A behaviour linked to the rapid growth of social media is the direct sharing of copyright material, especially music and movies.

Some people think “peer-to-peer” is intellectual jargon for copyright theft.  Certainly Time magazine (December 6, 2010) suggests this is its view by its headline, “The men who stole the World”. 

TheTime article began its historic notes with the year 1997, when Justin Frankel wrote the free MP3 player Winamp.  The story continued in1999 with Napster, written by Shawn Fanning, plus a programme, written by Jon Johansen and two others, that decrypts commercial DVDs for copying.  All three men were in their late teens.

File sharing on the Internet was boosted further by Bram Cohen in 2001 when he released his file sharing application BitTorrent, which facilitates the distribution of large files.  BitTorrent is still favoured today for large packages of data.

Napster has been superseded by iTunes, but it still exists, while WinAmp was bought by AOL.  We all know that now the very-simple-to-use iTunes is currently winning the popularity contest with MP3 users, and Time magazine deduces from this that the best way to compete with being free is by being easy. 

Most intriguing is the determination of those youthful Internet pioneers to remain outside the big companies.  Johansen, for instance is in his own company doubleTwist, producing software which can interpret and organise files from hundreds of files and combine them on a single interface.  Time reports that, in June 2010, doubleTwist introduced an Android app and around half a million people have downloaded it.

It is interesting that Fortune is equally fascinated by Internet entrepreneurs, but in its December 6, 2010 issue this was more about the success of Netflix CEO, Reed Hastings, whom it named number one business person of the year.

It did so because, during 2010, Hastings cannibalised his own $2 billion-in-sales DVD-by-mail business and streamed television and movies to customers over the Internet.  This was so successful that the company’s shares have risen 200%.

It was also easy, as in the United States video can be delivered within 30 seconds over a high-speed connection.  It is not stored on a subscriber’s hard drive, but viewed immediately on a range of devices, including video game screens.

Again, Hastings’ answer to what the music industry and Hollywood call piracy, is to make it so easy for people to pay and view movies that they don’t flout copyright.  And, while iTunes has provided a similar solution for music, other positive results of file-sharing have been that musicians are staging more live performances to make money, and independent musicians are able to compete with “pop music factories”.  Indeed, some say peer-to-peer sharing no different from lending a friend a book and that it has helped support better music.

Finally, despite its headline and use of terms such as “piracy”, the Time article concludes: “The pirates never wanted music and movies and all the rest of it to be free – at least, not in the financial sense.  They wanted it to be free as in freedom”.

Posted by Joseph Peart

Immediately before I sat down to write this blog, I was attending a lecture on Social Influence Analysis and Social Prediction by Dr Jie Tang, Tsinghua University, Beijing.  He is an associate professor of computer science.  Naturally, I was fascinated by his insights into the dynamics of social networks, such as how an individual user can influence others’ behaviours.

His study shows that about 90% of the human emotions are predictable, through social network mining, text mining, statistical learning, and semantic web searching.  How scary is that?

Such research is right on the cusp of the field of human communication, where science and art collide.

What I didn’t anticipate was the need to recall my own early science degree to follow Jie Tang’s explanation of his factor graph model for creating mathematical formulae that could learn by themselves.  But it is that very connection between maths and psychology that enables researchers to quantify social influence and the correlation between influence and social actions.

So I sat there fascinated by the creation of algorithms, which we so blithely talk about, but don’t always fully appreciate.  The equations on the screen looked like the chemistry of a nuclear bomb, and offered a glimpse of their potential to provide a similarly massive explosion in our analysis of mobile social networks to predict human emotion.

While AUT University is part of this marvellous open dialogue in the field of creative technology, social media are still being restricted in China itself.  Google has been displaced by the Chinese search engine "Baidu" which seeks to emulate Bing or Google inside China’s physical borders.  Firstly, the Chinese government set out to control Google: Now they have a search site which they can control.

Also in China, Youtube has effectively been replaced by Youku, which has 1,500 license holders, including television and film companies in that country regularly uploading content. 

Youku's video library includes many full length, popular films and TV episodes from the West, which can be viewed outside China only on Youku, since copyright restrictions prevent Youtube and others from broadcasting them.  Ironically, while thumbing its nose at western copyright law, Youku has its own strict rules on pornography and for content that the Chinese government finds politically objectionable. 

Furthermore, Youku has implemented a digital fingerprinting technology which is says is intended to eliminate copyright infringing content on the site.  It also sounds like a way of keeping a close eye on users.

Meanwhile, in the West, computer scientists at the University of Washington are reversing the “eye of God” on the internet.  They have created a way to put expiration dates on ea-mail, chat messages and Facebook postings, according to Futurist, Nov-Dec 2009: p.2.

Their software, called “Vanish”, encrypts the messages and spreads the data among different computers on the file-sharing network.  As people use the network, the portions of encryption are spread around to untraceable users making the original message indecipherable.

One of the benefits of Vanish will be for the artists among us who may express our emotions impulsively only to discover that they remain as an eternal record of our immoderation.  We should thank our scientific peers for this offer of a future where we can expunge our digital trails.  Of course, art in its other forms can and should remain preserved for ever.

Indeed, art provides the postscript to this blog, as Wikipedia tells us the delightful origin of the name “Baidu” is from an 800-year-old Chinese poem which says: “Having searched for him hundreds and thousands of times in the crowd, suddenly turning back by chance, I find him there in the dimmest candlelight”…. beautiful.