Tuesday, August 07, 2007 

P2P vs Web ~ keeping the genie in the bottle

The term P2P already carries significant baggage in many people’s minds, as it is often associated with the illegal sharing of MP3 music files, software and movies on the Internet. However, the term in its usual Internet context in fact only means ‘peer-to-peer’ and the definition of a ‘peer’ is non-specific. In fact, P2P means many different things to different people.

Communication applications like email and ‘Instant Messaging’ (IM) are sometimes referred to as P2P or being closely related, because they are ‘user-to-user’ services. To make matters more confusing, the Banking and Finance industries use the term P2P to indicate ‘person-to-person’ financial transactions like those made through ‘Western Union’, and more recently, the internet payment service PayPal has been designated by the Banks as falling into this category. So when mainstream media or file-sharers and ‘geeks’ refer to P2P, they are talking about ‘network and device functionality’, but when Banks talk about ‘P2P’ they are talking about ‘people transferring money to each other, outside of the Banking system’.

All of the definitions indicate an increasing orientation toward a kind of ‘one-to-one’ connectivity rather than the one-to-many model of traditional media, ‘broadcast-television’ or the client/server paradigm of the WWW. The P2P meme also has a societal meaning in that it implies a cooperative approach to social-networking and commercial activity demonstrated in new forms of group-association and collective publishing on the internet. The ‘Wiki’ and the ‘Open-Source-Software’ movement being good examples of this broad trend. Michel Bauwens, in his work, ‘P2P and Human Evolution’ defines P2P as: “a form of human network-based organisation which rests upon the free participation of equipotent partners” This, could be called the ‘many-to-many’ movement, because it is one-to-one, on a mass scale.

The social phenomenon of P2P usage that is gaining strength on the internet, is a kind of pluralistic global super-community with a theoretically unlimited number of widely dispersed users. To join this community is to subscribe to a system of shared resources and distributed ownership, where all users contribute their own capital resource, their computer and processing power, to the open community. For internet users, being part of this new phenomenon is an innately communal and social process.

The thing that is often overlooked is that some of the biggest successes on the web, YouTube, MySpace and Facebook for instance, are facilitating aspects of the many-to-many/peer-to-peer movement, but doing so within the constraints of the client-server system of the web. This produces a weird kind of asymmetry. The users are creating the content, and the web vendors are trying to keep the genie in the bottle. Its all about control... When users are finally given the keys to the toy cupboard, I don't think they will want to give them back.