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Ernest Miller Ernest Miller pursues research and writing on cyberlaw, intellectual property, and First Amendment issues. Mr. Miller attended the U.S. Naval Academy before attending Yale Law School, where he was president and co-founder of the Law and Technology Society, and founded the technology law and policy news site LawMeme. He is a fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. Ernest Miller's blog postings can also be found @

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May 27, 2005

The Opening of the Frontier

Posted by Ernest Miller

Ben Compaine, author of Who Owns the Media?, analogizes citizens media to the frontier, as in Frederick Jackson Turner's The Frontier In American History (Peercasting as the New Western Frontier).

[I]n 1893 [Turner] presented his view that the key component to the unique American character of democracy was the settlement of the American West. That is, the availability of vast stretches of free land away from the initial settlements of the East Coast provided a safety value for those who were dissatisfied with their circumstances. The seemingly endless western frontier offered anyone an opportunity to acquire a farm and become an independent member of society. Free land thus tended to relieve poverty in the Eastern cities while on the frontier it fostered greater economic equality.

What does this have to do with the media? Here’s what: Though it may be a tad premature, in the equally unlimited expanses of information available through the Internet and its related ecosystem I see the makings of a similar safety value for expression and communication. Today it is Blogs, Live365 streaming radio and Podcasts. Tomorrow it is likely to be the video version of streaming radio and Vodcasting [PDF]. Better than a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner, reaching further than leaflets handed out in Times Square, more user-controlled than letters to the editor, “peercasting” may be for the Information Age what free land was for the late Agricultural/early Industrial Age....

Most Americans did not head West, though all knew that they could. The free land of the American West enabled those who were most motivated and most dissatisfied with the opportunities where they were to have hope. They did not see themselves as being stuck. Not every city slicker who headed West prospered. But it was the opportunity that helped shape them and the spirit of this country for over two centuries. And today’s dissatified or motivated knew that, for the first time, they too will be heard.

Blogging and podding and vodding or whatever else these formats might be called should not be viewed as a veneer or a Potemkin Village of phantom access to the world stage. The move to the Western frontier was real. Similarly this digital outlet that gives voice to the leafleteer, corner orator or anyone with a point of view or a story to be told is real and meaningful. We saw in Howard Dean’s meteoric rise the power of the Internet is getting the word out and in raising money. It happened for the most part under the radar of the mainstream media.

In the next decades peercasting will be become the norm to one degree or another. It will not replace mass media but will add a significant dimension to what and how the media is viewed. And, I believe, peercasting will have an overall positive effect on the American -- and no reason why not the rest of the world’s – experience with the expanded boundaries of this new frontier. I think that’s how Frederick Jackson Turner would describe it.


I've copied a significant chunk of Compaine's posting (go read the rest!) because I think he has really hit on something important. There is really a lot going on here, just as there was in Turner's original frontier thesis.

We've often heard the internet analogized to the Wild West, but I've never really liked the metaphor of place. In many ways, I think it is misleading. Here, I believe, is the better metaphor: frontier. A frontier isn't a place, it is a process. Ever-changing, ever-growing, never tamed, the frontier is always just at the edge of "civilization". You can't pin down the frontier because as soon as you do, it has moved on.

The American frontier shaped people and institutions; it formulated a unique American character. I think citizens media may do something similar, though this time it won't be as restricted geographically. What changes, if any, might this new frontier have on the American character? How might the concept of "frontier" impact other nations?

If the internet is a frontier, it is an incredibly fast moving one. Where parts of the American frontier took years to settle, internet frontiers are settled much quicker. What effect does this have on the frontier thesis?

By the time Turner wrote his famous thesis, the frontier had officially closed. Will an electronic frontier close? How might we seek to prevent it?

Does the open source movement also play a role in this frontier? I would think so, yes.

Lots of questions, I know, but I now have a lot to think about and chew over. I leave this post with a passage Turner quoted from Peck's New Guide to the West:

Generally, in all the western settlements, three classes, like the waves of the ocean, have rolled one after the other. First comes the pioneer, who depends for the subsistence of his family chiefly upon the natural growth of vegetation, called the "range," and the proceeds of hunting. His implements of agriculture are rude, chiefly of his own make, and his efforts directed mainly to a crop of corn and a "truck patch." The last is a rude garden for growing cabbage, beans, corn for roasting ears, cucumbers, and potatoes. A log cabin, and, occasionally, a stable and corn-crib, and a field of a dozen acres, the timber girdled or "deadened," and fenced, are enough for his occupancy. It is quite immaterial whether he ever becomes the owner of the soil. He is the occupant for the time being, pays no rent, and feels as independent as the " lord of the manor." With a horse, cow, and one or two breeders of swine, he strikes into the woods with his family, and becomes the founder of a new county, or perhaps state. He builds his cabin, gathers around him a few other families of similar tastes and habits, and occupies till the range is somewhat subdued, and hunting a little precarious, or, which is more frequently the case, till the neighbors crowd around, roads, bridges, and fields annoy him, and he lacks elbow room. The preëmption law enables him to dispose of his cabin and cornfield to the next class of emigrants; and, to employ his own figures, he "breaks for the high timber," "clears out for the New Purchase," or migrates to Arkansas or Texas, to work the same process over.

The next class of emigrants purchase the lands, add field to field, clear out the roads, throw rough bridges over the streams, put up hewn log houses with glass windows and brick or stone chimneys, occasionally plant orchards, build mills, school-houses, court-houses, etc., and exhibit the picture and forms of plain, frugal, civilized life.

Another wave rolls on. The men of capital and enterprise come. The settler is ready to sell out and take the advantage of the rise in property, push farther into the interior and become, himself, a man of capital and enterprise in turn. The small village rises to a spacious town or city; substantial edifices of brick, extensive fields, orchards, gardens, colleges, and churches are seen. Broad-cloths, silks, leghorns, crepes, and all the refinements, luxuries, elegancies, frivolities, and fashions are in vogue. Thus wave after wave is rolling westward; the real Eldorado is still farther on.

A portion of the two first classes remain stationary amidst the general movement, improve their habits and condition, and rise in the scale of society.


Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blogging and Journalism | Broadcatching/Podcasting | Culture | Freedom of Expression | Internet | Journalism | Network Law


1. Seth Finkelstein on May 27, 2005 06:50 PM writes...

Yeah, it's a frontier - and we're the American Indians!

And look what happened to them.

Don't be so quick to love the process of Western expansion. The above is a very bloodless and romanticized take on it.

In reality, the process was filled with ongoing war which ended in near-genocide of the losing side, destruction of many resources and many people, scams and frauds galore - as well as a very few robber-barons becoming rich from the exploitation of everyone else. Come to think of it, that does sound a lot like the process happening on the Internet (well, except for the near-genocide, not having that part is a blessing).

But the winners get to write the history :-(

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2. Ernest Miller on May 27, 2005 07:05 PM writes...

That is actually a very common critique of Turner's work, the frontier wasn't empty, it had an existing civilization that was destroyed. And there is much to be said for that critique, and others, but in many ways the general gist of Turner's thesis stands.

What you say is true, and Turner wouldn't deny that, I think, but as you note, it does sound an awful lot like what is/has happened on the internet.

As for the winners writing history ... yes and no. It is a bit more complicated than that.

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3. Seth Finkelstein on May 27, 2005 07:38 PM writes...

Right, about the critique. But I'd say the critique has much more to tell us than the prosaic observations that new territories, literal or metaphorical, have new opportunies, and different types of people chase after them at different stages of the colonization (business books about start-up to big company are far more instructive there).

Lots of the ground-level stuff now is basically living the critique - there *is* an existing civilization roaming around, and the "developers" don't like it. It doesn't have a centralized authority, it's full of "savages", and - my god, this is the worst - the inhabitants DON'T RESPECT PROPERTY!!! They have a weird notion of "commons" and sharing the resources, and nbody is making any *money* off it.

To my mind, that's much more significant than talking about townies, farmers, prospectors, etc.

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4. Ernest Miller on May 27, 2005 07:42 PM writes...

The power of this metaphor isn't simply in glib correspondences, but to push and pull the metaphor in ways it hasn't been before. That is why my questions about speed and pace of change, about the international aspect. And it isn't simply that there are new opportunities. What Turner was saying was that this type of opportunity shaped culture, it shaped the idea of what an American is, even if that American never left the crowded cities of the Atlantic coast. The real questions are how are the ideals of the internet frontier reacting with our culture. And, btw, even though the frontier didn't really last that long just a handful of decades, it continues to reverberate in the American mind.

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5. Ben Compaine on May 28, 2005 03:33 PM writes...

The point here is that the West served as a safety value. Unlike in Europe, people here were not bottled up and that helped alleviate all sorts of possible social, poltical and economic pressures. I see the Internet as tending to serve a similar function in a very different way. And, given the near unlimited bandwidth and Moore's Law, it is not the zero sum game that one has with land, where if I have it you can't. Information on the Internet is what economics call a "public good." My peercasting does not limit someone else from doing the same thing, at the same time. We might compete for audiences, but not for "space."

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6. Seth Finkelstein on May 28, 2005 04:09 PM writes...

"We might compete for audiences, ..."

And there is the problem - attention is the zero-sum game. Someone who is listening to me cannot be listening to you.

Hence I suspect the "safety valve" is more a creation of people who want to see it, than an actual effect. How would one establish it didn't exist, or was trivial?

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7. Ben Compaine on May 28, 2005 05:29 PM writes...

That we are even engaged in this discussion makes my point. There are 10 million blogs, Yet within minutes of my publishing this column on Friday Ernie Miller had found it (Google?-- ask him) and an hour later had his own blog column about it. You saw it. Based on my logs, dozens of others have in the last 24 hours. Out of 10 million blogs and the rest of the 'Net! The point is, with hundreds of millions of people online daily there is at least a small group that will find or seek out any specific page or post.
I sell on eBay and have been threatening to write a book, "On eBay You Can Even Sell Lint." Yes, people sell-- and buy-- bags of lint. EBay claims to have 100 million buyers and sellers. At any given moment there are some who will sell and some who want to buy lint, or a nonfunctioning 20 year old Harmon-Kardon amplifier or a 1.2 carat diamond.
Look at Craig's List or any want ad service. Some listings may attract large audiences, some have a very narrow one. But the Internet is so vast-- and the sheer range of the wants, needs and interests of millions of individuals is so diverse -- that there is a market-- or an audience-- for everyone. To go beyond the calculation in my original column, an audience of only one interested party out of 100,000 would yield a readership/viewership/listenership of 1000 when the audience universe is 100 million. That could not have happened as recently as 10 years ago.

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8. Seth Finkelstein on May 28, 2005 06:01 PM writes...

I lost you somewhere.

There are 6 *billion* people in the world. Modern civilization is a marvel, seriously, for being able to support that many. There's thinkers who argue it's unsustainable. There's others who say it's just the beginning. But again, the structures required to keep all this working, to connect the information transfers that make it function, are indeed amazing.

But none of this means any particular point follows logically.

"The world is amazing - *therefore*, the Internet is like the Frontier of the West", makes about as
much sense as "The world is amazing - *therefore*, the Internet is like the Holy Roman Empire" (one could do a decent riff on that, in fact).

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9. Ben Compaine on May 29, 2005 12:32 PM writes...

Well, Seth, I’ll try it one more time. I was responding to your comment that the bottleneck is with attention. It is, as you accurately note, a zero sum game. But where each individual wants to “spend” their finite attention varies greatly. I will not give two seconds of my attention to the Holy Roman Empire, but I will give some attention to content about media competition. I am 100% certain that there is more than one person online right now who has zero interest in this discussion or larger media issues—but sucks up anything available on the Holy Roman Empire. With virtually any of the 100 or 200 or 600 million—pick your number—of people who have access to the Internet, the total number of people who may choose to devote some of their attention to one person’s Blog about the Holy Roman Empire may total dozens or hundreds or thousands. An infinitesimal percentage of the aggregate attention hours of millions of people, but nonetheless a sizeable portion of the attention hours of a small number of people.

By the time of Lewis and Clark’s expedition the West must have seemed as vast and full of promise to the people of the U.S. as the Internet today appears to Everyman with a broadband connection and a free Blogger account. Coming full circle, my initial hypothesis is that peercasting may indeed serve as formidable a social and political safety value for information needs or emotional venting in the future as was the escape route West for our predecessors in the 19th century. And as Turner believed, in retrospect, that this helped shape the American notion of democracy and the American character, I am simply suggesting, in prospect, that peercasting may similarly help shape the culture and character of not only Americans but much of the rest of the world.

Turner’s theory has been both supported and criticized by historians. You are more than welcome to pick apart my analogy. But I hope that you at least understand it.

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10. Seth Finkelstein on May 29, 2005 01:49 PM writes...

"my initial hypothesis is that peercasting may indeed serve as formidable a social and political safety value for information needs or emotional venting in the future as was the escape route West for our predecessors in the 19th century."

I believe I understand your hypothesis. With all due respect, I have a multifold critical and skeptical view of it.

My main points - I find the Frontier idea very uncompelling in the original, and even less so in the analogy. How do could we tell if it's even *true*, West or Internet? It basically sounds to me more like an idea that people *want* to believe, as a talking-point, rather than reflecting an underlying reality.

Concretely, neither "That [Internet | West], it's full of savages", vs "That [Internet | West], it's a *safety value* for the malcontents of our proper and decent society" - seem to me very helpful ideas, because there's very in the little way one can determine if they do in fact capture "important" aspects.

Suppose I say: "No, there's no special "political safety value", people ranted in bars, now they rant on blogs, it's no big deal, it *has no significant differtial effect* - except perhaps to the suppliers of beer versus the suppliers of blog services".

How do we tell?

Essentially, I'm arguing that you're prospectively mythologizing, in the same way the West was retrospectively mythologized.

No offense intended, I understand the impulse. It's good conference-fodder. But I find it extremely dubious, all the same.

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