What Social Network?
Perhaps I’m jaded. Perhaps I’m a nostalgist. Perhaps Facebook isn’t the most sinister CIA operation yet. But somehow, I cannot stop from thinking that the “Web 2.0” as we know it today is an accident of history, an effect of a US legal decision in 2001 that irrevocably changed the course of the Internet.
Anyone who doesn’t remember Napster gives themselves away as not a good, law-abiding citizen (as we might view those who refrain from downloading today), but rather as someone who just didn’t know, didn’t care, or wasn’t there. Like the reality behind the paternalizing phrase one hears in the USA about hallucinogens and the Sixties, “we were young and experimenting, and everyone was doing it,” those not using Napster were not doing so in order to avoid breaking the law. Some closet freak cases like those aspiring to the Secret Service or politics or neocapitalism definitely prove an exception to this rule. Regardless, at the time there was no legal ruling in regards to the legality of peer-to-peer networking. It was like the years before LSD became illegal: those who avoided it only did so out of a lack of either awareness or interest. While I could not easily find Facebook user statistics, I believe that Napster’s growth rate far exceeded it with a reported 70 million registered users at the time it was shutdown (after less than 3 full years!). Clearly file sharing, Napster’s core function, had serious pull. Compared to other forms of “social networking” whose values are only a function of their own inertia as walled gardens of people, Napster’s assemblage grew insanely fast precisely because file sharing represented the fulfillment of a latent desire to share data. In the initial case of Napster, this fulfillment was delivered through an easy-to-use interface for sharing libraries of music data.
In 2001, Napster was ordered to take down the central server that glued 70 milliion music libraries together. But what if that hadn’t happened? What if the right of free sharing had been enshrined and protected? Would Napster have remained the king of P2P?
We should discuss briefly the concrete reality of what did unfold. The ruling against Napster was a referendum on file sharing, effectively blocking the new economic force of data collectivization. Like LSD, P2P’s transcendental capacity would be occluded as a public option and the seekers of such transcendance forced to take alternative, risky, and/or more difficult routes. Another generation gets the reserved right to say, “Oh well, yes I shared music in the 90’s. But times were different then, son. I was young, and I know so are you, but you know it’s wrong. And I didn’t.”
Never since has P2P seen such a social assemblage such as Napster. Enabled by an easy interface and centralized indexing model, Napster provided a first generation look at a new way of networking. Though file-sharing precedence existed, extant examples were simply file sharing piggybacked onto an existing communications protocol (Usenet, IRC). Napster, however, was an application built to do nothing other than to facilitate direct connections between users who wished to share data. However, the application provided a chat interface. This cemented the sharing in an emerging sociality, and it’s rapid inclusion into the Napster application implies that other tools for socializing within the network would also be implemented.
These tools, however, were of no use in the post-Napster world. A world where the legality of participating on the network, indeed of the network itself had been clearly defined. Napster’s liability lay, ultimately, in its role as the “center” of the network. Every P2P protocol since then has focused on avoiding this liability by limiting the role of centralized servers. More importantly, the social climate around P2P is no longer a grey area–it is a decidedly “bad” activity (making it automatically cool in some circles.)
Hypotheticals and Assertions
Even if one still engages in sharing (many repented), it would be extremely unusual to include real personal information in, say, an account on the Pirate Bay. However, if P2P had instead been understood as a natural reaction to distributed networking and a legitimate exercise of the right to free assembly, Napster very well could have evolved many social tools that have since emerged: user walls, micro updates, etc. If this sounds like technological determinism–it is not. Rather it is the expectation that users would demand or invent new ways of socializing within the Napster, a rather social determinist point of view. And if not Napster, then another company, one that promised fewer fake files and better socializing. A Facebook to Napster’s MySpace, if you will. Except that neither of these would need to exist, because we would already be socializing within a more powerful platform: one that offers us the social act of sharing files as well.
YouTube itself might have been superseded, made redundant by the fact that streaming a video from a central server over and over again is less efficient than having a local copy, downloaded from peers and seeding to them as well. After all, by the time you finish the video, you have technically downloaded the entire thing–something that is done over and over. Or perhaps YouTube would have been implemented as a P2P assemblage, rather than a website sitting in front of massive server farms.
There are many hypothetical questions one could pose while pondering what might have happened. Perhaps I am wrong, and the incremental advances in social tools (from email to Wall post, from private picture hosting to a profiles’ picture albums) would still first, or only, emerge on the web. However, I think it is likely they would have evolved around the more powerful social tool of file sharing. Unlike other social tools, file sharing has been disbarred from publicly acceptable practice, meaning its evolution has been defined more by moves towards hiding its presence or distributing liability than by (existing and potential) social practices. Thus, the kind of evolutions of existing tools (again, email to Wall post, web page update to status update, etc) that Facebook, et al. have gone through, typified by increasing ease of use and sociability, have been denied P2P, whose socialization must account for the “unacceptable” nature of its practice.
Social networking as emergent on web sites such as Facebook and MySpace is not the only form such networking can take place. Other systems can be imagined. However, with the stigma of file sharing darkening any P2P project, the most innovative and transformational forms are effectively neutralized of any chance at widespread success. The most prolific P2P platform of all time, BitTorrent, is marked by the distance of deviation from Napster in terms of interface. No search, no chat, no user names. These socializations occur on a sprawling constellation of web sites and forums. In a world with different attitudes toward P2P, it is possible that this division would never have emerged.
I am aware that such hypothetical situations are hard, and possibly even absurd, to research. However, I cannot help but feel that actual “social networking” has yet to emerge. Perhaps by examining the modes and practices of various P2P applications and comparing them with those of web based social networks, a clearer picture of what was lost, or even simply what is needed, can be developed.
 Excluding Hotline, which had 1) a less than ideal interface, 2) was not P2P in the sense of peers downloading from one another, and 3) was Mac OS only.