Thursday, October 25, 2007

A post-mortem of the OiNK memeplex

On Tuesday the music sharing site OiNK was shut down by Interpol, IFPI, BPI and other organizations. As with seemingly all cases involving Big Content , much of the reporting on this incident by major news sources has ranged from inaccurate to totally falacious. For those not familiar, OiNK was a web site which provided a torrent tracker (software that helps users of P2P software search for and download shared files) that focused mainly on music files. It facilitated music sharing for almost 180,000 members and served as much as two terabytes of data each day. Superficially there is nothing unique about OiNK, indeed there are thousands of torrent tracker sites on the internet that offer the exact same service that OiNK did. OiNK only becomes unique when you look into particular rules that governed the use of the web site and in turn shaped the community that formed around it.

Much has already been said about OiNK so I encourage those interested to read more elsewhere. I want to set aside any discussion of legality for a moment and look at OiNK in terms of the memeplex that it created. If we look at memetic replication in terms of longevity, fidelity and fecundity we can see how OiNK was able to grow to 180,000 users without devolving into the chaotic mess that typifies most torrent trackers.

Memberships were available on an invitation-only basis. In fact one of the most strictly enforced terms of service was that anyone offering or accepting money for a membership invitation would immediately have their account terminated. This helped ensure the fidelity of memes because only users with a history of good P2P citizenship would be invited to join. For example a known "leech" could not fake being a good P2P neighbor by simply buying an invitation.

Incomplete or inaccurately tagged albums were not allowed. Users who continued to share incomplete or incorrectly tagged albums would have their accounts terminated. This again contributed to the fidelity of the music in

Leeching was not allowed. Leeching is the P2P term for downloading files without allowing others to download from you. The success of the P2P architecture is predicated on the concept of reciprosity. By terminating account of users who downloaded files but did not share their files with others OiNK ensured the fecundity of all memes in the system. So not only did OiNK's invitation system prevent most leeches from making it in, once in a leech would quickly be identified and have their account terminated.

A request system was offered so that members could communicate the music that they were looking for. This helped ensure the longevity of the system as members would be ensured that as their collections were filled out and their tastes changed OiNK would still be able to provide them the music that they were looking for.

Files could only be high-quality copies of CDs or LPs - no cassettes, live recordings, etc. In fact many of the files available on OiNK were lossless meaning that a user could download an album from OiNK and burn it to a CD that would be of identical quality to the original recoding. Other than the obvious preservation of fidelity that this represents it also contributed greatly to the fecundity of music as a members could upload to a lossless format (say FLAC) which other members could download and re-encode to lossy formats (like MP3) for purposes of storing on their portable audio player. Converting of audio files is less likely to happen in a system that only shares lossy files because the process of transcoding from one lossy format to another (say converting an OGG file into an MP3 file so that you can load it onto your iPod) often leads to an unacceptable loss of fidelity. This ability to transcode without a loss in quality means that a lossless file shared on OiNK is more likely to be downloaded than a lossy file and is thus more likely to replicate (it has higher fecundity).

Membership was free. This is the most misreported fact about OiNK - members were not required to pay a fee. Members were welcome to donate to offset the cost of running the site but OiNK was not run as a pay-for-service venture. From the beginning the emphasis on OiNK was on being a fan of music that you uploaded/downloaded. Rather than script kiddies who just want to steal the latest pop album (some merely for the sake of stealing), this community was about fans sharing music that they cared deeply about with other fans.

The size of the community and the overall quality of its offerings have led some to declare that OiNK represented the greatest collection of music ever assembled. There can be no doubt in my mind that OiNK's impressive achievement is due to the understanding (implicit or otherwise) of the principals of memetics which underlies their terms of use. Rumors are already rampant about what will be "the next OiNK" and no doubt orphaned members of the OiNK community are hard at work at picking up the pieces.

The pea soup of acronymic organizations that worked to shut OiNK down will tout this as another victory in the "War On Piracy" but they continue to miss the point. In the short history of the internet we have seen time and again that communities of like-minded individuals create communities that are far more robust than what is on offer commercially - in fact this is probably the best was to answer the question of "what is Web 2.0?". Contrast Napster with the traditional retail CD model or OiNK with the iTunes Music Store, there is a reason why the illegal options continue to be more popular than the legal ones and it's not as simple as monetary cost. Big Content is so obsessed with the criminal aspect of file-sharing that they totally fail to recognize that these communities are providing a better service.

With Apple and other stores finally offering DRM-free music the lumbering giants have at least opened their eyes. There is still a long way to go before the content providers can offer a legal service with the kind of features that OiNK offered. Music labels love to talk about their need to staunch the blood after plummeting CD sales and they use this as an excuse to encumber legitimate online stores with DRM, low bit rates and onerous licensing terms. This is like pissing on a dying man; CDs are going to die because the internet provides less friction and making legal online offerings worse is only going to encourage piracy which further hurts CD sales. Until commercial offerings embody the principles of a robust community they will continue to be outsmarted by the little piggies of cyberspace.

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