Napster, “All the Rave” (Notes)

I’m on a staycation of sorts, taking a few days off to do nothing. One of the nothing things I’m doing is reading a couple books, The first, Reinventing Discovery: The New Era of Science, I’ll talk about later. The other one All the Rave (A history of Napster) I’ve barely started, but held some surprises for me. I wanted to jot them down here, partly to process them.

Sean Fanning was more radical and less radical than he gets credit for. The image of Sean we were sold back in 1999 by the Valley was of a slacker college student who just wanted to solve the problem of accessing music from anywhere and wrote Napster in a couple weeks. The image we were sold by the RIAA was of someone ripping off artists for profit. What I didn’t realize was that Sean was what we’d consider a legitimate gray-hat hacker before Napster, and that Napster was built with Sean using the famous/infamous w00w00 group on IRC as an extended learning community and sometime workforce. In fact, since Sean was completely unfamiliar with Windows programming he leaned heavily on the group to help him figure out how to build his prototype. It was a hacker IRC project from the start, both idealistic and radical. It wasn’t about the money, but it was also meant to shake things up from the start.

Sean seems to have been aware that this was not about music, but about rethinking the web. Sean mentions to the author that what struck him about IRC vs. the web was that IRC was “presence aware”. Here’s the author talking about that in a recent interview:

JOSEPH_MENN: Shawn’s great insight was that there was no reason that he could not combine the power of a search engine like Google with what is known as “presence-awareness” of instant messaging and other systems. In this way, only people whose MP3 files were available at any one moment would have those files listed for others to find. 

From very early on, Sean seemed to have a good insight about how a presence-aware web made a peer-to-peer architecture possible. To get the progression it is useful to think through what existed at the time — people were indexing MP3 sites, Google-style. But by the time you went to most of these sites they were down or gone, or the published files had changed. I may be wrong about this, but my understanding from the book was that the way Napster worked was that when you logged on you published your index to the server, and while you were connected those results would be part of the searched database. That’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about the problem of search. The Berners-Lee web, the Google web (or, I guess back then Alta Vista web) is based largely on the conception of permanently available URLs. Google just assumes your server is there because that’s how the server-client web works. And that assumption ends up making a particular type of web run by a particular type of people. Presence awareness subverts that.

In today’s world that may seem old hat. Or maybe not. The more I think about it, the more I think the promise of that vision has never really been delivered on.

To download is to share. This was a design decision that probably owed a lot to the IRC culture that Sean came out of. While you were using Napster to download you were also publishing your index and opening up to download (at least by default). It was just the way it worked. Use = sharing by design.

Now you could circumvent that, and some did. But the point was you had to hack your way to free-riding, it wasn’t the default. Whatever you believe about Napster and file-sharing it’s a powerful example of how software design is a driver of culture as well as a product of it.

It was not as simple as “The Music Industry Killed Napster”. I’d love it to be that simple a story. And I’m not to the Metallica portion of the story yet, but it’s already clear that Napster had issues before then. Most notably, Fanning’s uncle negotiated himself a 70% stake in the company early on, and became a huge corporate liability. His influence made investment problematic and governance a massive problem. So there you go — the music industry can screw you, but it takes family to *really* fuck you up.

Maybe more notes as I get further into the book; I find even when reading for fun I do better if I process the experience via blogging.

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2 thoughts on “Napster, “All the Rave” (Notes)

  1. I really like the “if not online I can be invisible” idea

    A lot of people delete their facebook account and then log out, this way you only exist when online.

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