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Five Interesting Things Sean Parker Said Yesterday

Napster’s cofounder and an early Facebook booster, Parker has plans to disrupt politics, and still has gripes with the music industry.
November 16, 2011
Credit: Techonomy

Sean Parker would be worth listening to even if that small part of his life where he helped get Facebook started not been dramatized in an Oscar-winning movie last year.

Before that, Parker cofounded Napster, pitching the music industry into a tumult that it still struggles with and opening doors for many other innovators, including Steve Jobs. He also created one of the first successful social networking tools, Plaxo. Now an investor in startups, he took the stage at the Techonomy conference in Tucson yesterday and waxed eloquent about a bewildering array of topics. Can you see the next big thing for the Web in any of what he says below?

1. He plans to remove the influence of money from politics.

“Politics for me is the most obvious area [to be disrupted by the Web],” said Parker. “Campaigns themselves, and all forms of special interest groups and PACs are driven by huge amounts of cash. If you’re a PAC you’re spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to mobilize single-issue voters. Taking money out of politics with campaigns is possible through social media. Like with all of these other groups, they’re spending a fortune basically for maintaining a mailing list, and that can be done basically for free using online tools. There’s huge potential for disruption.”

“It certainly didn’t happen with Obama. They weren’t on Facebook or Twitter in any special way, they just managed a mailing list to effectively raise small amounts of money from a large amount of people, which is what they’ve done all along. In this election, we’ll see the start of this, and in the next race, then maybe the guy that raises the most money won’t win.”

Parker has funded Votizen, a social network that links voters and representatives, to implement some of those ideas.

2. He’s concerned that Facebook and other social media allow bad guys to get together.

“These tools will allow the existence of fringe groups and cults, and means that these isolated wackos are no longer isolated,” said Parker. “It leads to this threat that no one’s really talking about. You’re giving them tools to organize. The tools can be used for good and evil … there’s some justification for a limited amount of surveillance under a democratic system of subpoena.”

3. He thinks the music industry is harming itself by resisting Spotify (Parker’s an investor) and other new music models.

“I’ve watched in the last 10 years as the four, soon to be three, major record labels have failed to embrace any new models,” said Parker. “They have maintained a storefront mentality, a unit sales approach. You walk into a [virtual] store and buy music as you always did, with a limited ability to sample. You can’t listen to what you’re friends are listing to, you have to buy it …The record business is in a slump due to the lack of distribution models that encourage more consumption. Now we have it with Spotify, with Pandora. I think that iTunes will eventually adopt licenses something like what we have at Spotify. We’ve presided over the largest destruction of value ever in the music industry over the last 10 years. If we can get them back to where they were 10 years ago, we will have presided over the largest increase in value.”

4. A lot of Web companies are going to disappear as a few dominant, warring giants emerge.

“Whoever inherits the fruits of the revolution inevitably builds a bureaucracy,” said Parker. “Facebook’s still too young, but we will see the creation of handful of very large and successful companies that concentrate power, similar to what we saw in the ’80s with the PC industry.”

“The conditions in Silicon valley resemble the conditions before World War I. It’s hard to know who’s at war with whom. You’ll see Facebook align with Spotify. Google will pretend to be Switzerland and secretly do deals with everyone on the side, Microsoft will align more with Facebook, and Apple will stay on its own trying to build the Death Star.”

5. His next major investment—a video-centric site called “Airtimewill be a social tool for meeting new people.

“We’ve got all this data about people that’s been self-provided and it’s not really being used by anyone but marketers to market to you,” said Parker. “I do believe we can use that interest graph to eliminate the inefficiencies of the pairing and introducing of people. In high school I was desperate to find a girl who was into punk rock and Spinoza and Nietzsche and I came up empty-handed every time. I think I didn’t have the tools to find her. Without getting into the details of what this product does, that’s the concept. How can we intelligently allow people that might never have met to find each other?”

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