Discovering New Social Networks and the Threats of Intellectual Property

From Danny O’Brien I find a link to a new weblog by Jonathan Moore which contained this jem on the amount of work it takes to find new communities on the internet.

The Fans and Fetishists problem is the desire to create partitions of the social network so that diversity can exist. Take for example two groups of Britney Spears devotees: fans and fetishists. The fans are mostly young people who actually enjoy the singer’s music. These fans want a place to discuss Britney and engage in other such wholesum, fan related actvity. The fetishists on the other hand are mostly adults who have impure thoughts about the pop-icon. They are instead in discussion and activities not appropriate for the majority of the fans. The goal is to allow both to exist, guard against the fans from accidently stumbling in to a fetishist discussion group, and (probably) increase the difficulty for the fetishists to find a fans group.
In meat space, the separation between fetishist and fans is largely accomplished by performing resource discovery in the social network. The fans are unlikely to accidently end up hanging out with a bunch of fetishists because they are not connected to the adult network that the fetishists exist in. Similarly, adolescent fan social networks are inaccessible to the fetishists; they would find it difficult to know when and where the fans meet to trade gossip.
The twisty puzzle probliem is much simpler to describe. Simply, avid twisty puzzle fans are a disperse and disconnected group which would like to have a common discussion forum. A single forum is desired beacuse there are only a small number of true twisty junkies and they are physically and socially distant. This type of situation is not solved well in meat space but is handled fine on the internet. A short session with google will find you the twisty fan sites and mailing lists.
The contention between these two problems is the of ease of resource discovery. It should be easy for twisty and hard for Britney. For the Britney problem, we can borrow from meat space and allow a Britney group to be discovered only by reference from someone in your online social network. For the twisty problem, one common solution is to have a searchable directory interest groups. One could provide an option in group creation as to whether or not it should be listed in the directory. My issue with is I don’t trust users to make the right choice when deciding to have their group listed or not. For me, the challenge is to find an approach that is “natural”, requiring the user to make no choices about how resource discovery works.

Jonathan is absoultely correct when he says that some of these connections need to be easy to find and some of them should probably be harder to discover.

In my personal experience one of the best things about the internet has been the ability to find professional organizations and to begin to glimpse the social networks that link people together. Part of the reason I decided to put myself into the weblog world was because I thought these connections were worth pursuing and investigating.

Clay Shirky has written about the social issues of networks in a number of different venues. His most recent NEC essay, File-sharing Goes Social, talks about the potential impact of the anti-file sharing lawsuits currently being pursued by the RIAA.

There are several activities that are both illegal and popular, and these suffer from what economists call high transaction costs. Buying marijuana involves considerably more work than buying roses, in part because every transaction involves risk for both parties, and in part because neither party can rely on the courts for redress from unfair transactions. As a result, the market for marijuana today (or NYC tattoo artists in the 1980s, or gin in the 1920s, etc) involves trusted intermediaries who broker introductions.
These intermediaries act as a kind of social Visa system; in the same way a credit card issuer has a relationship with both buyer and seller, and an incentive to see that transactions go well, an introducer in an illegal transaction has an incentive to make sure that neither side defects from the transaction. And all parties, of course, have an incentive to avoid detection.
This is a different kind of border than a search horizon. Instead of being able to search for resources a certain topological distance from you, you search for resources a certain social distance from you. (This is also the guiding principle behind services like LinkedIn and Friendster, though in practice they represent their user’s networks as being much larger than real-world social boundaries are.)
Such a system would add a firewall of sorts to the client, server, and router functions of existing systems, and that firewall would serve two separate but related needs. It would make the shared space inaccessible to new users without some sort of invitation from existing users, and it would likewise make all activity inside the space unobservable to the outside world.
Though the press is calling such systems “darknets” and intimating that they are the work of some sort of internet underground, those two requirements – controlled membership and encrypted file transfer – actually describe business needs better than consumer needs.

Although I find the arguments of copyright holders sympathetic I think that there are some serious questions that need to be asked about ideas and their relationship to property. In today’s capitalism everything inevitably tends toward monetization, ideas are no different. Unfourtunately, as Lawrence Lessig and others have pointed out, such a move threathens to stifle innovation and creativity because new ideas are not allowed to build upon the old.