Since file-sharing collectives emerged and assumed global popularity in the late 1990s, they have significantly disrupted models for the distribution of music, movies, and other digital media. These collectives precipitated revisions in philosophical, legislative, and technological approaches regarding the concepts of ownership, copyright, freedom and have challenged key notions of community construction.
My exploratory study sought to illuminate the construct of community in private online file-sharing collectives used to download and share media in a peer-to-peer setting. Given the rise of these file-sharing communities, this research asked how semi-anonymous and decentralized collectives construct their communities. Data was gathered via the ethnographic methods of participant observation, interviews, and documentation of the forums and blogs affiliated with a torrenting community.
My analysis utilized the Nvivo software to adopt a mixed method approach, guided by grounded theory. Findings unveiled that in contrary to notions of opportunism, selfishness and task-oriented individualism that were advanced by Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) scholars, the case at hand unveils collective efforts of boundary construction and membership maintenance fostering belonging and communal solidarity. This analysis elucidated the foundations of a purely virtual community, and its potential to reform basic constructs of community building, social exchange, stratification and social control.
This research resulted in the publication of
- A Masters Thesis click here to request a copy by email
- A Peer-Reviewed Journal Article click here to access a free copy
A short overview of the research is provided below. To jump to a specific section click on the relevant link
HCI Literature Overview
Although some variation can be noted over the years, using mixed method analysis much of the discourse led by HCI research relating to Peer-to-Peer (P2P) communities was divided into four meta-phases as follows:
- Defining Torrenting Networks 2002-2005: Characterizing Torrenting communities from a computer science and networking perspective.
- The Legitimacy and Legality of Piracy 2006-2007: Legislative approaches to- and the effects of, torrenting behaviors. This approach stems from the perspectives of individuals, government, and corporations.
- Individual User Behaviors and Motivations (Altruism vs. Selfishness) 2008-2010: Learning, predicting, and understanding the factors that provide the basis for an individual’s behavior and motivation.
- Economics and Sustainability of Torrent Trackers 2010-2012: Exchange systems, and durability of private and public torrent communities by using the data and conclusions from the first three phases as the foundation to guide predictions.
This study sought to uncover the ways that semi-anonymous and decentralized collectives construct a community. Previously BitTorrent communities have been investigated with an eye to their technological facet through an HCI lens. Ethnographic investigations of other online communities highlighted rituals, norms, identity construction, and the phenomenology of users. In this study, I aimed to converge the methodological approaches underlying both research traditions by developing a balanced methodological approach that attributed importance to both the cultural and technological properties.
BitTorrent communities exist as closed and secretive environments, working through pirated materials, and persecuted by the authorities. Therefore, engaging its members and relaying their worldviews can be challenging. Following the anthropological legacy of studying covert communities (such as delinquent and deviant groups), an ethnographic approach for studying communities such as BitTorrent has been developed.
To unveil the cultural structures that propel a BitTorrent community, case study analysis has been used. To this end, an exclusive community was selected called MusicTorrents (pseudonym). In the cultural investigation of the construction of the MusicTorrents’ community, I used participant observation bybecoming a cultural insider and conducting semi-structured in-depth interviews to uncover meanings that users attach to their online activities within the BitTorrent Community. To this effect 7 subjects participated in in-depth interviews, accompanied by numerous informal conversations and correspondence. In addition, some interview subjects served as key informants assisting with the interpretation and mediation of the community.
The data was gathered in an explorative manner, utilizing a modified implementation of participant observation and semi-structured interviews that ranged from 45–90 minutes. The interviews were conducted by media communications, primarily (Skype, irc, private message, and over the phone) and in-person interviews that were conducted in places where the subjects could feel comfortable revealing their identities and geographic locations.
All of the gathered data was then organized and categorized using Nvivo, a mixed method data analysis software. The data was systematically analyzed to create a holistic and methodologically accurate characterization of the culture, rules, economy, and philosophy employed in the construction of the virtual MusicTorrents community.
MusicTorrents exists in an underexplored arena, the virtual one. It is a small subset of the larger Internet that not many people are aware of. Although the community exists primarily to facilitate the distribution of media between peers, it has evolved (as third places frequently do) into a something that goes beyond the scope of its original purpose. This goal of this investigation is to introduce a new location and “tribe” of downloaders to virtual ethnography, since MusicTorrents and other similar downloading communities have thus far not been documented in current anthropology.
Additional informal sources were also explored as informants and mediators of information. These bloggers were relevant because they have access to and provide information about a community that is secretive and restricted, releasing information that would otherwise be inaccessible. The use of information from these bloggers is also beneficial as it is an unobtrusive source of information, with the shortcoming of not engaging and crafting specific questions to these information agents.
In the technologically oriented investigation of the construction of the MusicTorrents community, I recorded statistic information for each individual I interacted with (see exampleon appendix). The information was captured from users’ profile page that is publicly available to all registered users and automatically generated by the system. Avatar images were recorded, and large amounts of supplemental user statistics were documented to characterize the user’s status in the community from a technological perspective.
To better classify the subjects, I gathered additional descriptive statistics about each user’s community oriented profile statistics visible in the Table below.
Then utilizing methods derived from principles set forth by grounded theory (Shkedi 2005; Glaser and Strauss 1967). The data provided a complex network of ideas and themes that needed to be interpreted.
The ethnographic data was coded using a systematic approach to consistently categorize many qualitative fragments of data. The data points were tagged and coded into a conceptual paradigm that began with a-priori categories and was expanded upon throughout the process of coding. The mixed method analysis software Nvivo was used to “…organize this material thematically, highlight key phrases and statements, and link it to other forms of data.” (Boellstorff et al. 2012, 173).
The preliminary results of the coding are available in the table below