Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Porn Library of Chromepet

(This is not meant to be an adult post - it simply analyzes a model of working together as a community. Nothing offensive in here)
I went to engineering college in a suburb of Chennai called Chromepet. My first lesson in civics was in that college, from unlikely sources.
The college had several hostels, with different batches of students. There were also dayscholars (although most of us were far from scholars), who resided in Chennai and did not need the hostel services. Still, most of us spent lots of time in the hostel.
Within a few months of starting college, the hostel rooms had a good supply of porn books. Some of these books were supplied by our seniors (in the sense they were left over). Some were actually bought by our batch mates. With the frugal money supply we had, we still managed to allocate some "charity" money for buying porn. A few of us were more avid hobbyists - they got the weekly and monthly Tamil and English magazines with religious regularity.

Side Note on Porn Books
You would expect that English magazines rule; but actually the regional industry is more innovative in porn. The writers in the English magazines want to get into movies or something - so they write very high quality English with obscure vocabulary. They also take a long time getting to the point - most of the time the "incident" has happened without any warning. The Tamil porn books excel - the writers are not going anywhere, so they have more motivation to make the magazine succeed. So usually the way it works is this - you read the tamil books and then take a look at the photos in the English magazines. Repeat.

The Community Forms

Soon it became apparent that there was a problem with our collection of porn. The books were not available in one central location. Since they were distributed, someone in a hurry (don't go there) had to go room after room. Since many of these books had similar looks you may pick up an already covered book by mistake. Our premium and newer books were not well-managed - nobody knew where they were.

At this point I want to point out that the porn book collection follows a model very similar to the Web 2.0 model (as described by Bradley Horowitz, Yahoo! VP-product strategy in his blog here). 1% of the community contribute the money and the books (contributors); 10% are more active users and volunteer administrators (synthesizers). The remaining use the books (consumers).
It seems that this model will never work for anything other than porn books in the non-web world. The contributors gained nothing by spending money, getting the books and then handing them over to the consumers. But the porn books were kind of "hot property". You could NOT take them home. Plus once you had gone through them a couple of times, they are done (so are you). There is no point in scrawling your name in them or anything stupid like that. Thus, the contributors were motivated to share the books with their batch mates.

Back in Chromepet, thus, there was a strong case for some community activism that would better the situation for everyone. The first thing a couple of synthesizors did was to find a permanent location for the library. There were pros and cons in hosting it in a room - our first choice of location was disrupted because the "scholar" had his dad visit him the next week. We finally chose a classmate's room which was easily accessible and whose family did not care about him. The idea was that the library should be accessible all the time - so we put the collection next to a window which was always open.
We also had a volunteer librarian who would sort the books and put new books on top and did some housekeeping.

Issues with Community Sharing

Now, this is, of course, a trust based model. There are different reasons for it to fail:

1. It is possible for a guy to not buy a single porn book; and still manage to get the best and latest on time.
This is a classic problem and relates in a way to the "Prisoner's Dilemma". If enough people became convinced that they could get a free ride without buying a single book ever, and the contributors sensed this; then there exists a strong disincentive for the contributors to keep buying. The whole community would stop working - which would be a personal catastrophe.
Please keep in mind that, in the web world, a contributor to YouTube atleast gets to see people visiting his video, commenting and thus has a sense of fulfillment. This never does exist in the non-web-porn-book-library-community-in-Chromepet. If exposed, actually the contributor faces ridicule and ostracism (I should be writing English porn).
But, this never happened in our case. The community came together and even the poorest of us contributed atleast a couple of times to the growing library. Dare I say it, there was a sense of shared purpose.

2. If people took the books, there was no punishment for not returning a book. Actually no one kept track of loaned books and returned books. We were trying to become scholars. If this system was misused, people could just stop returning books to the library. Eventually the library would shrink and may cease to exist as a community endeavor.
Again, this never happened in our case. Our batchmates always returned the books - very rarely were pages torn and eaten. There was a commitment to keep the porn stash in its allotted place.

Thus, our model of community work survived in spite of many challenges. In a pre-web world, it is a miracle that it worked. Now, of course, with the internet, there are several porn boards and groups were people share videos, and stories. But there are several incentives for a user to gain "credits" in such a community. And of course, in a virtual environment, the user need not be afraid of his video getting "lost".

The Community Thrives

When I left the college, the library had thrived through the years. We left it to our juniors to manage. There may still be books marked with our names being circulated among younger scholars (unless they have all shifted to YouTube).
We left fulfilled that we had built an institution. I am reminded of Subrata Bagchi (MindTree) in his famous speech, Go, Kiss The World:

That was my first lesson in success. It is not about what you create for yourself, it is what you leave behind that defines success

Friday, August 01, 2008

The danger of melancholy

I was hearing this song in youtube:

After a long time, I felt tears in my eyes. After a long time because I have been avoiding the experience of melancholy for some time now, consciously.

Here is the tragedy of human expression - in music, in literature and in movies, the best experience is the saddest.
When I was in 6th Std, I read "Sivagamiyin Sabatham", Kalki's historic novel about the tragic romance between a Pallava Prince and a dancer woman. When I finished I vowed that I would never read that book again in my life. Since then that novel has been published multiple times in Kalki magazine - and I have sneaked around and read a few lines; but I cannot bring myself to read it through, particularly the last chapter. There is this song that she dances to in the end "Munnam Avanudaya Naamam Kettaal" - I can still picture that song in my mind.

Aftre I had finished college, I had a brief break before I joined work. I was supposed to join August 1st, 1995. A week before that I had a nasty viral fever. While recovering, I borrowed the novel "Gone With The Wind" from a neighbor and finished it in three days. I would wake up every morning and start reading; continued till the night. On the fourth day, I was to go to work. I started for work, went upto the train station and then came back home. My mother was shocked. (She complained that I would retire without ever working). I sat in my room and brooded about Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler for two days.
If "Gone with the Wind" had a different ending, with Scarlett and Rhett walking off into the sunset, my response would have been very different. But, again, I vowed that I would never read that book again - after 13 years, the effect of that book still stays with me.

After marriage, and a career shaping up, I have been consciously avoiding reading books in which tragedy lurks - no Thomas Hardy style books. I seek P.G.Wodehouse or Dave Barry. I watch Vadivel comedies every night. I do not ever watch movies to completion at home - I prefer Sarath Kumar or Arjun beating a hundred people. I watch and read movies and books that I KNOW cannot cause me to experience melancholy again.
The problem is this - I do want to read better literature. I can understand subtlety. An year back I bought Jeyamohan's Tamil novel "Vishnupuram". The writing delighted me and I zipped through it, until half way through, a child passes away. I closed the book and never read it again.
Thus, I am prevented - purely from the point of self-preservation - to enjoy the best out there. If I ever went through "Gone with the Wind" or "The Mayor of Castorbridge" again, I know that it is bye-bye to work. I would be sitting and crying in a room.

The same effect happened to me while listening to Ali Abbas or Amanat Ali's singing in the music talent shows. There is a different kind of Pakistani infiltration happening now into India - those damn good singers with their Sufi style rendering. Listen to the video below and tell me how you can go face stupid programming bugs next day:

So, I keep running away from the music talent shows on TV; turn my face away from the literature section in book stores. I have stored Vishnupuram and other such books in the house in a store room so I do not have to look at them and be reminded of fictional people's tragedies. I watch Spiderman and Shrek and Arasu and Marudamalai, thinking that I can wipe away an yearning for something of substance.

A few days ago my wife successfully got me to watch an Iranian movie called "Children of the Heaven". It is about two kids who have a problem with getting a new shoe. That is it - sounded harmless. I watched the whole movie riveted. Guess what - it seemed full of lurking tragedies (although nothing happened) and I was shaking with concern for the children by the end of it.
I will never watch that movie again. In fact, Iraninan movies - you are dead to me. You are too realistic. If you can make buying a shoe so tragic, I don't care to think of your war movies.
I am planning to compensate by watching back to back shows of "Arasaangam" and "Walter Vetrivel".