Time posted a fabulous article over the weekend, ‘The Men Who Stole the World‘. A long-ish read (4 pages) by internet reading standards, but well worth the energy and focus required to concentrated on one thing for the amount of time required : )

The story is about 4 guys who changed the online world. Shawn Fanning, Jon Lech Johansen, Justin Frankel and Bram Cohen. Perhaps, like me, you’re wondering how they could have changed the online world when you haven’t heard of them before? Let me mention the platforms they created, and the age they were when they created them, and all sorts of lights will begin to go on for you:

  • Shawn Fanning at 19 created Napster
  • Jon Lech Johansen at 15 decrypted comercial DVDs
  • Justin Frankel at 18 wrote WinAmp
  • Bram Cohen at 26 wrote the peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol called BitTorrent

The Time article’s opening paragraph positions them well:

A decade ago, four young men changed the way the world works. They did this not with laws or guns or money but with software: they had radical, disruptive ideas, which they turned into code, which they released on the Internet for free. These four men, not one of whom finished college, laid the foundations for much of the digital-media environment we currently inhabit. Then, for all intents and purposes, they vanished.

After catching up with them in their current spaces, the article also spends some time contrasting how difficult it’s been for them to ‘go legit’. The frustration they’ve faced taking their ‘hacker ethic‘ into business, and the lack of success they’ve encountered. This part of the story only happens on page 4, but I found it to be the most interesting. We speak of the importance of a ‘hacker ethic’ to break paradigms and aid innovation, and here are 4 world-altering hackers who have, first-hand, come up against the rules, structures and bureaucracy of business and hit a brick wall in greater and lesser degrees.

What’s striking about the pirate kings is that they’ve been much less successful in the straight world than they were as pirates. An anarchic worldview coupled with brilliant code doesn’t travel as well as you’d think in the bean-counting world of legitimate commerce. Good code empowers users by giving them choices and options, but empowered users aren’t necessarily good for business. What you need to hit it really big in legitimate commerce is an authoritarian sensibility that limits users to doing what you want them to.

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