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Sharing the Data

By Annalee Newitz

NINETEEN-YEAR-OLD Jon Hess, inventor of the sensational, underground file-sharing program Direct Connect (www.neo-modus.com), is an old-school geek in a cyberpunk world. Unlike many of his peers in UC-Berkeley's computer science program, Hess doesn't wear his geekhood like a badge of pride. For him, working with computers isn't about hacking. It isn't about being a guru or wearing Matrix-style sunglasses. It's just something he does for fun--and to make a little pocket change.

Hess talks about writing computer programs in the same way old-time mainframe tweakers talk about their punch-card days back in the late 1960s and '70s. Those guys weren't in it for the fame or the IPOs. They were just glad to be allowed to code for a living. When Hess first got into coding as a high school student in the tiny Northern California town of Redding, he had never heard of the Slashdot community or the see-and-be-seen geek event DefCon. "I wasn't a geek really," he confessed to me over the phone. "Programming was something I liked to do and I didn't know anyone else like me."

So how did an isolated programmer like Hess wind up developing Direct Connect (DC), which is fast becoming a word-of-mouth hit among data-sharing dorks everywhere? "The people I talked to most were folks in my high school calculus class who used the program," said Hess, who dreamed up DC when he was 17, after getting frustrated with the file-sharing capabilities of Internet Relay Chat (IRC). "I wasn't hanging out on IRC to chat, but to get files," Hess recalled. He needed a file-sharing program similar to Napster, but which would work more easily with IRC. Hess also wanted to share more than music files.

Without access to any formal computer science education, Hess picked up the most widely available development tool: Microsoft's Visual Basic (VB). Sure, Java might have been a better choice, but at 17, Hess didn't know anything but VB. After I groused at Hess for several minutes about how his program couldn't be ported to Linux, Hess sighed in a way that made me realize that he's probably received a zillion flame-saturated emails full of my very same gripe. "This was a pragmatic decision," he explained. "I hadn't heard about open source when I started the program in high school. It just wasn't a thought to me. VB was easy, I could spit something out really fast that worked, and debugging is great. That's why I picked VB." (And just for the record, turbo-geeks: he does want to port DC to another operating system. So why don't you shut up and help out?)

After Hess posted the DC prototype on betanews.com last year, the program got 1,000 downloads in one day. He knew he was on to something and decided to devote himself to the program full time. These days, he has thousands of users who contribute and share everything from MP3s to movies and E-books. Although Hess isn't advocating piracy, it's worth noting that DC is a pirate's dream. Hess wants users to put as much data as possible online so that he can claim DC has a "petabyte" of data (1,000,000 gigabytes). The system currently has an average of 100 terabytes, and a lot of that stuff is not usually available for free.

Some users on DC like to carry on the IRC "no leechers" rule, meaning that they won't allow you to delve into their data troves unless you can demonstrate that you have 10 gigabytes (or some other huge amount) of data to share with them. Luckily, one of the documents available on DC is called "how to cheat on DC" and teaches you how to make it appear that your hard drive is packed with tons of freely shared data when it isn't. Hess isn't worried about that. "I want open distribution of data," he said emphatically. "People should be able to skip out on rules that are too strict."

But the best part of all this, for Hess, is that he's finally making some money at a thing he loves to do. By selling banner ads on DC, he's able to earn enough to pay for all his expenses outside his college tuition. Hess isn't interested in selling DC to anyone--he just wants to run his small business so he can go out for pizza or buy CDs. He said, "People flame me for trying to commercialize DC, but I'm still giving out the product for free. I just want to be compensated for the work I'm doing."

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who thinks Jon Hess is probably the only thing that makes dorm living worthwhile.

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From the July 12-18, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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