Law in the Internet Society

The indifference economy

-- By SamuelRoth - 16 Oct 2014

N.B.: In order to keep my revised essay within the word limit, I have decided to devote all of my space to the first topic, non-functional bitstreams, and leave discussion of functional bitstreams for another day.

In “The Attention Economy and the Net,” Michael Goldhaber suggests that the Internet has transformed attention into an emergent form of value, and predicts that success and failure in the internet society will be determined in large measure by the amount of attention one can garner for oneself or one’s project.

As part of our analysis in class of the new economic forms of the Internet age, we have distinguished between functional bitstreams, such as software, maps, and mathematical equations, and non-functional bitstreams, such as music, video, and literary text. Prof. Moglen proposes that, for non-functional bitstreams, distribution without property relations produces inherently superior distribution. In other words, while Monet may not be improved by everyone adding his own brushstrokes, his work will reach more people if everyone is free to share it.

I think that, with regard to these non-functional bitsteams, Goldhaber's thesis is wrong. The changes the Internet has wrought in the market in non-functional goods have caused attention to play a smaller and smaller role.

From 15 minutes to 15 people

In the pre-Internet economy, non-functional bitstreams needed a great deal of concentrated attention to survive. The logistics of nationwide distribution through narrow channels—a handful of radio stations in each market, one or two TV stations that played music, a similarly limited number of record stores with finite shelf space—meant that a music act had to sell tens of thousands of albums at a time or face exclusion from the industry altogether. For instance, “a classical album [was] considered a substantial success if it [sold] 70,000 copies as a new release.”

By effectively eliminating marginal costs, reducing fixed costs, and widening the channels of distribution, however, the Internet made it possible for producers of non-functional bitstreams to distribute their works little by little, finding niches and expanding them over time. Sustaining a high level of public attention, which had been the sine qua non of success in the pre-Internet aesthetic markets, ceased to be a prerequisite for access to the channels of distribution. It was no longer necessary to be world-famous for 15 minutes; artists could instead focus on being world-famous to 15 people.

Thus, the availability of low-attention non-functional bitstreams on the Internet began to threaten the viability of the high-attention non-functional bitstreams of the pre-Internet economy. See, e.g., Matt Richel, Record Labels Assert Control in Cyberspace, in which early Internet-based music distribution companies, which of necessity specialized in the work of independent artists, express their apprehension that the major record companies were ultimately drawn to the Internet to “brake the momentum of the Net as an alternative source of music” and “‘maintain control of distribution.’”

In other words, the music giants didn’t come to the Internet to fend off pirates; they came to fend off an army of unpolished, low-attention artists who, collectively, were much better at giving audiences what they wanted to hear than a handful of high-powered, high-attention acts. The giants’ ability to build a brief crescendo of attention for their non-functional bitstreams was no longer enough.


What, then, to make of the success of unfree platforms for distributing non-functional goods, such as Twitter or Instagram? Indeed, Goldhaber might point to these and their like as the apostheosis of his attention prediction. When Instagram, last month, deleted millions of fake accounts, its users were outraged at having lost followers. Could it be that attention is so powerful that even the fiction of commanding attention is a valuable good?

To those users, perhaps. But to measure success by popularity, and then to conclude that the most popular non-functional goods are the most successful, is to state a tautology. Some producers of non-functional goods will always seek attention for its own sake or in service of some other commercial end, at least for so long as there are unfree means of distribution that will facilitate their need to amass and tally attention like nickels and dimes.

The key, however, is that accumulating attention is a consequence of producing and distributing a successful non-functional good, not a prerequisite for getting that good produced and distributed in the first place. Twitter profits by enlisting its users as attention-seekers; it then sells the opportunity to advertise to the hundreds of millions of followers whose attention its users have cultivated. In that regard, it is not unlike a television network that broadcasts its content for free in the hope that its viewers will stick around for the commercial break. But the Internet has wrought a twofold change:

First, Twitter is not the only platform on which to operate a microblog; it competes with free means of distribution. If one does not care about followers or retweets, replicating the distribution function of Twitter is as simple as posting a text file to a server.

Second, even unfree platforms such as Twitter do not require a threshold level of attention to secure or preserve access to the means of distribution. Unlike, say, network television programs, Twitter accounts are not cancelled for failure to find an audience. A series of particularly trenchant tweets may accumulate attention for its author, as reflected in an increased number of followers, but one's access to the platform of distribution is unaffected either way.

Most importantly, this second change, the platform's indifference to attention, is not the result of Twitter or Instagram's benevolence or wisdom. Rather, it is the result of the first change, the technical and economic feasibility of free distribution. In that way, platform indifference is an emergent quality of the new internet economy, as the example of internet music distribution makes clear. With marginal costs at zero, a distribution platform that doesn't offer even-handed access (Warner/Chappell) will suffer at the hand of a competing platform that does (an independent music website).

In short, the means of distribution neither care nor can afford to care how much attention a given non-functional bitstream accumulates. Attention has its uses, but it is not the key to survival that Goldhaber imagined.


Webs Webs

r5 - 14 Jan 2015 - 17:15:47 - SamuelRoth
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