The Arc Of Content Will Always, Over Time, Bend Toward Free

June 21, 2013

By now, most everyone has heard the famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., about how “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” While this has certainly proven to be the case time and time again, I think it gets to something even more simplistic and fundamental. I would argue that most any system of information, of human experience, trends, in the long run, towards being open.

Secrets inherently want to be known, data begs to be analyzed, media is made to watched and shared. After all, it is a deeply ingrained element of human nature to share, to tell stories and to interact with other people. That’s why, no matter what the system is, ALL information has an inherent momentum toward being spread as widely as possible.

This, too, has been proven time and time again. Just recently, and without regard to the specific questions of morality within, there are the cases of Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning. Two people who decided that information that was designed to be private, had an obligation to be disseminated to the public. In fact, it seems that it’s not just their judgment or belief in a system of information transparency, but one could argue that it’s in information’s very nature to be shared. It is, after all, at its most basic level a form of communication between people. In that way, much like the metric expansion of space, information trends outward, not in, and any attempt to create a walled garden, in time, will prove to be a foolish endeavor.

As with information, though, so too is it with media and content. Facebook, Twitter, Vine, et. al., are designed to facilitate this human need to share stories and trade content openly. Content is a function of that human need to communicate and therefore will always want to be shared as widely and broadly as possible. TV networks and movie studios may try their best, and have become very good at, putting media on a leash, so that it only gets shared to those who pay for it. But as time goes on, this becomes less and less the case.

A little over a week ago the finale of “Game of Thrones” broke piracy records when over 1 million people illegally downloaded the show within a 24-hour period. Guessing based on HBO’s 28.5 million subscribers and the general audience of those who are pirating the show, network effect says it’s likely that a majority of those 1 million people probably had access to HBO, either through a friend, neighbor or HBOGo account. Then why steal it? Why not watch it legally? While this shows that any media/content has a momentum to reach the biggest possible audience, and not even the powers of HBO can keep it at bay, it also shows that content will travel along the path of least resistance. If cost is an impediment, the force will find a way around. If technology or bureaucracy is trying to fence information in, over time, it will wear those barriers down.

The Xbox One controversy over their decision to use DRM to limit an owner’s ability to share their content shows this same principle. And it’s also why they just recently decided to change that policy. Videos become viral because content has a self-perpetuating momentum outward, bending toward the arc of openness. And so on and so on.

Really, the film industry has become the best gatekeepers, outside of the world’s largest governments of course, in denying access to content and information. That’s really what their business model is: take content that people want and limit access only those who qualify (read: pay). But the upper level of a movie’s reach is much greater than studios allow. Take “The Avengers”, third-highest grossing movie of all time at roughly $1.5B. Crude, illustrative math shows that’s about 250 million admissions (1.5B / $6 per ticket avg). If 250M people went, how many people would go if it were free? If the technological barriers to entry were as low as possible? How many times would it be passed around and viewed?

My guess is, at least more than “Gangnam Style”, which right now is sitting at over 1.6 billion views — more than six times “The Avengers”. Even if you add up the total box office of ALL of Robert Downey Jr.’s movies, you get about $6 billion total. At $6 per ticket, that’s still 600 million fewer views than Psy’s video on YouTube. Does that mean that “Gangnam Style” is “better” than “The Avengers”? Clearly not (though some, not sure who, may argue that). What it does point to is that Psy’s coefficient of friction is much, much lower than Robert Downey Jr.’s. That is, it is easier to view and watch “Gangnam Style” for most of the world, than it will ever be to go see a movie.

Is all of this to say that content should be free? No. Of course not. But it is to say that content, like information, has an innate momentum toward free. Toward complete dissemination. We as content creators so often think about “the ways we can get eyeballs” or “how we can get the most views.” That implies that it’s something that must be thrust upon the world, forced down throats: “How do I compel people to watch?!”

I think the correct way to view it is, “What am I doing that is preventing people from watching my content?” Or, “Where am I introducing resistance in the pipeline of this content?” What barriers am I creating? What walls am I surrounding my content with? That may mean pay walls. That may mean quality. Certainly something that is “bad” is self limiting, akin to a short in a wire. But the more those obstacles are removed, the more a piece of content, a piece of art, or a piece of information, can reach its fullest potential and complete its long-tail arc toward the freedom at its core.