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Remaking the Peer-to-Peer Meme

by Tim O'Reilly

This essay is an excerpt from the forth-coming book Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Disruptive Potential of Collaborative Networking. It presents the goals that drive the developers of the best-known peer-to-peer systems, the problems they've faced, and the technical solutions they've found. The book will be available at the O'Reilly Peer-to-Peer Conference in February and in bookstores in March.

On Sept. 18, 2000, I organized a "peer-to-peer summit" to explore the bounds of peer-to-peer networking. In my invitation to the attendees, I set out three goals:

  • To make a statement about the nature of peer-to-peer and what types of technologies people should be thinking of in the same frame.
  • To introduce other people who I like and respect, and are working on different aspects of what could be seen as the same problem, to create some additional connections between technical communities that ought to be talking to and learning from one another.
  • To brainstorm about the issues we're uncovering, especially where some forethought can help the various projects from reinventing the wheel, and where some cooperation might accelerate mutual growth.

This is exactly what we did with the open-source summit. By bringing together people from many projects, we were able to get the world to recognize that free software was more than GNU and Linux; we introduced a lot of people, many of whom, remarkably, had never met; we talked shop; and ultimately, we crafted a new "meme" that completely reshaped the way people thought about the space.

The people I invited do tell part of the story: Gene Kan from Gnutella and Ian Clarke from Freenet were obvious choices. They matched the current industry buzz about peer-to-peer file sharing. Similarly, Marc Hedlund and Nelson Minar from Popular Power made sense, because there was already a sense of some kind of connection between distributed computation and file sharing. But why did I invite Jeremie Miller of Jabber and Ray Ozzie of Groove, Ken Arnold from Sun's Jini project and Michael Tiemann of Red Hat, Marshall Rose, author of BXXP and IMXP, Rael Dornfest of Meerkat and RSS 1.0, Dave Stutz of Microsoft, Andy Hertzfeld of Eazel, Don Box, one of the authors of SOAP, and Steve Burbeck, one of the authors of UDDI. (Note that not all of these people made it to the summit; some sent substitutes.)

As I said in my invitation:

[I've invited] a group of people who collectively bracket what I consider a new paradigm, which could perhaps best be summarized by Sun's slogan, "the network is the computer." They're all working on parts of what I consider the next generation net story.

This article reports on some of the ideas discussed at the summit. It also continues the job of trying to reshape the way people think about that "next generation net story" and the role of peer-to-peer in telling that story. The concepts we use are, at bottom, maps of reality. Bad maps lead to bad decisions. If we believe peer-to-peer is about illegal sharing of copyrighted material, we'll continue to see rhetoric about copyright and censorship at the heart of the debate, and we may push for ill-advised legal restrictions on the use of the technology. If we believe it's about a wider class of decentralized networking applications, we'll be focused on understanding what those applications are good for and on advancing the state of the art.

Peer-to-Peer Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies
Edited by Andy Oram
March 2001 (est.)
448 pages (est.)
$29.95 (est.)
Table of Contents

This article also gives some background on one of the tools I used at the meeting -- something I'll call a "meme map" -- and presents the results of the meeting as one of those maps. This map is also useful in understanding the thinking behind the O'Reilly's P2P directory. This broader map has two benefits. First, the peer-to-peer community can use it to organize itself -- to understand who is doing related work, and identify areas where developers can learn from each other. Second, the meme map helps the community influence outsiders. It can create excitement where there previously was indifference and turn negative impressions into positive ones.

First, though, a bit of background.

From Business Models to Meme Maps

Recently, I started working with Dan and Meredith Beam of Beam, Inc., a strategy consulting firm. Dan and Meredith help companies build their "business models" -- one-page pictures that describe "how all the elements of a business work together to build marketplace advantage and company value." It's easy to conclude that two companies selling similar products and services are in the same business; the Beams think otherwise.

For example, O'Reilly and IDG compete in the computer book publishing business, but we have different business models. IDG's strategic positioning is to appeal to the "dummy" who needs to learn about computers but doesn't really want to; O'Reilly's is to appeal to the people who love computers and want to go as deep as possible.

IDG's marketing strategy is to dominate retail outlets and "big box" stores in hopes of putting product in front of consumers who might happen to walk by in search of any book on a given subject. O'Reilly's marketing strategy is to build awareness of our brand and products in the core developer and user communities who then buy directly or drive traffic to retail outlets. One strategy pushes product into distribution channels to reach unknown consumers; the other pulls products into distribution channels in response to queries from consumers who are already looking for the product.

Both companies are extremely successful, but our different business models require different competencies. I won't say more lest this article turn into a lesson for O'Reilly competitors, but, hopefully, I have said enough to get the idea across.

Boiling all the elements of your business down to a one-page picture is a really useful exercise. But what is even more useful is that Dan and Meredith have you run the exercise twice, once to describe your present business and once to describe it as you want it to be.

At any rate, fresh from the strategic planning process at O'Reilly, it struck me that an adaptation of this idea would be useful preparation for the summit. We weren't modeling a single business; we were modeling a space, and the key projects, concepts and messages associated with it.

I call these pictures "meme maps" rather than "business models" in honor of Richard Dawkins' wonderful formulation of memes as ideas that spread and reproduce themselves and are passed on from mind to mind. Just as gene engineering allows us to artificially shape genes, meme-engineering lets us organize and shape ideas so that they can be transmitted more effectively, and have the desired effect once they are transmitted.

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