Latest MP3 Battle May Give New Direction to Online Community

Editor’s note: This article was written by me and originally published in the Online Community Report in 1999.  OCR went on hiatus in 2004, and when it came back in 2006 only a few of its old archived articles remained on the site.  With their permission, I am republishing this article on this site for historical interest, along with a new epilogue explaining where the story is today.

One of the most compelling themes in Martin Scorsese’s masterful film GoodFellas (1990) is the idea of honor among thieves. The film’s characters occupy the fringes of honest society, living by their wits, sharing a bond that arises from their segregation from the workaday world. Even among the lawless, Scorsese shows us, a rudimentary kind of law has emerged from their respect for each others’ power and larcenous talents. Social protocols have developed that are incomprehensible to outsiders but fraught with meaning for those on the inside. Through the eyes of narrator Henry Hill (played by Ray Liotta), we see a social system with its own peculiar folkways – a system that one could call a community, albeit a strange and violent one.

Of course, Scorsese’s community of thieves was exclusively an offline affair. But another such shadowy community is springing up online as we speak. Through its flagship software product, Napster, Inc. is facilitating that community – and in the process, they are making themselves Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of the recording industry. The battle that has erupted between these two players will, I believe, be remembered as a watershed moment both in the struggle over MP3 and in the development of communities on the Internet.


Unlike most online communities, Napster operates not via the Web, but through free, downloadable client software. Normally this would be a handicap, but Napster’s eponymous software product is a real marvel, a combination of technical wizardry and a keen understanding of how to fill a market niche. It is the nature of that niche, though, that has gotten Napster into controversy.

The niche arises from the inconvenience inherent in obtaining illegal MP3s. For all the recording industry’s bleating about MP3, up to now downloading illegal MP3s was actually fairly difficult. The files were hosted on pirate FTP servers, and each of these servers in turn fell victim to the pirate’s paradox of success: if its collection got too good, or if it drew too much traffic, it would attract the attention of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which would drop the legal hammer on the server and shut it down for good. So the servers had to remain hidden and keep their collections small, which made it hard for would-be music pirates to find the songs they really wanted.

Napster changes all that by cutting the FTP servers out of the equation. It connects users directly to each other via central matchmaking servers operated by Napster. The brilliant part is that Napster also carries an index of each user’s local MP3 collection, sharing the index across the entire system. Users can then search for MP3s by song title or band name, and the software returns a list of every user currently online who has that song on their hard drives. Then, you can download the file directly from that user’s hard drive to your own, circumventing the pirate FTP servers. This makes it dramatically easier to find almost any type of music. It also neatly checks the RIAA’s traditional defenses; they can take out a few pirate FTP servers, but they can’t possibly litigate against every single individual with MP3s on their hard drive. Napster offers other community features as well, such as chat areas based along musical genre lines, but these are thusfar lightly used in comparison to the file-transfer system.

Of course, the RIAA could simply litigate against Napster, Inc. instead, and that is exactly what they are in the process of doing. In its defense, Napster’s software is not itself illegal; transferred files do not reside on Napster’s servers, and the Napster infrastructure can be used to download legal MP3s as easily as illegal ones, placing the burden of breaking the law upon the user rather than Napster. However, the RIAA asserts that Napster’s interface encourages users to look for illegal files over legal ones, since it’s far more likely they’ll know a band name or song title for a popular Top 40 artist (in other words, an RIAA artist) than for the kinds of independent and underexposed artists giving away music on sites like How many Napster users are going to search for songs by Red Delicious or Big Poo Generator (two relatively popular bands) when they can just as easily download their favorite bubblegum hits by Lou Bega or Britney Spears?


The real significance of Napster, however, isn’t their legal quagmire – it’s their matchmaking technology. Napster lets users find other users who share their interests not by filling out a questionnaire or analyzing their purchasing habits, but by actually scanning a designated area of their hard drive and then matching people based on the results – a completely unique approach, and one that’s both compelling and (potentially) disturbingly invasive.

The possibilities of this system are intriguing. Imagine Napster reconceptualized as an instant messaging client. Users could find other Beatles fans online to discuss which albums chant "Paul is dead" when played backwards, or other Frank Yankovic fans to share their anguish about the lack of polka albums in the Top 40. Don’t stop with music, either! What about software that matched users based on a scan of their e-mail, for example? Would this not provide a detailed profile of each user’s interests? These systems would completely eliminate the need for users to self-identify themselves as potential members of a given community; their patterns of media consumption would guide them directly to the communities that would interest them. And this is just scratching the surface – the potential for profiling users this way is boundless.

Of course, that’s also the biggest problem with this approach – boundless opportunities to profile users also means boundless opportunities to violate your users’ privacy. Napster deals with this by being very limited in its scan of your files; it only scans directories you designate, and users can hide their offline identity easily. However, there’s no guarantee that other users of this model will be so scrupulous.

Will Napster’s new model for online community take off? The RIAA is doing all it can to make sure that it sleeps with the fishes, but that has more to do with Napster’s file transfer services than its matchmaking system. Just as Henry Hill in GoodFellas found his life jeopardized by his association with the Mafia, Napster’s unique matchmaking concept may be rubbed out unless it can separate itself from the more controversial aspects of the Napster system. Perhaps some enterprising company can reimagine Napster’s core insights and come up with a Witness Protection Program for these interesting ideas before it’s too late.

EPILOGUE (December 13, 2006):  Believe it or not, I wrote this before Napster became A Big Deal.  And what a big deal it became: it was the first shot across the bow of the music industry, which eventually sued Napster into oblivion in 2001.  That wasn’t the end of filesharing, of course; a million other P2P networks sprang up in Napster’s wake, some succumbing to the same legal offensives, others not.  The Napster brand name, ironically, was snapped up on the cheap after the old service died and used to brand a new for-pay service which has not exactly set the world on fire.

For more on Napster, see my 2000 follow-up to this article, "How Not to Leverage Online Community.