Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Online Communities and Their Discontents

Surely I was not the only reader struck by the coincidence of stories in yesterday's New York Times about two very different kinds of online communities deemed to be dangerous? In one story, we learn about the structure and depth of the online pedophile community or communities. Although not surprising that the Net would be put to this use, the story is still a deeply disturbing reminder of the many sicknesses that plague the human condition.

We Internet enthusiasts have to be candid about the network's potential to facilitate the formation or growth of criminal and morally reprehensible communities such as these. The proper response in my view is not to change the architecture of the network but to invest more law enforcement resources in disbanding these harmful social networks.

On the other hand, we have a story about a different kind of community that's become a scourge of the Net - guitar players. That's right. Seems the National Music Publisher's Association has launched an offensive against sites that host tablature versions of popular songs. (Tab is a graphic representation of how to play a piece of music.) These tabs generally are written by amateur guitarists who seek to teach each other songs of interest. According to the NMPA, these sites are cutting into publishing revenues. (Disclosure: I'm a guitarist, but I don't use tab to learn songs. I play by ear.)

I'm all in favor of seeing songwriters getting paid, but this approach once again represents an attempt to force the digital into an analog model. Rather than work with this online community that has formed around the music, by perhaps adopting an adverstising-based and value-added approach, the publishers want to disband it and preserve a sales model that would force guitarists into a passive consumption role. To quote a certain songwriter from New Jersey, "One day we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny."

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