Michael Sippey on 4 Oct 2000 01:58:34 -0000

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<nettime> retro-push: Content as Currency

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   Content as Currency

   As Napster heads back into court this week, hordes of "music lovers"
   will likely flood the Napster network, hunting for that perfect rip of
   whatever it is that gets their blood pumping. And regardless of the
   outcome in court, attention of the popular press will likely circle
   back to the viability of Napster alternatives -- Gnutella, Freenet and
   other distributed, person-to-person file-sharing systems.

   With perfect timing, [1]First Monday published [2]Free Riding on
   Gnutella, by Xerox PARC researchers Eytan Adar and Bernardo Huberman
   yesterday. The study, which has been widely discussed on [3]mailing
   lists and [4]weblogs since its initial publication on the PARC site,
   contends that the vast majority of Gnutellans use the system only to
   search for files, not to share their own. With a convincing academic
   rigor (read -- charts and graphs), they argue that Gnutella is
   suffering from a tragedy of the commons: "70% of Gnutella users share
   no files, and 50% of all [search] responses are returned by the top 1%
   of sharing hosts," they report.

   Adar and Huberman argue that the anonymous nature of Gnutella is a key
   factor in its apparent demise. "In order for distributed systems with
   no central monitoring to succeed," they conclude, "a large amount of
   voluntary cooperation is required, a requirement that is very hard to
   fulfill in systems with large user populations that remain anonymous."

   While Gnutella may indeed be suffering from a tragedy of the commons,
   I don't believe that removing anonymity would make much of a
   difference. Leaving aside the obvious legal implications of adding
   user identities to the Gnutella network (wouldn't the RIAA just love
   that), it's not the ideal architectural solution to the Gnutella
   problem. Even if there weren't legal repercussions to logging on as
   Michael Sippey and sharing that bootleg copy of Kid A that I happened
   to get my hands on, I'd still just log on, point my Gnutella client to
   an empty directory on my hard drive, and search away. After all, the
   incentive of people knowing that they swiped Kid A from me isn't
   enough to encourage me to share. And conversely, the disincentive of
   people knowing that I'm searching without sharing isn't enough to
   encourage me to point my Gnutella client to a richer directory.

   A more appropriate solution to the Gnutella problem would be a
   market-based approach, where the content itself is used as currency.
   Imagine a P2P system that operates like the informal "community" of
   folks who run warez FTP servers. You want to download something? Well,
   you better upload something in return...

     * You log on anonymously. After all, who you are isn't important,
       only what you've got to share.

     * As you share files, you "price" them, in a currency denominated in
       other files. You could require users who want to download a
       particular track of yours to have on their drives a certain number
       of songs by the same artist, or in the same genre, or of a similar
       bit rate, or be sitting on a certain line speed. Or any
       combination of those, or any other musical metadata. (Example:
       "You want this rare b-side from Sleater Kinney? You have to be
       sharing an entire Sleater Kinney album, or at least fifteen songs
       released on Sub Pop since 1990.")

     * When you search for a particular track, the app would return not
       only the available files, but also their associated "prices." Your
       app would automatically recognize if you have the appropriate
       number or type of files shared, and flag those tracks in the UI as
       available to you.

   There's one key infrastructure component required to make an
   application like this work...and several interesting implications.

   First, the infrastructure. The component required to make this system
   anything other than a pipe dream would be a CDDB-like service (or
   network of services) that would authenticate MP3 collections. Imagine
   this -- every time you add a file to your shared directory, the app
   would read the file and authenticate its artist, album, song title,
   genre and any other appropriate metadata, and tag the file
   appropriately. It would use public-key cryptography to ensure that an
   authorized authentication service would be the one doing the
   authenticating. And until a file is authenticated and tagged, it
   couldn't be shared on the network. Without such a service, people
   would flood the network with counterfeit files, tagged to look like
   the real thing.

   Second, the implications. "Pricing" for new files on the system would
   likely vary wildly at first, as people relied on their own value
   judgments to set prices ("I really love this new Britney Spears, so it
   must be worth five Backstreet Boys tracks."). But as files were copied
   and distributed around the network, prices would likely reach some
   sort of equilibrium -- more suppliers, more "competition." If one user
   under priced others offering the same goods, their system would likely
   get swamped with requests, reducing the availability of that track and
   driving customers to other higher priced "vendors" that offer faster

   Over time, pricing for widely available files (aka "commodity goods")
   would likely drive to zero, or at least the "marginal cost" -- i.e.
   bandwidth -- of providing such files. (Users on reliable high-speed
   lines could potentially charge slightly more for their files.) But new
   and "rare" files would likely remain expensive. The existence of any
   pricing scheme could give record labels and content producers access
   to a radically new form of market research. In the right hands, the
   average cost of any particular file on the network (as expressed in
   terms of other tracks on the network), combined with an index that
   represents of the availability of that file, could prove more
   informative than the Billboard charts.

   Finally, what I've been describing is a barter-based system. Such a
   system could evolve its own currency (to facilitate faster and easier
   transactions), spawn its own market makers, or both.

   Removing anonymity won't solve Gnutella's problems. An individual's
   identity (and associated reputation) doesn't carry much influence on
   the digital commons. On the digital commons, content is king -- and
   authenticated content can be turned into something more powerful than
   the rule of kings: currency.

   -- [5]Michael Sippey

   Would a market-based approach work for a p2p network? [6]Discuss.

   Editor's note. Many thanks to [7]Steve Champeon, [8]Rogers Cadenhead,
   [9]Lance Arthur, [10]Greg Knauss and especially [11]Jason Kottke for
   their input to this piece. Discussion lists sure are useful.


   1. http://www.firstmonday.dk/
   2. http://www.firstmonday.dk/issues/issue5_10/adar/index.html
   3. http://www.nettime.org/
   4. http://metafilter.com/detail.cfm?link_ID=2946
   5. mailto:michael@theobvious.com
   6. http://www.theobvious.com/ubb/Forum6/HTML/000001.html
   7. http://a.jaundicedeye.com/
   8. http://www.prefect.com/
   9. http://www.glassdog.com/
  10. http://www.eod.com/
  11. http://www.kottke.org/

Discuss this piece:
Would a market-based approach work for a p2p network?


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