisingly, the courts agreed, and Napster – that is, its centralized database – went dark in August 2000. Over fourteen million people used Napster in the days before it disappeared, each of whom experienced the exhilaration of a vast catalog of music available for their enjoyment. Although much of the file-sharing involved the most popular music of the day – Metallica, for example – many users shared recordings too rare or obscure to be widely available. Napster briefly became a treasure trove of audio gems, and sensitized a generation to the power of sharing.

Just days after Napster closed down, Gnutella launched. In contrast to Napster’s centralized – and vulnerable – design, Gnutella’s users searched one another’s computers directly, forming a ‘peer-to-peer network’, each asking all the others for music. Without a center to sue into oblivion, the recording industry took to suing individual file-sharers, an effort akin to boiling the sea. Since its introduction, peer-to-peer file-sharing has seen a steadily growing volume of content distributed, despite intense efforts to shut them down, disrupt or poison them.

Gnutella’s peer-to-peer networks had one weakness: they could not deal well with high demand for an item in short supply. If a user had a the only copy of a particularly prized song, they would be flooded with requests answered serially. If you were toward the front of the request queue, you’d be fine, but if you arrived after a few thousand others, you’d be waiting a very long time for that song. As people began to share television programs and movies – hundreds of times the size of songs – this problem became acute.

An ingenious solution to this problem came from bright programmer named Bram Cohen, who realized each copy of an item could be used as a source for subsequent copies. Let’s say, for example, I’d like to share a copy of this book. I have a copy machine which I can use to make copies, and as each person queues a request, I make a copy of the book, hand it to them, then start making a copy of the book for the next person in the queue. Lengthy, laborious — and the way Gnutella works.

With Cohen’s insight – known as BitTorrent – I would break the book up into individual pages, make a copy of each of these, and give one page to each person in the queue. Once each person has a page, I tell them each about one another. They also have copy machines, so they start to share furiously with one another, asking one another for copies of the pages they don’t have. In short order, everyone has a complete copy of the book.

A resource shared is a resource squared. With BitTorrent, sharing becomes a shared task, squaring the power of sharing, transforming superdistribution into hyperdistribution. Hyperdistribution means anyone, anywhere can share a file of any size with everyone, everywhere. The restrictions on bandwidth which effectively barred individuals from acting as broadcasters have fallen away.

Once the public learned of hyperdistribution, they began to self-distribute all sorts of media: music, movies, television, software, databases – anything that could be digitized was now freely and widely distributed — including episodes of television shows such as The West Wing and Game of Thrones. Freed from being the whipping-boys of television programmers, Australians became the most profligate downloaders of television on the planet. Audience-driven distribution – sharing via hyperdistribution – had supplanted television broadcasting.