December 6, 2003

Ed Felten on the Alternative Compensation Meeting [11:34 pm]

Ed has posted his thoughts on the Alternative Compensation Meeting here: Reflections on the Harvard Alternative Compensation Meeting. He mentions that the weather has kept him in the city for a while (Logan’s been closed most of the day.) Sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet him…..

The afternoon discussion was about voluntary license schemes. And here an interesting thing happened. We talked for a while about how one might structure a system in which consumers can license a pool of copyrighted music contributed by artists, with the revenue being split up appropriately among the artists. Eventually it became clear that what we were really doing was setting up a record company! We were talking about how to recruit artists, what contract to sign with artists, which distribution channels to use, how to price the product, and what to do about P2P piracy of our works. Give us shiny suits, stubble, tiny earpiece phones, and obsequious personal assistants, and we could join the RIAA. This kind of voluntary scheme is not an alternative to the existing system, but just another entrant into it.

Mary Hodder’s tracking other postings on the subject.

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Zack in the NYTimes Magazine [1:50 pm]

Nothing like a snowstorm to give you the time to work through the Saturday and the part of the Sunday NYTimes. So, I got to see that Zack Rosen (from ILaw 2003 at Stanford) gets some ink and a photo in the Magazine section. An odd slant on what brings people to Dean, but a good look at Zack (left in the photo to the right). Check it out: The Dean Connection [pdf]

Zack Rosen was a creator of DeanSpace, ”the revolution itself.” He started the project, originally called Hack for Dean, after reading about Dean on the campaign Web site for 20 minutes. ”I just knew this is the guy,” Rosen says. He recruited an unpaid team of nearly a hundred programmers, including his friends Neil and Ping, to write software for the campaign that would allow the many disparate, unofficial Dean Web sites to communicate directly with one another and also with the campaign. Typically, to reproduce information from one Web site to another, a user has to cut the information by hand and paste it into each Web site, a laborious process. The software that Zack’s group built allows any Dean Web site to reprint another’s stories, images and campaign feed automatically, as if they have a collective consciousness. It also will provide a ”dashboard” for the people in Burlington, where the campaign can track patterns on its unofficial sites and observe which content is most popular.

[...] It’s not hard to imagine that if the year were 1999, Rosen, an ambitious college kid with an exciting new software idea, could be easily recast in the role of child tycoon. But Rosen isn’t mourning being born a few years too late. It is not clear to him who owns the programs he invented — the Democratic National Committee? Howard Dean? — but he doesn’t really care.

Rosen says the true purpose of the Internet is to allow people to connect, and he isn’t surprised there wasn’t money to be made on that premise. Through his long fluorescent nights, Rosen takes breaks from coding to gaze happily at the personal e-mail messages Dean supporters compose and send using Dean software. ”Look,” he says wistfully, the light of the computer reflecting off of his glasses. ”This is Nelson. He spent real time on this letter. Look how long it is.”

Rosen is one of the more diehard programmers at the Dean office. He can easily discourse for half an hour about ”open-source political campaigns” or the possibility of using cellphones to overthrow dictatorships or ”recursive hard core CS225 data structures.” But he surprises me by saying he never would have come up with the Dean software, or left school, if his first serious girlfriend (like Johnson’s crush also named, coincidentally, Julie) hadn’t broken up with him last spring.

”The worst thing is we aren’t even friends,” he says glumly. ”I invited her to be my friend” — he gestures to his computer monitor — ”I mean on Friendster. No word yet.”

[...] Watching [Zack and his crew] work from their battered easy chair, I find it impossible to tell if they are gazing at the filmy, pixilated image of a Julie or the face of a new Dean supporter or a line of code; whether the peer-to-peer communication they are struggling with is related to the 2004 election and the fragmentation of American public life, or is something more private.

While the Times article seems to be arguing that people come to Dean to fill a missing piece of their lives, I’m not exactly sure why that’s supposed to be news. The very fact that they form a community is a strength, not terribly different from a host of other human activities. And the fact that the network has been an instrument in building that community has proven to be very powerful.

Update: Note that Doc Searls has assembled a number of comments that explain the issue I have with this writeup better than I did.

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