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No. WP-00-03

Arenas of Innovation:
Fringe Groups and Discovery of New Liberties of Action

Harmeet Sawhney
Seungwhan Lee
Department of Telecommunications Department  of Telecommunications
Indiana University Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405 Bloomington, IN 47405
Phone: 812-855-0954 Phone: 812-855-3828
FAX: 812-855-7955 Fax: 812-855-7955
E-mail: hsawhney@indiana.edu E-mail: swlee@indiana.edu
October 2000

Center for Social Informatics
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405


The accuracy of our forecasts about a new communication technology depend on our ability to detect new "liberties of action" it offers.  We, however, are unable to recognize them because we tend to view the new technology via metaphors based on old ones.  Furthermore, the entrenched institutions seek to guide its development within the existing framework with minimal disruptions.  Within this context, the breakthroughs which shatter our conceptual blinders come from the activities of fringe groups fueled by the thrill of experimentation rather than the prospect of commercial gain.  For example, while corporations (RCA, Westinghouse, AT&T and others) interested in point-to-point wireless telegraphy viewed the scattering of radio waves as a nuisance, amateur radio enthusiasts saw the potential of point-to-multipoint broadcasting.  Similarly, the activities of fringe groups were critical in the development of e-mail and internet broadcasting.  This paper explains how the fringe groups form an "arena of innovation" outside the established institutional framework which facilitates the discovery of new liberties of action.  It first examines the development of radio, e-mail, and internet broadcasting to identify parallels and then conceptualizes the processes via which fringe groups discover the new liberties of action of an emerging communication technology.


 Discussions on communications technologies invariably swerve to the question of the future.  This reflex action is quite understandable since the evidence of rapid acceleration in the pace of technological change is all around us.  When we look back we are flabbergasted at the simplemindedness of our earlier forecasts.  The future has almost always proven us wrong.  When we look forward we feel a sense of impotence.  We know that the seeds of the future have been already laid but we are unable to identify them.  Yet, we cannot afford to ignore the future because our survival depends on prior preparation.  So, we make vigorous effort to decipher the writing on the wall.  We extrapolate past trends, draw diffusion curves, employ Delphi and other group problem solving techniques, create models, conduct field trials, and put to use any other technique that offers the promise of an insight into the future.  Yet, the future deceives us time and again.

One of the main reasons why our efforts fail is that our "visions of the future always reflect the experience of the moment as well as memories of the past" (Corn 1986, p. 219).  The communications technologies, on the other hand, do not oblige us by staying within our conceptual categories.  They reorganize our world in most unexpected ways by offering new "liberties of action" which catalyze new configurations of socio-economic forces (Cherry, 1977).  For example, the new "liberty of action" made possible by telephone exchange was the "choice of social contacts on demand" (Cherry, 1977, p. 114).  In other words, the telephone exchange offered random access to any one of telephone subscribers.  This new "liberty of action" allowed for the development of new institutional forms which radically altered the way we conduct our everyday lives.  Thus the identification of the new "liberty of action" is the key challenge in our effort to understand the future impact of a new communication technology.

There is no one single formula for deciphering a new "liberty of action."  Some times, as in the case of telephone exchange, the new "liberty of action" is quite obvious.  On other occasions, as in the case of radio, it took a long while before we understood a new mode of communication—broadcasting.  Furthermore, in those cases where the "liberty of action" is not apparent, the processes leading to their eventual discovery are complex and multidimensional.  In an earlier paper, Sawhney (1996) explored how metaphors can be employed as heuristic devices for understand the new "liberty of action" offered by a new communication technology.  In this paper, we will explore the role the fringe groups often play in the discovery process.

We are often unable to recognize new "liberties of action" because we tend to view the new technology via metaphors based on old ones.  Furthermore, the entrenched institutions seek to guide its development within the existing framework with minimal disruptions.  Within this context, the breakthroughs which shatter our conceptual blinders come from the activities of fringe groups fueled by the thrill of experimentation rather than the prospect of commercial gain.  For example, while corporations (RCA, Westinghouse, AT&T and others) interested in point-to-point wireless telegraphy viewed the scattering of radio waves as a nuisance, amateur radio enthusiasts saw the potential of point-to-multipoint broadcasting.  Similarly, the activities of fringe groups were critical in the development of internet broadcasting and other internet technologies.  This paper explains how the fringe groups form an "arena of innovation" outside the established institutional framework which facilitates the discovery of new liberties of action.  It first examines the development of radio, internet broadcasting, and other internet technologies to identify parallels and then conceptualizes the processes via which fringe groups discover the new liberties of action of an emerging communication technology.


In the early stages of radio's development it was framed as a wireless version of the existing telegraph technology.  In fact the entire discourse was based on the telegraph metaphor.  It was seen as a technology which extended the reach of the wire based telegraph network into difficult-to-connect places such as ships in mid-sea.  Even Marconi, the inventor of the radio, focused all his energies on molding radio into a technology for point-to-point communication.  So much so, he saw the tendency of radio waves to scatter as a major nuisance (Douglas, 1986).

The influence of the telegraph metaphor persisted for a long time.  At the time of GE -AT&T -Westinghouse agreement , the institutional forces guided by the telegraph analogy were clearly working towards casting radio as a point-to-point technology.  In fact the very thought of broadcasting was not even within the realm of imagination (Brock, 1981).  It was the stubborn refusal of renegade amateurs to comply with the larger institutional framework that resulted in the "discovery" of broadcasting as a new means of communication.  Frank Conrad, in early 1920, started transmitting phonograph music as part of his ongoing experiments over a radio transmitter.  His signal was picked up by amateur radio buffs and their enthusiastic response led Conrad to schedule regular concerts, which attracted much newspaper coverage and publicity.  Harry P. Davis, a Westinghouse vice-president, soon realized that "efforts then being directed to develop radiotelephony as a confidential means of communication were wrong, and that this field instead offered one of widespread collective publicity" (Davis, 1930, p. 6).  He authorized the construction of a Westinghouse transmitter in East Pittsburgh and the transmission of programs on a regular basis.  This transmitter which was assigned the historic call letters KDKA went on air on November 2, 1920 and it marked the birth of broadcasting (Davis, 1930).

The audiences grew at a phenomenal rate and broadcasting became a big business.  People in the wireless industry could not help wondering how come they could not see something as obvious as the potential for broadcasting.  William C. White, a scientist at the General Electric research laboratory, later recalled "(I was) amazed at our blindness . . . we had everything except the idea" (Barnouw, 1966, pp. 73-74).  The problem was with the conceptual templates which were brought to bear upon the phenomenon.  The telegraph metaphor guided all the speculative activity along the point-to-point dimension and blinded people to any new "liberties of action" made possible by the new technology.

Internet Broadcasting

Although there are many broadcasting corporations all over the world, these institutions for the most part remained oblivious of the potential for internet broadcasting.  It was the internet enthusiasts whose experimentation was not driven by commercial considerations that identified the new "liberty of action."

In the early days of the internet, many users were quick to realize the potential of the Internet as a mass medium.  It was already known to them that audio and video can be saved in digital files and sent over the Internet.  Although it is difficult to identify exactly who started internet broadcasting because of the lack of traceable records, it most probably developed within the community of internet users who exchanged audio files among themselves.  If regularity of programming is used as the benchmark, Carl Malamud, famous for his nonprofit Internet 1996 World Exposition , is generally considered to be the pioneer of internet broadcasting.

Malamud founded a nonprofit research group, the Internet Multicasting Service (IMS), in 1993 to use the internet for public services such as the delivery of government documents to citizens. One of his projects at IMS was the Internet Talk Radio, which is widely considered to be the first internet radio station (Ginsburg, 1997).  It is most famous for "Geek of the Week," arguably the first internet radio program, for which Malamud interviewed leading computing and networking experts.  Geek of the Week, financially supported by Sun Microsystems and O'Reilly & Associates, was produced and posted on the internet on a weekly basis.  Although Malamud borrowed the “radio” metaphor, the Internet Talk Radio project did not mimic radio but was rather an experiment in “communicating with [our] audience using a new technology” (Malamud, 1997, p. xv).

The official Geek of the Week archive sites lists an interview with Dr. Erik Huizer on April 7, 1993 as the first program (http://town.hall.org/radio/Geek/).  However, it is believed that the first episode of Geek of the Week, featuring an interview with Dr. Marshall T. Rose (http://www.cmf.nrl.navy.mil/radio/geek_ITR.html), was sent over the Internet from a meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force held at Hyatt Regency in Columbus, Ohio on March 31, 1993 (Tebben, 1996).  Geek of the Week was popular among the technically savvy early internet users because it was a technically focused program.  The popularity of the program can be gagged from the fact that the Geek of the Week concept was also adopted by many other Websites and computing-oriented magazines.

Although the first live audio and video broadcast was successfully conducted on the Internet using “MBone” technology in 1992, live Internet broadcasting was not possible when Geek of the Week was started because “streaming” technology was not available at that time.  The listeners had to download each week's program before they could play it on their computer (Malamud, 1997).  After ProgressiveNetworks (now RealNetworks) introduced the first steaming technology, RealAudio , on the market in April 1994, there was a rapid growth in internet broadcasting (Lee, 1998).  With the free streaming software installed on a computer, internet broadcasting audiences no longer have to download audio or video files first and then play them later.  The streaming technology thus made internet broadcasting stations live broadcasters.  After realtime broadcasting over the Internet was made possible with streaming technology, Malamud’s IMS soon started to broadcast live from the House and Senate, the National Press Club, and the Kennedy Center (Lewis, 1994; Malamud, 1997).  On December 3, 1994, a student-run radio station at the University of Kansas started the first 24 hour live internet broadcasting service.  Later, on September 9, 1995, Dallas based KLIF-AM became the first live commercial internet radio station  (Lind & Medoff, 1999).

Once a new "liberty of action" is identified, corporate interests seek to capitalize on it.  internet broadcasting is no exception.  The traditional broadcasting interests were spurred into action after they realized the potential impact of this “disruptive” technology (Christensen, 1997) on their existing broadcasting business.  While Internet Talk Radio ceased Geek of the Week in the summer of 1994 , broadcast.com and net.radio which were established in 1995 by internet entrepreneurs have become major players in the internet broadcasting business (Alexander, 1995).  Thus we see the same pattern in the development of internet radio as the one we saw in the case of radio.  While the amateurs identified the new "liberty of action," they were later marginalized when corporate interests moved in to cash on the business potential opened up by the new technology.

Internet: Multiple Liberties of Action

The internet is different from the telephone exchange, radio, and other communication technologies because it offers not one but many new "liberties of action."  This multi-dimensionality of internet stems from the fact that internet expands on a network level the protean qualities of the computer.  Alan Kay (1984) thus explains the defining characteristics of the computer:

The protean nature of the computer is such that it can act like a machine or like a language to be shaped and exploited.  It is a medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium, including media that cannot exist physically.  It is not a tool, although it can act like many tools.  It is the first metamedium, and as such it has degrees of freedom for representation and expression never before encountered and as yet barely investigated (Kay, 1984, p. 59).

Internet, basically a network of interconnected computers, is also a metamedium with protean qualities.  While the computer hardware and networking equipment is not very different from other technical artifacts, it is the software dimension of these technologies which give them their unique characteristics.  In the case of internet, the activities of the fringe groups magnify these qualities because it is an "open" technological platform.  The users can go down to the basic building blocks and configure new modes of communication.

Internet telephony too grew out of the type of the fringe group activity described above.  "Although the early attempts provided poor voice quality, it was adopted and advocated by technologically savvy individual users.  The attraction of bypassing long-distance charges was too irresistible" (Dholaki, 1999, p. 106).  Just like in the case of radio, the entrenched institutions tried to suppress the new technology.  The telephone companies, in particular, feared that internet telephony would undermined their control over voice communications.  Eventually, as has happened many times before, they were unable to put the genie back in the bottle.  So, in a process very similar to that of radio, we see that "instead of the innovation trickling down to individual users from large corporate customers, the new service has moved up from individual users to large business and institutional customers" (Dholaki 1999, p. 106).  Once again, we see that fringe groups identified a new "liberty of action" that the established institutions would have preferred to remain oblivious about.

While the development of radio broadcasting, internet radio, and internet telephony followed the archetypal pattern, we see variations of it in the development of e-mail and Napster.  Unlike radio broadcasting, internet radio, and internet telephony, e-mail was developed within the established institutional structures.  Yet, its "arena of innovation" had a very similar texture to that of the archetypal technologies.  As is widely known, ARPA funded and thereby initiated computer networking projects in a number of research institutions in order to develop technologies for sharing computing resources between distant locations.  "The ARPANET was not intended as a message system.  In the minds of its inventors, the network was intended for resource sharing, period" (Hafner & Lyon, 1996, p. 189).  In fact, at that time, e-mail was not even envisioned as a major feature of the new network.

The ARPA funded research increased contact among computer scientists and thereby generated a strong sense of community among them.  The breakthroughs that eventually led to the development of e-mail stemmed from the urge to communicate, more often than not for personal reasons, with distant colleagues.  Quite clearly, in the process, the computer science community which had "something of an anarchic streak" (Hafner & Lyon, 1996, p. 190) was pushing past official parameters since "the ARPANET was an official federal research facility, after all, and not something to be toyed with" (Hafner & Lyon, 1996, pp. 188-189).  Rumor has it that even a couple of drug deals were made over the ARPANET nodes in Northern California.  By 1973, three quarters of the entire traffic on ARPANET was e-mail (Hafner & Lyon, 1996).  Thus, in the case of e-mail, we see that an informal community, a fringe group of sorts, within the established institutional structures "subverted" the official project into a totally different kind of beast.  While ARPA had set out to create a "tool," the computer scientists delivered a "medium" (Giese, 1996).

Although Napster grew out of a fun activity among friends, it soon took on an entrepreneurial character which veered it away from the archetypal pattern discussed above.  Yet, as we will see, in the course of its development, the user community, a fringe group of sorts, played a very critical role.  While attending Northeastern University, Boston, Shawn Fanning spent a lot of time on internet chat relay with his friends Sean Parker in Virginia and Jordan Ritter who was also in Boston.  He had observed that his fellow students who were trading MP3 music files had difficulty in locating files they wanted.  So, he got his friends interested in devising software that will help people find files and in the process "build communities around different types of music" (Fanning quoted in Levy, 2000, p. 50).  Soon the project evolved into a file-sharing system called Napster.  The trio decided to build a business around it and were able to attract venture capital once the audience size starting growing dramatically.  Today, there are over 20 million people during Napster.  This user base has transformed into an "arena of innovation" as it has spawned other systems like Gnutella and Freenet (Levy, 2000).  These systems are even more difficult to control than Napster before they are "center less."  Even if Napster gets killed because of its legal troubles, it is likely to have the last laugh as it has not only let the genie out of the bottle but also spawned an "arena of innovation" which lead to other system that music industry will find increasingly harder to restrain.

In the case of radio, while the amateurs discovered the new "liberty of action," it was the corporations which capitalized on it.  Large corporations set up national networks such as NBC and CBS and in the process totally marginalized the amateurs.  The once thriving community of amateur radio enthusiasts was reduced to isolated ham radio operators here and there.  We see a similar corporatization drive currently underway on the internet.  While the internet has so far managed to retain its anarchic character, it remains to be seen long it can withstand the rationalization logic of corporate interlopers.  However, the fact that internet offers not one new "liberty of action" but many may make the marginalization of fringe groups very different.  So, it is quite likely that the fringe groups will continue to surprise us for many years with their discoveries of new "liberties of actions" as the protean internet reveals its multiple dimensions.


One of the most striking parallels in all the above discussed cases is the role an informal community of technology enthusiasts plays in the discovery of a new "liberty of action."  Frank Conrad's transmission of phonograph music over his experimental radio transmitter would have been a non-event if it were not for the amateur radio buffs who picked up the signal and shared their excitement with any one who would lend them an ear.  The community of technology enthusiasts that emerges around a new communication technologies forms the "arena of innovation" within which a new "liberty of action" is discovered.

The emergence of this community of technology enthusiasts is closely interwined with the emergence of the technology itself.  The radio amateurs could come together as a community because the radio, the technology which evoked their enthusiasm, enables connections between individuals located at a distance from each other.  Without the distance transversing capability of radio, the radio amateurs would have remained as isolated as the hobbyists who operate toy trains, make aeroplane models, or repair old watches.  Conversely, unlike other hobbyists who tinkered alone or in small groups, radio amateurs played around with a technology which involved communication with people at a distance.  This interaction between the technology and the amateur community that evolved around it created a peculiar culture of experimentation.  With regard to this culture, DeSoto (1936) observed:

But that an entirely new, entirely distinct type of individual, the communicating amateur—unique to anything hitherto known in the world—would arise and eventually become one of the most important classes in the entire art—such a thing was incredible . . . in 1905. (p. 172)

Today, the same description, word for word, could be used for the internet communities that ceaselessly develop innovative ways of using the internet.  These communities are as much a product of the internet as they are its architects.

These communities of technology enthusiasts form ideal "arenas of innovation" for both structural and cultural reasons.  Structurally, they are geographically dispersed and hence in a position to experiment with new modes of communication among people located at a distance from each other.  Culturally, they possess two traits, discussed below, which enhance their ability to identify a new "liberty of action."

One, they indulge in experimental activities for the sake of fun rather than commercial gain.  As Bushnell observes: “Whimsy and fun are often the precursors to powerful tools that are used later for more serious applications” (Bushnell, 1996, p. 31); indeed, to these innovators the new technologies, radio and the Internet, were like toys.  Fanning, the founder of Napster, may have diverged from this pattern.  However, though he started a business with his friends, his initial motive for developing a file sharing program over the internet was to facilitate exchange of music files within his circle of friends.

It is important to note that in all these cases a high level of experimentation by amateurs was possible because the technology was easily accessible.  An amateur radio enthusiast could easily set up a radio station with inexpensive transmitters, often made by the amateur himself, and a microphone.  Furthermore, the cost of creating content was almost negligible.  The records and record players that already existed in his home were sufficient for music broadcasting.  Here the contrast with television which required a broadcasting license, studios, and expensive equipment is illustrative.  These barriers to entry eliminated opportunities for amateur involvement in television broadcasting.

The case of internet broadcasting resembles that of radio. Though Malamud received financial help from Sun Microsystems and O'Reilly & Associates, recording interviews using a voice recorder and then digitizing them and putting the files on the Internet was not difficult technologically.  The case of internet broadcasting is particularly interesting because Malamud began his service before the advent of streaming technology which is now a pivotal technology for internet broadcasting.  In other words, Malamud foresaw the new liberty of action before all the technological pieces were in place.  Similarly, the technology was easily accessible to the scientists and engineers who figured out how to use ARPANET as a communication channel for e-mail.

Two, the camaraderie among the technology enthusiasts invariably develops a communal culture where openness and mutual help is valued.  Talking about the radio amateurs, DeSoto (1936) observed:

The rivalry to accomplish something that has never been done before is intense, but it is rivalry of the friendliest sort, and no sooner does one make a new record than he wants to show all his brother amateurs not only how it was done, but how they also can do it. . . . The slightest advance in technique, every individual discovery, any observation that promises improvement, is immediately the property of all. (p. 8)

Once again, it almost seems as if DeSoto is talking about the internet community.  The openness of this culture generates levels of cross fertilization of ideas among a diverse group of creative individuals which is almost impossible to attain within a corporate setting.  This cross fertilization of ideas not only energizes the entire community but also enhances their collective ability to identify new "liberties of action" offered by a new technology.

In sum, neither individuals nor small groups, specially corporate research teams, are structurally in a good position to identify new "liberties of action" offered by a new communication technology because they involve reorganization of channels of communication among a geographically dispersed individuals.  The informal community of technology enthusiasts which develops around a new communication technology satisfies this structural requirement.  In addition, the fun oriented communal culture of these communities enhances their capability to identify a new "liberty of action."  The fun orientation makes their exploration much more open ended than the task oriented projects of the corporate world.  Furthermore, the openness of their communal culture facilitates cross fertilization of the ideas within the community and thereby fuels their creativity.

Thus the values of these communities, which are the antithesis of corporate values, enable them to identify the new "liberties of action" which remain invisible to the corporate eyes.  However, once a new "liberty of action" is identified by these communities, the corporations step in and appropriate the new technologies for commercial purposes.  In the past, the amateurs have invariably been marginalized by the corporations who attain a stranglehold on the new technology.  It remains to be seen whether they will succeed in doing so with the internet.


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 This section is an excerpt from Sawhney (1996).

The intense rivalry between AT&T, General Electric, and Westinghouse led to a situation where none of them could commercialize radio because the patents for key components were controlled by different corporations.  The resulting impasse was resolved in 1920-21 via a patent sharing agreement between the three corporations.  Each corporation had access to a pool of about 1,200 patents but their areas of operations were restricted to specific applications.  Very broadly, AT&T could use any of these patents for applications related to the public telephone network while General Electric and Westinghouse could use them for private networks and amateur markets.  The interesting thing about this agreement is that it was based on the notion that radio is essentially a point-to-point technology.  Therefore no provision whatsoever was made for the emergence of broadcasting.  The agreement collapsed once broadcasting became a reality.  Each rival claimed that broadcasting fell within the area earmarked for it.  The agreement was eventually renegotiated in 1926.  As a result of the second agreement, AT&T decided to quit broadcasting in lieu of financial compensation and guarantees safeguarding its monopoly over the public telephone network.  On the other hand, General Electric and Westinghouse were allowed to dominate broadcasting (Brock, 1981).

Internet 1996 World Exposition was a virtual world's fair in which more than 85 countries and regions participated.  About five million people from 130 countries visited the exposition web sites (Malamud, 1997).

RealAudio was a streaming technology only for audio. The company soon introduced a streaming technology for video, RealVideo. Now the company has changed the name RealVideo to RealPlayer and competes head to head with its rival MicroSoft's Windows Media Player and Apple’s QuickTime.

The reason why the Geek of the Week program was stopped is not entirely clear.  One reason could be the funding problems faced by IMS.  Another reason could be that Malamud had to concentrate his energies on the organization of Internet 1996 World Exposition.

We may see more of this phenomenon of the commercial service discoverer/creator in the internet world because starting up a business on the Internet usually requires a small amount of seed money, in addition to the fact that it is relatively easy to gain funding via venture capitalists.