SOPA Commentary

In honor of the SOPA blackout on the web, I highlight an interesting article in the Economist:

Social media in the 16th Century

How Luther went viral

Five centuries before Facebook and the Arab spring, social media

helped bring about the Reformation

This article describes the amazing similarities of the world of print circa 1500 to the Internet, specifically social media sites. Both eras featured new communication technologies. However, most people thinking of today’s exculsive publishing houses, blockbuster books, and mass-media marketing don’t realize that print in 1500 had none of these features. Rather, it was like the web – a loose network, not controlled by a central authority, where stories were shared and “liked” by a vast network of independent readers/writers.

According the this historical analysis, the later, social-network style of print allow new ideas to spread rapidly. Luther’s writing were copied, printed, and spread by friends to other cities. In those cities, local printers who liked what they read re-set and re-printed the stories, and in turn sent them to their own “friend networks”. It’s very different from a central publishing house issuing approved books which are distributed via mass marketing techniques, typical of print today. In 1500 there were no magazines, but there were thousands of “pamplets” – short books, which in their style were very similar to modern-day blogs and social network postings. As they were printed and reprinted, the pamplets often got more material added. New books might cut and paste excerpts from other books, “mashup” style.

The point of the article was that free exchange of ideas during the Reformation, and in later social movements like the American Revolution, benefited greatly from the “social network” style of printing. As large publishing houses began mass-marketing a few authors in “official” books and magazines the benefit was lost. Instead of information sharing, the focus now shifted to protection of intellectual property.

Now to SOPA. The right to remove content can only be seen as “old media” – radio, television, movies, print publishes – trying to convert the social network into something they are familar with – an elitist, 1% group distributing their work to passive consumers. This was the model of the “mass media” 20th century until its end, when the “social network” style reasserted itself via the Internet. During the Reformation, plenty of the power elite – Kings, Popes, officials – tried to stop the flow of print. Today, the equivalents of these characters are trying to do the same.

How does this impact sustainability? It would be fascinating to see if the “cost per symbol” of print and the Internet is lower in a lateral, social network style system compared to a one-way mass-media model. While the one-way broadcast model might have efficiencies in economy of scale, it also limits information – so we might talk about the “difficulty” of information exchange as a cost. The end result might be that a one type causes a net use of more paper or bits to allow the same level of discussion and commentary. Which is more sustainable? This is something we should explore. It may be that a SOPA world would waste more power to get out the same messages.


  1. I appreciate the History Lesson. Of course any reformation becomes history when the next one comes along. However the problem I have with SOPA being vetoed is that Piracy of Creative Works without compensation to the artist is Theft, pure and simple. When you consider how many cell phones, ipads and other similar electronic items there are then the question of “who pays the artist his/her residual?” becomes a glaring issue. Please don’t think that I ignore the march of progress. I understand it completely. But as a Senior Citizen and a member of SAG, AFTRA and supporter of Actors Equity, I strongly object to rejecting an attempt to protect the livelihood of working Actors, Singers and all others who rely on the incomes provided by residuals.

    1. Good comment. It’s absolutely true that intellectual property must be protected – in fact, copyright is one of those things that is in the original Constitution. The debate (if we ignore the shrill voices) is that the law is too broad, and could be misused. The takedown yesterday (see after the file shutdown of “Megaupload” ( Obviously both sides are active without SOPA. So, it may be possible to go more aggressively after these sites without the special powers in the law. It’s also worth noting that Megaupload is owned by people associated with one segment of the music industry, acting independently of their labels.

      The big problem the arts and entertainment industry faces right now is what David Brin called “the century of the amateur”. Social media networks, as the Economist article points out, are hardly new, but the worldwide reach of the Internet has increased their impact. You get tools (cheap video cameras, YouTube) that let anyone play at being an artist or creator – computers let anyone make a movie or album. And in fact, there will be a few “indies” out there who benefit – would have otherwise not have been heard from.

      However, the majority of amateur art will be little more than a confused mess. As the number of films on YouTube has risen, the quality has dropped. Great art and design comes from professionals – meaning they’re dedicated to their craft, so they have to be paid for it.

      However, our current era there is a pull from the bottom driving by the rising power 99% via social media – and the entertainment industry is stuck in the role of being a “1%”. Before the Internet during the 20th century entertainment became “corporatized”. Production, distribution, and payment flowed through highly centralized channels. Now, this model will probably fail.

      So, the current situation means that artists and entertainers look like they’re siding with the 1%. But until we get a new model for entertainment that compensates the artist, working through existing unions and media companies is the only way to get paid – it’s a real hammerlock.

      I make a point of illustrating these conflicts in class – after finding which (designer) students side with “anonymous”, I then announce I’m going to steal their stuff off the sample drive and sell it. Hopefully, that creates some critical thinking.

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