Synopsis: Sharing :: Hyperconnectivity

The Day TV Died

On the 18th of October in 2004, a UK cable channel, SkyOne, broadcast the premiere episode of Battlestar Galactica, writer-producer Ron Moore’s inspired revisioning of the decidedly campy 70s television series. SkyOne broadcast the episode as soon as it came off the production line, but its US production partner, the SciFi Channel, decided to hold off until January – a slow month for television – before airing the episodes. The audience for Battlestar Galactica, young and technically adept, made digital recordings of the broadcasts as they went to air, cut out the commercials breaks, then posted them to the Internet.

For an hour-long television programme, a lot of data needs to be dragged across the Internet, enough to clog up even the fastest connection. But these young science fiction fans used a new tool, BitTorrent, to speed the bits on their way. BitTorrent allows a large number of computers (in this case, over 10,000 computers were involved) to share the heavy lifting. Each of the computers downloaded pieces of Battlestar Galactica, and as each got a piece, they offered it up to any other computer which wanted a copy of that piece. Like a forest of hands each trading puzzle pieces, each computer quickly assembled a complete copy of the show.

All of this happened within a few hours of Battlestar Galactica going to air. That same evening, on the other side of the Atlantic, American fans watched the very same episode that their fellow fans in the UK had just viewed. They liked what they saw, and told their friends, who also downloaded the episode, using BitTorrent. Within just a few days, perhaps a hundred thousand Americans had watched the show.

US cable networks regularly count their audience in hundreds of thousands. A million would be considered incredibly good. Executives for SciFi Channel ran the numbers and assumed that the audience for this new and very expensive TV series had been seriously undercut by this international trafficking in television. They couldn’t have been more wrong. When Battlestar Galactica finally aired, it garnered the biggest audiences SciFi Channel had ever seen – well over 3 million viewers.

How did this happen? Word of mouth. The people who had the chops to download Battlestar Galactica liked what they saw, and told their friends, most of whom were content to wait for SciFi Channel to broadcast the series. The boost given the series by its core constituency of fans helped it over the threshold from cult classic into a genuine cultural phenomenon. Battlestar Galactica has become one of the most widely-viewed cable TV series in history; critics regularly lavish praise on it, and yes, fans still download it, all over the world.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, the widespread “piracy” of Battlestar Galactica was instrumental to its ratings success. This isn’t the only example. BBC’s Dr. Who, leaked to BitTorrent by a (quickly fired) Canadian editor, drummed up another huge audience. It seems, in fact, that “piracy” is good. Why? We live in an age of fantastic media oversupply: there are always too many choices of things to watch, or listen to, or play with. But, if one of our friends recommends something, something they loved enough to spend the time and effort downloading, that carries a lot of weight.

All of this sharing of media means that the media titans – the corporations which produce and broadcast most of the television we watch – have lost control over their own content. Anything broadcast anywhere, even just once, becomes available everywhere, almost instantaneously. While that’s a revolutionary development, it’s merely the tip of the iceberg. The audience now has the ability to share anything they like – whether produced by a media behemoth, or made by themselves. YouTube has allowed individuals (some talented, some less so) reach audiences numbering in hundreds of millions. The attention of the audience, increasingly focused on what the audience makes for itself, has been draining ratings away from broadcasters, a drain which accelerates every time someone posts something funny, or poignant, or instructive to YouTube.

The mass media hasn’t collapsed, but it has been hollowed out. The audience occasionally tunes in – especially to watch something newsworthy, in real-time – but they’ve moved on. It’s all about what we’re saying directly to one another. The individual – every individual – has become a broadcaster in his or her own right. The mechanics of this person-to-person sharing, and the architecture of these “New Networks”, are driven by the oldest instincts of humankind.

The New Networks

Human beings are social animals. Long before we became human – or even recognizably close – we became social. For at least 11 million years, before our ancestors broke off from the gorillas and chimpanzees, we cultivated social characteristics. In social groups, these distant forbears could share the tasks of survival: finding food, raising young, and self-defense. Human babies, in particular, take many years to mature, requiring constantly attentive parenting – time stolen away from other vital activities. Living in social groups helped ensure that these defenseless members of the group grew to adulthood. The adults who best expressed social qualities bore more and healthier children. The day-to-day pressures of survival on the African savannahs drove us to be ever more adept with our social skills.

We learned to communicate with gestures, then (no one knows just how long ago) we learned to speak. Each step forward in communication reinforced our social relationships; each moment of conversation reaffirms our commitment to one another, every spoken word an unspoken promise to support, defend and extend the group. As we communicate, whether in gestures or in words, we build models of one another’s behavior. (This is why we can judge a friend’s reaction to some bit of news, or a joke, long before it comes out of our mouths.) We have always walked around with our heads full of other people, a tidy little “social network,” the first and original human network. We can hold about 150 other people in our heads (chimpanzees can manage about 30, gorillas about 15, but we’ve got extra brains they don’t to help us with that), so, for 90% of human history, we lived in tribes of no more than about 150 individuals, each of us in constant contact, a consistent communication building and reinforcing bonds which would make us the most successful animals on Earth. We learned from one another, and shared whatever we learned; a continuity of knowledge passed down seamlessly, generation upon generation, a chain of transmission that still survives within the world’s indigenous communities. Social networks are the gentle strings which connect us to our origins.

This is the old network. But it’s also the new network. A few years ago, researcher Mizuko Ito studied teenagers in Japan, to find that these kids – all of whom owned mobile telephones – sent as many as a few hundred text messages, every single day, to the same small circle of friends. These messages could be intensely meaningful (the trials and tribulations of adolescent relationships), or just pure silliness; the content mattered much less than that constant reminder and reinforcement of the relationship. This “co-presence,” as she named it, represents the modern version of an incredibly ancient human behavior, a behavior that had been unshackled by technology, to span vast distances. These teens could send a message next door, or halfway across the country. Distance mattered not: the connection was all.

In 2001, when Ito published her work, many dismissed her findings as a by-product of those “wacky Japanese” and their technophile lust for new toys. But now, teenagers everywhere in the developed world do the same thing, sending tens to hundreds of text messages a day. When they run out of money to send texts (which they do, unless they have very wealthy parents), they simply move online, using instant messaging and MySpace and other techniques to continue the never-ending conversation.

We adults do it too, though we don’t recognize it. Most of us who live some of our lives online, receive a daily dose of email: we flush the spam, answer the requests and queries of our co-workers, deal with any family complaints. What’s left over, from our friends, more and more consists of nothing other than a link to something – a video, a website, a joke – somewhere on the Internet. This new behavior, actually as old as we are, dates from the time when sharing information ensured our survival. Each time we find something that piques our interest, we immediately think, “hmm, I bet so-and-so would really like this.” That’s the social network in our heads, grinding away, filtering our experience against our sense of our friends’ interests. We then hit the “forward” button, sending the tidbit along, reinforcing that relationship, reminding them that we’re still here – and still care. These “Three Fs” – find, filter and forward – have become the cornerstone of our new networks, information flowing freely from person-to-person, in weird and unpredictable ways, unbounded by geography or simultaneity (a friend can read an email weeks after you send it), but always according to long-established human behaviors.

One thing is different about the new networks: we are no longer bounded by the number of individuals we can hold in our heads. Although we’ll never know more than 150 people well enough for them to take up some space between our ears (unless we grow huge, Spock-like minds) our new tools allow us to reach out and connect with casual acquaintances, or even people we don’t know. Our connectivity has grown into “hyperconnectivity”, and a single individual, with the right message, at the right time, can reach millions, almost instantaneously.

This simple, sudden, subtle change in culture has changed everything.

The Nuclear Option

On the 12th of May in 2008, a severe earthquake shook a vast area of southeast Asia, centered in the Chinese state of Sichuan. Once the shaking stopped – in some places, it lasted as long as three minutes – people got up (when they could, as may lay under collapsed buildings), dusted themselves off, and surveyed the damage. Those who still had power turned to their computers to find out what had happened, and share what had happened to them. Some of these people used so-called “social messaging services”, which allowed them to share a short message – similar to a text message – with hundreds or thousands of acquaintances in their hyperconnected social networks.

Within a few minutes, people on every corner of the planet knew about the earthquake – well in advance of any reports from Associated Press, the BBC, or CNN. This network of individuals, sharing information each other through their densely hyperconnected networks, spread the news faster, more effectively, and more comprehensively than any global broadcaster.

This had happened before. On 7 July 2005, the first pictures of the wreckage caused by bombs detonated within London’s subway system found their way onto Flickr, an Internet photo-sharing service, long before being broadcast by BBC. A survivor, waking past one of the destroyed subway cars, took snaps from her mobile and sent them directly on to Flickr, where everyone on the planet could have a peek. One person can reach everyone else, if what they have to say (or show) merits such attention, because that message, even if seen by only one other person, will be forwarded on and on, through our hyperconnected networks, until it has been received by everyone for whom that message has salience. Just a few years ago, it might have taken hours (or even days) for a message to traverse the Human Network. Now it happens a few seconds.

Most messages don’t have a global reach, nor do they need one. It is enough that messages reach interested parties, transmitted via the Human Network, because just that alone has rewritten the rules of culture. An intemperate CEO screams at a consultant, who shares the story through his network: suddenly, no one wants to work for the CEO’s firm. A well-connected blogger gripes about problems with his cable TV provider, a story forwarded along until – just a half-hour later – he receives a call from a vice-president of that company, contrite with apologies and promises of an immediate repair. An American college student, arrested in Egypt for snapping some photos in the wrong place at the wrong time, text messages a single word – “ARRESTED” – to his social network, and 24 hours later, finds himself free, escorted from jail by a lawyer and the American consul, because his network forwarded this news along to those who could do something about his imprisonment.

Each of us, thoroughly hyperconnected, brings the eyes and ears of all of humanity with us, wherever we go. Nothing is hidden anymore, no secret safe. We each possess a ‘nuclear option’ – the capability to go wide, instantaneously, bringing the hyperconnected attention of the Human Network to a single point. This dramatically empowers each of us, a situation we are not at all prepared for. A single text message, forwarded perhaps a million times, organized the population of Xiamen, a coastal city in southern China, against a proposed chemical plant – despite the best efforts of the Chinese government to sensor the message as it passed through the state-run mobile telephone network. Another message, forwarded around a community of white supremacists in Sydney’s southern suburbs, led directly to the Cronulla Riots, two days of rampage and attacks against Sydney’s Lebanese community, in December 2005.

When we watch or read stories about the technologies of sharing, they almost always center on recording companies and film studios crying poverty, of billions of dollars lost to ‘piracy’. That’s a sideshow, a distraction. The media companies have been hurt by the Human Network, but that’s only a minor a side-effect of the huge cultural transformation underway. As we plug into the Human Network, and begin to share that which is important to us with others who will deem it significant, as we learn to “find the others”, reinforcing the bonds to those others every time we forward something to them, we dissolve the monolithic ties of mass media and mass culture. Broadcasters, who spoke to millions, are replaced by the Human Network: each of us, networks in our own right, conversing with a few hundred well-chosen others. The cultural consensus, driven by the mass media, which bound 20th-century nations together in a collective vision, collapses into a Babel-like configuration of social networks which know no cultural or political boundaries.

The bomb has already dropped. The nuclear option has been exercised. The Human Network brought us together, and broke us apart. But in these fragments and shards of culture we find an immense vitality, the protean shape of the civilization rising to replace the world we have always known. It all hinges on the transition from sharing to knowing.

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