(OK, I'm not done... now it's time for a novel. This is actually a post from my private blog.)
I've been thinking a lot about sharing.
A couple years ago, I was planning to write something for my own music blog. I had stumbled across an interview with Frankie Knuckles that had a great quote I wanted to use, something that summed up exactly what I was going to write about (the early days of house music). I planned to publish it with a citation and a link. I don't think it's really necessary to ask permission first, but the guy who did the interview and published it on his Google-ad-laden disco music info site has a notice on every page that says "No part of these pages may be reproduced or published without the prior written permission of the author." When I saw that, it dawned on me that the guy would be a dick about it if he ever saw my as-yet-unwritten article, so I sent him an email to ask permission to use the quote. He sent a terse and polite response: "As long as you use that link back to my full interview it's perfectly OK for me to quote those parts!" I was relieved that he was fine with it, even though, as I said, I don't think it's something that I had to ask permission to do.
Something about his response rubbed me the wrong way, though. The link was no longer a courtesy to him and my readers; it was now a requirement, a condition he had attached to using the quotation. No link, no blessing.
It's not like I'm afraid of this guy. And I was going to link anyway. So why should it bother me so much?
About 10 years ago, I was part of a small, private group of friends who shared MP3s we made of whatever interesting music we had on hand. This was long before you could get MP3s legally. There weren't really any rules in the group; we could upload to the server whatever we wanted each other to hear and post about it to an email list, and download whatever sounded promising. We had some discussions about encoder quality and formatting of side/metadata, but basically everyone was free to rip, encode, and upload the files however they wanted, as long as the top-level folders were artist names and the filenames were cross-OS compatible. I liked this system; it exposed me to how other people went about organizing their files and music info, and others got to see what worked for me.
Eventually our server's disk filled up, so our little group went dormant for about 5 years. In the meantime the server underwent some reorganization, disk space was added, and our archive of tunes was moved to a folder that I no longer had access to, so once I had some extra disk space of my own at home, I asked the administrator about getting in. He replied:
We've set up kind of a mini music sharing area. Basic rules are below. If you're happy with these, let me know...
- 5:1 download/upload ratio -- please upload at least one album for every five album downloads
- Minimum 192kbps bitrate MP3s or FLACs (no OGG, WAV, AIFF)
- Each track in an album must be numbered, and the filename must start with a 0, if less than 10 -
All files in an album must be included (use Discogs.com as a reference if you don't have the original)
- No characters in filenames that are likely to be rejected on some people's machines (such as +, ", ', `, /, \)
- Directories will be automatically deleted 30 days after they first appear
- The total disk size limit on coredump is 10GB total across everyone's files -- please don't hog more than you should
I never wrote back. I don't like these rules. It's not that they're too restrictive or particularly incompatible with the way I do things. They're certainly well-intended. But they're basically unnecessary. They're also symptomatic of what I see as pervasive problems in the realms of self-publishing and content sharing.
One such problem is that many people don't really get what sharing is. It should not involve you telling someone what or how they
share, nor should it involve compliance with conditions, regardless of how agreeable they may be. People are always looking their gift horse in the mouth, finding fault with content that, much of the time, they arguably aren't entitled to in the first place, or if it is their content, is something they only want to share to the extent that it directly benefits them. Some are also resentful if they aren't receiving something of perceived value in return from those who get things from them. The more time, money and effort they put into cultivating their collections, whether it's their own writing or the creative works of others, the more Gollum-like they tend to be, thinking in terms of how much "trading power" each item has and to what degree they can play games that involve withholding, to some degree, one's own treasure, while coaxing others to surrender theirs. "You want my preciouses? Make sure your preciouses meet the following criteria, and we'll talk." And that criteria will, of course, expand the minute they find something about your stuff that they would prefer be some other way.
Another problem is that everyone wants to have what I call their "little fiefdoms." Given the opportunity to control some tiny aspect of an interaction, it seems most people default to exercising it. It's pervasive in public and private, business and personal.
That guy didn't have to attach a condition to the permission he gave me to quote what Frankie Knuckles said to him, but there it was. It seems he wanted to share, he wanted to say yes, but he just couldn't let go of that little bit of control. And my friends with the little music trading group, despite their benign intentions, only really want the sharing to occur on their terms! Now, I don't begrudge that, per se. We all have standards. It's just that when it comes to gifts, I look at it like a gift is something you don't question. Someone is offering you something! Accept it graciously and STFU, fool! I mean, if you can't stand the fact that the gift-exchange party you're going to will result in you getting a few things you don't like, then don't hold or go to the party. Don't try to set a bunch of rules for the partygoers that are designed to ensure that everyone gives and receives only things that meet your standards.
I first encountered this "fiefdom" problem on BBSes in the mid-'80s. To participate, you submitted to become part of a hierarchy of power, always with the sysop at the top, naturally. To the extent that it was like a role-playing game, it could be fun, but it was also somewhat of a dead end, in terms of what kind of users it would attract, how long they'd hang around, and what they'd contribute. Instead, it was the general-interest, relatively unpretentious free-for-alls that attracted the most users, quality content, and community. You just had to take the bad with the good. Anarchic chat 'rooms'/'channels'/etc. are the best examples, along with many-a FidoNet bulletin board, The Well, CompuServe, GEnie, and AOL. On the Internet you had mailing lists, Usenet, and the Web.
Attempts to create artificially insular, rules-laden communities in an effort to boost the signal-to-noise ratio do meet with success, since so many people, especially the younger ones, are so inclined to enjoy being a part of such things. I was kind of the same way, until I saw how my own attempts to control my own little fiefdoms ended up creating as many problems as I solved, and in some cases kept any progress from ever being made. I've learned a lot about collaboration and sharing from venues like message boards & mailing lists & servers I've adminstrated, a chat server, Wikipedia, Discogs, Soulseek, LiveJournal, and BitTorrent. There are offline/real-world examples, as well. Essentially, given all this input, I've come out strongly on the side of not overtly telling people what to do and what standards to live up to, and instead simply choosing other options when some individual's community's standards are different from my own. It's strange to me that so many other people, given the same input, reach different conclusions, but that's something I can say about pretty much any aspect of life.
The best example of the antithesis of my philosophy is what.cd, a private venue for music trading via BitTorrent, and the de facto successor to a similar site that was called Oink. They have a mile-long list of policies and rules (many of which you don't know about until you join) and an extensive interview process which requires a website just to tell people how to get ready for it. Many of the rules are totally perpetuating the problems that the other rules are intended to solve. [same thing on the Russian site rutracker.org, but they are now in a "free-leech" mode with relaxed rules and open public access, apparently indefinitely? seems to be working OK for them]
On Soulseek I've recently made friends with a guy in Israel who is of the same mindset as me. He has amassed many petabytes of videos, mostly music related, and many of which are his own rips of obscure content, not your run-of-the-mill rips of common DVDs. He's not just a hoarder; he watches everything he gets, and doesn't keep what he doesn't enjoy. He's happy to share anything, and he asks for nothing in return. It doesn't matter if it's his own rips, or something he hunted for for years and paid or and traded something valuable to get. We see it the same way: we don't need "even" trades to benefit from sharing. Among other things, I got some old UK rave footage from him, something that another "collector" (who likewise didn't own the content) only wanted to arrange a high-value trade with me for. It's fine if someone wants to play the gatekeeper, but the more of that I'm exposed to, the more it just feels like ego stroking. It's all about satisfying some petty whims of someone else just to get access to something they're "sharing". It's about power and manipulation of situations and I just don't have time for those games.
The used record store I worked at in 1991-1996 is owned by a guy whose philosophy is "get the music to the people." I totally admire that, in part because I saw it work. His prices were fair but generally low; the idea was to move the product, not hold it for ransom. The longer something was in the shop, the bigger the markdown to get it out the door. A few big-ticket items we'd sell through Goldmine ads, but 99% of our business was local. Consequently, we had a large, loyal customer base, both buying and selling. People would come in every week and find something new. It was a destination for visitors from out-of-town. All this was easier pre-eBay, pre-Amazon, etc.; it's a different story now that the average U.S. record store stays in business now by selling all their good stuff online to overseas dealers and leaving nothing but crap in their local bins. Even the store I was at is doing that now.
But I still feel we had the right idea...art belongs to the people. Yes, we can make money off it, but first and foremost, it's to be seen/heard/given/received/enjoyed/thought-about. I know this is totally a DJ's point of view, but I just can't identify with hoarders who don't even enjoy what they have. Play your records! Watch your videos! If you only have something for its trading power, or if you never show it to anyone but yourself, then what good is it, really? I live
for that moment when I say to someone, be they friend or stranger, "oh my gosh, you HAVE to see this!" or some other variation of "let's enjoy this together" or "I hope you enjoy this, too". I don't want anything to undermine that - especially not my obsessive collecting-of-crap or the temptation to make people jump through hoops in an effort to make it worth my while or to somehow elevate a situation.
I really feel like I'm in the minority, feeling the way I do about all of this. Now that I'm hypersensitive to it, I keep running into example after example of people exercising arbitrary control in situations that involve them providing something to someone else, situations where they totally don't need to, and where it would probably be better if they didn't...