ThesisPDF Available

Downloading Culture: Exchange and Community Building in a File Sharing Collective


Abstract and Figures

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. This exploratory study seeks to illuminate the construct of community in private online file-sharing collectives used to download and share media in a peer-to-peer, specifically Torrenting fashion. Given the rise of these file-sharing communities, this research asks 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 the torrenting community and analyzed utilizing a mixed method approach. 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. These findings point to the emergence of four developments amongst peer-to-peer community landscape: the emergence of digital peers; freedom and third spaces online; a cybernetic-affective approach to social exchange in the virtual marketplace; and the emergence of downloading virtuoso communities. Understanding these developments elucidates the foundations of a purely virtual community, and its potential to reform basic constructs of community building, social exchange, stratification and social control.
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The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Faculty of Social Sciences
Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology
Downloading Culture: A Virtual Ethnography of
Exchange and Community Building in a File Sharing
Submitted by: Alon Diamant-Cohen
A Thesis
Submitted in fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Masters in Sociology and Anthropology
Supervised by:
Dr. Oren Golan
Professor Nurit Stadler
Downloading Culture: Exchange and Community Building in
a File Sharing Collective
Alon Diamant-Cohen
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. This exploratory study
seeks to illuminate the construct of community in private online file-sharing collectives
used to download and share media in a peer-to-peer, specifically Torrenting fashion.
Given the rise of these file-sharing communities, this research asks 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 the torrenting community and analyzed utilizing a mixed
method approach. 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.
These findings point to the emergence of four developments amongst peer-to-peer
community landscape: the emergence of digital peers; freedom and third spaces online; a
cybernetic-affective approach to social exchange in the virtual marketplace; and the
emergence of downloading virtuoso communities. Understanding these developments
elucidates the foundations of a purely virtual community, and its potential to reform basic
constructs of community building, social exchange, stratification and social control.
This work was carried out under the supervision of:
Prof. Nurit Stadler
Dr. Oren Golan
Special Thanks to Dr. Betsy Diamant-Cohen for her help copy-editing
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I. Introduction
The descent of the Occidental sciences from the heavens to the earth (from seventeenth-century astronomy
to nineteenth-century biology), and their concentration today, at last, on man himself (in twentieth-century
anthropology and psychology), mark the path of a prodigious transfer of the focal point of human wonder
(Campbell 2004, 359).Nowadays, virtual communities and online groupings have become an
everyday practice. These diffuse communities share information, co-create knowledge, and
ultimately manage their own social systems. Early studies of the Internet emphasized the
collectivity, strength, and cohesiveness of these communities (Rheingold 1993; Baym 2000;
Danet 2001; Coleman 2012). Recently, with the rise of social networking systems (SNS), more
attention has been given to the social representation of offline communities in the visible
communal setting of Facebook, Twitter, and the like.
Parallel to the emergence of SNS systems of user interaction, Peer-to-Peer communities
have evolved (e.g. Napster, Kazaa, The Pirate Bay) and achieved immense popularity. These
communities most often obscure the participant’s identity and focus on sharing and distributing
content in a decentralized manner. Within this peer-to-peer context, even more specific groups
have emerged with an overall similar agenda of file-sharing, targeting more distinct and
computer-savvy populations. Given the rise of these peer-to-peer communities, the question is
raised, how semi-anonymous and decentralized collectives construct a community? The research
seeks to identify constructs that track, control, motivate, and bind members together resulting in
a diverse membership construction.
To uncover the answer to this query, the study focuses on BitTorrent communities.
BitTorrent communities generate such a significant amount of traffic that in 2013, at its peak
usage, BitTorrent traffic accounted for 7.39% of all Internet traffic (Ernesto 2013). This
prodigious amount of traffic reflects the relevance and importance of BitTorrent, demonstrating a
need to better understand these communities. The large-scale implementation and usage of the
technology make the actions and motivations of the massive number of users who choose
BitTorrent technology to acquire media a worthwhile phenomena to study.
Particular attention is paid to an exclusive private peer-to-peer torrent community that
specializes in the distribution of music, applications, and e-books and serves as a case study for
understanding the communal structure of peer-to-peer communities. The community is viewed
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by many as influential and prestigious, using codes and standards that have been widely adopted
by other communities.
This community helps generate features in an open-source codebase on which many other
communities are based, and has generated a large userbase while maintaining the high standards
of quality in its catalogue. By all measures, it provides a sustainable and successful model of a
private peer-to-peer torrent community that has become one of the largest and most established
private BitTorrent sites.
The community is very exclusive and evolved organically via historical inheritance from
other older sites to create its own explicit code of behavior and economics, alongside ambiguous
codes of ethics, philosophy, and friendship. I contend that understanding the case study at hand
may elucidate the patterns of interaction, congregation, and social control as well as the ways
that social and cultural capital are accumulated in an ephemeral social system.
Virtual anthropology has emerged with an agenda to re-examine the a priori foundations
of communities and reality that anthropologists have taken for granted in the past, when carrying
out ethnographic analysis in physical reality. Virtual ethnographers claim is that findings based
on ethnographic understandings of physical communities, are not fully applicable to the
investigation of online communities. They assert that there exists a gap between physical and
virtual community’s perceptions and expectations regarding interpersonal interactions,
anonymity, gifts, altruism, economics, reciprocity, friendship, motivation, ethics, freedom,
philosophy, and needs (Boelstroff 2012).
This case study seeks to define what goods are exchanged within this particular torrenting
community and how these exchanges ultimately affect the construction of the virtual community.
To accomplish these goals, I investigated the interactions, behaviors, and attitudes that members
have developed over time.
In order to accomplish these goals, the research will first review social scientific literature
regarding the classification of communities in order to understand the theoretical constructs
surrounding the concept of community. The research will then review literature written from the
Human Computer Interaction (HCI) field regarding the evolution and construction of torrenting
communities from a technological perspective. Once the theoretical constructs have been
established, the research will present an empirical approach that adopts a hybrid of critical
grounded theory, post-positivism, and modern virtual ethnographic techniques (Boellstorff et al.
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2012; Shkedi 2005; Cote 2014) to investigate and define this community. Lastly, the work will
suggest future areas of interest, which are currently lacking in the social scientific investigation
of these communities.
While this initial investigation into the virtual community is preliminary and limited, it
manifests the theoretical and methodological limitations of anthropology in the study of virtual
communities. It draws upon various sources to demonstrate a new arena in need of investigation
along with methodologies and theories that would support such an endeavor.
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II. Theoretical Constructs
We discover ideas through a systematic process of reading the literature, discussing our
research with colleagues, and taking note of whatever strikes us as interesting and pertinent as
we experience it in the field. (Boellstorff et al. 2012, 159)
Theoretical discourse on the investigation of virtual communities can be divided into two
macro categories. Defined by the researcher’s background, the two categories consist of research
carried out by social scientists and research carried out by computer scientists also known as
Human Computer Interaction (HCI).
A. Virtual Communities and the Sociological Imagination
Many scholars have emphasized the importance of the function of communities and the
ways in which they have influenced our development as individuals. Scholars have highlighted
the significance of community building, boundary maintenance and norm regulation to explain
individuals’ personal practices and beliefs. Since its very inception the anthropological enterprise
has viewed community as a key social formation to be used in addressing questions of social
order (Durkheim 1976) and the human condition.
Since the emergence of the Internet, the continuous rise and subsequent abundance of
virtual communities has awakened an interest in the fluid, ephemeral, temporary, and open
properties of virtual communities, albeit on newsgroups, chatrooms, blog rings, social networks
and the like. To understand the fascination that has evoked scholars’ sociological imagination,
the research will address changes in the concept of community in sociology and social
anthropology as a result of the telecommunications revolution in the past decade. Understanding
this process will shed light on the cultural constructs employed in forging virtual communities
that diverge from those imposed by traditional sociology. Reviewing the legacy of virtual
communities that has evolved in the past decades will enable us to access a cultural “tool kit” in
Swidler’s terms (1986), that can be used to better understand the motivations and “strategies of
action” (Swidler 1986, 273) of the virtual community members at hand.
Accordingly, I review scholars’ discussions on community, focusing particularly on the
way they address territorial proximity and informal communal spaces. Subsequently, there will
be a discussion of social exchange reciprocity and pro-social behavior using Mauss’s canonical
study of the gift economy as the foundation of communal practice. A sampling of early cyber
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ethnographies will then be presented, followed by a discussion and summary of second wave
anthropological investigations of virtual communities.
1. Community Formation and Existence
The concept of community stands in the center of the anthropological discourse, while
there have been many empirical and theoretical attempts to define and utilize these various social
groupings no classification has been conclusively defined, this has been further complicated with
the introduction of online communities and their new formations that challenge traditional
notions of primordial belonging, face to face relations, territoriality, the focus of group belonging
and its shared venues.
Victor Azarya, published a more traditional, ethnographically oriented definition of
“community” in the social science encyclopedia. Azarya’s definition accounts for the historical,
theoretical, and empirical ambiguity surrounding the term, which is still “…used as an omnibus
word loaded with diverse associations.” (Azarya 1996, 195). He notes there are different forms
that human collective groupings can take and be called. The primordial collective territorial
communities traditionally share“…a defined physical space or geographical area such as a
neighborhood, city, village or hamlet.” (Azarya 1996, 195). Azarya defines this community as
“…a group sharing common traits, a sense of belonging and/or maintaining social ties and
interactions which shape it into a distinctive social entity...” (Azarya 1996, 195). The community
or communal organization has a “diffuse goal orientation” (Azarya 1996, 196) with goals that
“…are mostly inner-oriented…”(Azarya 1996, 196) and “strive to maintain a set of desired
relationships among fellow members and a state of affairs within the collectivity.” (Azarya 1996,
196) Accordingly, members of a community, and particularly amongst primordial communities
with defined boundaries, relate to each other in a diffuse manner that extends past their assigned
roles in the community.
Communities today have evolved to a point where they constitute an inseparable part of
humanity. This social entity does not have an exact goal orienting its purpose, rather its
foundation rests upon the collective sense of “Common ties and a sense of belonging.” (Azarya
1996, 196). Given its lack of singular purpose one important element that historically has been
used to delineate the ambiguous and ever-changing boundaries of communities is the geographic
proximity its individual members.
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Ethnographers that discuss communities often focus on their territorial attributes.
Accordingly, they define community as constrained by the physical reality and proximity that
allow members to communicate, interact, and collectively function. With advances in
telecommunications technology, however, “The non-territorial approach has gained force... [and
has] reduced the importance of territorial proximity as a basis for human association,
increasingly creating what Weber (1964) called ‘community without propinquity’.” (Azarya
1996, 196).
Although territoriality has in the past been a “cause” of community, after the
telecommunication revolution, this element plays a less significant role in the formation and
maintenance of communities. “The networked life... is different from the all-embracing village
that is usually held up as the model of community.” (Rainie and Wellman 20123, 8), modern
communities rely heavily on telecommunication technology, and less on the territorial proximity
of their members. Territorial proximity has thus become mostly irrelevant to the formation of
modern communities, and can be used as a measurement to gauge a community’s modernity.
Virtual communities represent a new form of social grouping, one that challenges the
traditionally accepted notions and constructs of community purported by primordial
“This new world of networked individualism is oriented around looser, more fragmented networks that
provide succor. Such networks had already formed before the coming of the internet. Still, the
revolutionary social change from small groups to broader personal networks has been power- fully
advanced by the widespread use of the internet and mobile phones” (Rainie and Wellman 2012, 8).
Initially, geographic commonality was essential for the continuous existence and
interaction of all individual members of a community. This necessity diminished after the initial
telecommunications revolution. With the advent of the Internet, the impact of geographic
distance on community decreased dramatically, or as Thomas Friedman metaphorically
described it, ‘flattened’. According to Friedman’s metonymic reasoning, physical distance and
location are no longer relevant determinants or predictors of community. This deterministic,
technological reasoning highlights the formation of groups who are independent of the constraint
of territorial proximity as a result of this ‘flattening’.
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In their discussion of the modern facets of networked communities, Lee Rainie and Barry
Wellman argue that a historical decline has occurred among traditional small knit groups such as
families, and villages. This decline has created a space for “A different social order...around
social networks that are more diverse and less overlapping than those previous groups.” (Rainie
and Wellman 2012, 8). These emergent social groupings have provided individuals and
collectives with new “opportunities, constraints, rules and procedures” (Rainie and Wellman
2012, 7) that allow them to grow and operate in ways that were previously impossible. These
emergent communities and their underpinning contradict the essence of primordial territorially
based communities.
The networked operating system gives people new ways to solve problems and meet
social needs. It offers more freedom to individuals than people experienced in the past because
now they have more room to maneuver and more capacity to act on their own. (Rainie and
Wellman 2012, 8-9).
Today communication occurs in the ethereal dimension of “cyberspace” originally a term
from William Gibson's science-fiction novel Neuromancer, which Rheingold describes as “…the
name some people use for the conceptual space where words, human relationships, data, wealth,
and power are manifested by people using CMC [computer mediated communication]
technology” (Rheingold 1993, 6). The cybernetic evolution has led to the creation of virtual
online communities, a new type of community that exists and functions in part in cyberspace.
These online communities negate the need for territorial proximity and offer an alternative that
can challenge, replace and/or complement territorially-laden communities.
From the early scholars onward, non-territorial virtual communities continue to elude
precise classification and fascinate researchers with their fluid boundaries. Ethnographic studies
of the Internet have often described the boundedness of virtual communities (Baym 2000). To
better understand this functionality, with particular focus on the case study at hand, this research
suggests a discussion of informal communal spaces to explore the social foundations that foster
the construction of a digital community.
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2. Informal Communal Spaces
Researchers often highlight virtual spaces as locations that facilitate informal
congregation and collective interactions that are comparable to face-to-face environments
(Hoover and Echchaibi 2012). To better understand the nature of these communities, it would be
useful to explore key theoretical concepts in the construction of these communal spaces, namely
that of Ray Oldenburg’s concept of third places (1989), and Kahane’s conception of social
moratorium and voluntarism (1997), and liminality of Victor Turner (1987).
In The Great Good Place, Ray Oldenburg coined and explained the term “third place” to
describe and expand upon informal gathering venues. He explains that “The eternal sameness of
the third place overshadows the variations in its outward appearance and seems unaffected by the
wide differences in cultural attitudes toward the typical gathering places of informal public life”
(Oldenburg 1989, 20).
Oldenburg claims that third places have largely deflected scholarly attention: “Rare is the
chronicler who has done justice to those gathering places where community is most alive and
people are most themselves” (Oldenburg 1989, 20). Indeed, third places and informal venues
have gained far less attention than formal organizations, such as schools or places of business.
However, online scholarship has dedicated studies to investigate informal online spaces such as
second life, online games, chatrooms and such. Recently, researchers have developed a
framework that incorporates Oldenburgs’ assertions in the discussion of digital religion and its
communal manifestations online (Hoover and Echchaibi 2012).
Oldenburg establishes that while third places cannot be explicitly defined; however, he
proposes eight primary characteristics that exist in third places, as described below.
1. Neutral Ground - The third place must be “on neutral ground” (Oldenburg 1989, 22) in
order to grant the individuals interacting a certain amount of immunity or protection from the
outside world. The third place seeks to limit the influence of the outside world and status on its
internal status quo. As such, all baggage from the outside world must be set aside when
interacting within the third place, including all “personal problems and moodiness” (Oldenburg
1989, 25).
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2. Serve as a Leveler - A third place is one where status and concerns from the outside world
do not frequently intervene or influence interactions. For these interactions to be authentically
those of a third place, “Necessarily, a transformation must occur as one passes through the
portals of a third place. Worldly status claims must be checked at the door in order that all
within may be equals.” (Oldenburg 1989, 23).
3. Conversation is the Main Activity - “Nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that
the talk is good; that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging.” (Oldenburg 1989, 26) A
third place is distinct in that the main and most interesting activity in it is the conversation.
Although to the outside world the function of its purpose is, for example, going to a bar to
drink a beer, the true motivation for continued attendance is the conversation between
members and the atmosphere that conversation creates. The talk at the third place “…has a
transcending effect…” (Oldenburg 1989, 30) on the atmosphere and the people in attendance.
4. The Regulars - “It is the regulars who give the [third] place its character and who assure that
on any given visit some of the gang will be there.” (Oldenburg 1989, 33-4) Oldenburg
emphasizes that it is the regulars and their consistent presence that give the third place its
unique and relevant characteristics. The third place is so important to them that “To the regular,
though he or she may draw full benefit from them, third places are an ordinary part of a daily
routine. The best attitude toward the third place is that it merely be an expected part of life.”
(Oldenburg 1989, 37).
5. Easily Accessible - In order for the third place to be easily accessible, regulars keep long
hours as they “must stand ready to serve people's needs for sociability and relaxation in the
intervals before, between, and after their mandatory appearances [home, work, school]
elsewhere.” (Oldenburg 1989, 32) The result is a place where “one may go alone at almost any
time of the day or evening with assurance that acquaintances will be there.” (Oldenburg 1989,
6. Maintain a Low Profile - The third place maintains a low profile in order to protect the status
quo from being upset by the intrusion of too many non-regulars. “Plainness, or homeliness, is
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also the ‘protective coloration’ of many third places. Not having that shiny bright appearance
of the franchise establishment, third places do not attract a high volume of strangers or
transient customers.” (Oldenburg 1989, 36).
7. Playful mood - The prevailing mood in the third place is playful, and does not allow for
much else“…the activity that goes on in third places is largely unplanned, unscheduled,
unorganized, and unstructured.” (Oldenburg 1989, 33) The regulars interact with familiarity as
equals seeking to enjoy themselves and this place. “Every topic and speaker is a potential
trapeze for the exercise and display of wit.” (Oldenburg 1989, 37) Sober and serious attitudes
and conversations are infrequent and are usually ended quickly to make way for more fun
entertainment and wit.
8. A Home Away From Home - While the third place is radically different from individual
homes, it occupies an immensely important space – almost like a home away from home. The
third place provides its regulars with “…psychological comfort and support...”(Oldenburg
1989, 42) that creates a safe and protected space in which they can interact.
Third places use a special “formula” to construct a community with a sense of shared
discourse, values, and traditions. The ensuing communities are voluntary and provide a space
where individuals are not weighed down by other responsibilities and consequences. Members of
third place communities are free to interact and develop themselves, their ideas, and their
philosophies in a safe and welcoming environment.
The freedom from consequences in third places, allows members to develop and test their
ideas with less severe communal restraints, a semi-chaotic and liminal characteristic. As
anthropologist Victor Turner stated, a liminal space exists, "betwixt and between," the usual
rules; the community and its members are granted a reprieve from the norms and rules that
govern daily life. Members of liminal communities are “governed by the subjunctive mode of
possibility and experiment” (Danet 2001).
This freedom can also be illuminated by the concept of Moratorium as developed by
Kahane (1997). While exploring informal codes Kahane discusses the concept of moratorium
and sees it as “A temporary delay of duties and decisions that allows for trial and error within
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wide institutional boundaries.” (Kahane 1997, 214). Members of digital third place communities
take advantage of the social moratorium that these have in place by using these platforms to
freely express themselves and develop ideas that might be sanctioned or considered taboo
otherwise. In addition, online third spaces can also be viewed as voluntaristic, as Kahane
explain: Voluntarism is “a relatively constraint-free pattern of choice (of goals, means,
affiliations), in which the cost of changing one’s mind is minimal.” (Kahane 1997, 214). This is
to say that users feel no obligation to participate in the community and feel free to enter and exit
the boundaries of the third place at will. Accordingly, members develop a deep commitment to
an informal communal place that incorporates Voluntarism and a Social Moratorium.
This type of place has been omnipresent and important since the Greek Agora to
‘modern’ coffee shops, community centers, and cyberspace. Liminal voluntaristic third places
have been important hotbeds of ideas and communities. The prevalent sense of safety and leisure
creates a haven from the everyday world, as an institution where conversation is the practice, and
all participants in the conversation are equals.
3. Economy and Community: The Digital Exchange Paradox
Communities are multifaceted occurrences with many different moving parts; one
particularly important part is an economy, where both short- and long-term relationships are
based on trust and on a collective agreement regarding the “rules of the game”. In the past,
economic relations have been mainly materially based. However, scholars confronted with
questions on the social order of the virtual community, warranted a consideration of paradoxical
market relations and social exchanges occurring in an immaterial sphere (Kollock, 2001;
Rheingold, 2000; Golan, 2006).
Within this immaterial sphere, an economic mode of exchange emerged that can be
illustrated through Levi Strauss’ notion of “generalized exchange” (Levi-Strauss 1969).
Generalized exchange refers to a:
...collective system of indirect exchange, which inherently involves more than two
people, [that] generates stronger bonds of solidarity than [material] pairwise, restricted
exchange. (Molm et al., 2007, 206)
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This structure of exchange created a sense of reciprocity and collectivity in its members
as a result of repeated interactions. This hypothesis was later evolved by other anthropological
theorists (Malinowski 1922; Mauss 1925; Sahlins 1965). Indeed, classical anthropological
scholarship viewed generalized exchange as having potential to produce “...greater social
solidarity than restricted (direct) exchange” (Molm et al., 2007, 205).
This construct is particularly applicable to virtual communities in that it provides insight
into methods of exchange of nonmaterial goods from a communal ‘pool’. From the beginning of
scholarship on virtual communities, Rheingold offered a perspective using Marcel Mauss’s
evolution of generalized exchanges to the gift economy to interpret social exchanges and
interaction in the online sphere. The gift economy is a type of economy where reciprocity is a
“key element” of the system and individual selflessness is a common and apparent quality as
well. “People do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them,
rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little
extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical transactions; different kinds of things
become possible when this mind-set pervades” (Rheingold 1993, 22). A gift economy is a
powerful illustration of a community that takes into consideration the specialization of its various
members. The community creates a mechanism of reciprocity that exists within the collective
construct of the community’s economy.
In his seminal work, Marcel Mauss investigated the concept of gifts and reciprocity in
“archaic and primitive” (Mauss 1966) civilizations. His investigation focused on the use of
familiar concepts in other civilizations where a-priori anthropological assumptions were not
helpful and could even be detrimental. Mauss adopted a unilineal perspective on human
evolution, in which he saw the spirit of gift exchange as a “characteristic of societies which have
passed the phase of 'total prestation' (between clan and clan, family and family) but have not yet
reached the stage of pure individual contract, the money market, sale proper, fixed price, and
weighed and coined money” (Mauss 1966, 47). The unilineal perspective considers this
evolutionary phase less developed than other markets and economies. The gift economy,
however, is well suited to exist and operate in an environment that attempts to negate as many
constructs of the outside world, such as a third place. Rather than rely on self-interest to drive the
individual as it does in the capitalist market and in most western societies, gift economies rely on
the notion of obligatory reciprocity to motivate exchanges.
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The spiritual mechanism of reciprocity “…obliges us to make a return gift for a gift
received.” (Mauss 1966, 5) The mechanism institutes a “…system of contractual gifts…” (Mauss
1966, 6) where economic determinants are measured by the individuals acts of reciprocity. In gift
economies, the importance of reciprocity is emphasized and enforced through notions of prestige
and honor. Mauss discusses Indian society and “the role which Honour plays…” (Mauss 1966,
35). In this particular gift economy, the mechanism of reinforcement is “the prestige of an
individual is closely bound up with expenditure, and with the duty of returning with interest gifts
received in such a way that the creditor becomes the debtor.” (Mauss 1966, 35). A gift economy
relies on each individuals to fulfill their “…Three obligations: Giving, Receiving, Repaying”
(Mauss 1966, 37). Individuals are expected to adhere to these three obligations in order to
perpetuate the reciprocity of gift giving.
Trust, however, is not enough by itself to enforce the individual behavioral obligations
that reciprocity demands. While adherence to the obligations results in higher degree of prestige,
failure to reciprocate has social ramifications as well, “Failure to give or receive, like failure to
make return gifts, means a loss of dignity.” (Mauss 1966, 40) An outstanding obligation that has
not been reciprocated in the acceptable amount of time “…debases the man who accepted it,
particularly if he did so [accepted the gift] without thought of return” (Mauss 1966, 63).
Although reciprocal interactions “…take place under a voluntary guise they are in essence
strictly obligatory, and their sanction is private or open warfare” (Mauss 1966, 3). This
mechanism of reinforcement is capable of compelling individuals to act in the manner that is
considered correct and prestigious by the community.
There exists a moral purpose beyond this exchange of material goods between individuals. In
certain communities, “The object of the exchange was to produce a friendly feeling between the
two persons concerned, and unless it did this it failed of its purpose...” (Mauss 1966, 18) The
serious consequences associated with the initiation of a reciprocal interaction of gift giving
means that every act that would incite a round of reciprocal gift giving must be seriously
considered before it is initiated. “The danger represented by the thing given or transmitted is
possibly nowhere better expressed than in very ancient Germanic languages. This explains the
double meaning of the word Gift as gift and poison” (Mauss 1966, 62).
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The markets in which these interactions occur do not exist solely as mediators of reciprocal
interactions; rather they exist as entities whose focus is not always on the material exchange that
is occurring:
Further, what they exchange is not exclusively goods and wealth, real and personal
property, and things of economic value. They exchange rather courtesies, entertainments,
ritual, military assistance, women, children, dances, and feasts; and fairs in which the
market is but one element and the circulation of wealth but one part of a wide and
enduring contract. (Mauss 1966, 3)
In addition to being relevant to older or primitive societies, gift economies play an important
role in present day imagined virtual communities as well. “Much of our [present day] everyday
morality is concerned with the question of obligation and spontaneity in the gift. It is our good
fortune that all is not yet couched in terms of purchase and sale. Things have values which are
emotional as well as material.” (Mauss 1966, 63). The activities and behaviors that occur in the
market which frequently serves as a third place and a community of practice “…are impregnated
with ritual and myth; they retain a ceremonial character, obligatory, and efficacious;” (Mauss
1966, 70).
In his work, Peter Kollock applies Mauss’s work to the virtual communities, by first
distinguishing the unique characteristics that define the digital
Online communities exist within a radically different environment. The setting is a (1)
network of (2) digital (3) information, and each of these three features drives important
changes. It is a world of information rather than physical objects. Further, it is digital
information, meaning that it is possible to produce an infinite number of perfect copies of
a piece of information, whether that be a computer program, a multimedia presentation,
or the archives of a long e-mail discussion. As Negroponte (1995) put it, the setting is one
of bits rather than atoms. And finally, this information is being produced not in isolation,
but in a deeply interwoven network of actors. (Kollock 2001)
Kollock furthers the definition of a gift in the context of virtual reality as, “(1) the obligatory
transfer, (2) of inalienable objects or services, (3) between related and mutually obligated
transactors” (Kollock 2001). In his analysis of digital gift economy, Kollock asserts that the
obligations which motivated and structured all of the social exchanges need to be reinterpreted
with an understanding of the new reality and population that these concepts were serving. While
pro-social behavior might take on different forms and meanings than in the past the existence of
the phenomena remained, a remarkable achievement.
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The relative or absolute anonymity of the recipient makes it all the more remarkable that
individuals volunteer valuable information – one cannot realistically count on the reciprocity
of the recipient in the future to balance the gift that has occurred. (Kollock 2001)
Kollock further suggests the new accounting system “ which a benefit given to a
person is reciprocated not by the recipient but by someone else in the group” is a system of
“generalized exchange” (Kollock 2001). This system still relies on an individual’s trust that the
community will reciprocate the resulting good of its member’s action, while the communal
mechanism actions and reciprocal results will not be immediate or necessarily directed at the
individual who carried out the actions.
Kollock’s adaptation of Mauss’s conceptual framework to the digital sphere has helped
shape the discourse of digital research into intangible online gift economies. Investigations of e-
commerce, digital travel communities, digital “livejournal” gift giving, and youth culture and
others have used Kollock’s adaptation in their work (Wang and Fesenmaier, 2003; Veale, 2003;
Golan 2006; Pearson, 2007). Indeed, Kollock’s conceptualization is a useful component of the
digital ethnographers’ cultural “tool kit”, especially regarding questions of virtual community
4. Cyberspace: The Modern Third Place
a) Early Ethnographies of Virtual Communities as Third Places
Studies have focused on two types of online communities. The first is a community that
exists online as an extension of an offline counterpart, i.e. transnational communities (Miller and
Slater 2000; Oiarzabal 2012; Dekker and Engerbsen 2013), religious communities (Golan 2013),
and others. The second type of online communities, more relevant to this study, are exclusively
online collectives that manifest only in the digital arena (see also Danet 2001; Blais 2001; Baym
2000; Boelstroff 2008; Tayor 2009; Nardi 2010). Hence, this research seeks to continue the
scholarship of the original online ethnographers who focused on the exclusively online
Howard Rheingold’s ethnography was a part of the first wave of digital ethnographic
research on online only communities. Rheingold implemented Oldenburg’s third places theory
into his ethnographic investigation and participation in a virtual community. Rheingold relied
upon the ethnographic methods and theory developed by the social sciences in his investigation
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of a community that exists in the virtual arena. His work centered primarily around an online
community and message board known as The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link) -- a
computer conferencing system that enables people around the world to carry on public
conversations and exchange private electronic mail (e-mail).” (Rheingold 1993, 2). Rheingold
became an active member of the community and carried out his own implementation of the
participant observation methodology He compiled the data provided into one of the earliest
virtual ethnographies in his book The Virtual Community.
a) The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link)
Rheingold’s work characterized this virtual community as an occupier of the coveted third
place status. According to Rheingold, the WELL community, one of the earliest
anthropologically documented digital-only communities, was an imagined community of
practice and social exchange that provided an informal and accessible third place. Rheingold
pontificates on the virtues and potential that cyber communities have to provide quality third
places: “Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the
aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall” (Rheingold 1993, 27).
Rheingold viewed cyberspace as “…the place we gather for conviviality” (Rheingold 1993,
8). Accordingly, Rheingold suggested cyberspace as a new third place where communities
interact with Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). He portrayed CMC as a significant,
new “…way to meet people… a way of both making contact with and maintaining a distance
from others” that “…mixes aspects of informal, real-time communication with the more formally
composed, write-once-read-forever mode of communication” (Rheingold 1993, 10). While the
primary method employed in CMC was text based “…there's a theatrical element to this
medium--written conversation as a performing art” (Rheingold 1993, 24). The depth that these
interactions had embedded in them served as the foundation for a new global culture mediated by
This new way of meeting people meant that interactions, friendships, and affiliations adopted
different progressions than technology had allowed them to ever have before. “The way you
meet people in cyberspace puts a different spin on affiliation: in traditional kinds of
communities, we are accustomed to meeting people, then getting to know them; in virtual
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communities, you can get to know people and then choose to meet them” (Rheingold 1993, 10).
This was a fundamental change to the way identity was constructed and friends were chosen. In
this new sphere affiliation was “…far more ephemeral…”(Rheingold 1993, 10) when you were
only familiar with the virtual identities of individuals and not with their non-digital (physical)
reality identity.
“In virtual communities, the sense of place requires an individual act of imagination. The
different mental models people have of the electronic agora complicates the question of why
people seem to want to build societies mediated by computer screens” (Rheingold 1993, 26).
These mediations that occurred via computer screens happened in and contributed significantly
to the growth of cyberspace.
Cyberspace as a result of the aforementioned CMC was an elusive term that may be
arguably comparable to the anthropological concept of culture; while its existence is central to
the modern social scientific investigation of humanity, it still eschews a precise definition of its
properties and characteristics. “No single metaphor completely conveys the nature of cyberspace.
Virtual communities are places where people meet, but they also are tools; the place-like aspects
and tool-like aspects only partially overlap” (Rheingold 1993, 18).
The WELL community’s stated purpose revolved around the sharing of expert
information in cyberspace on a variety of topics. Yet visitors frequently used the forums as a tool
to interact with WELL’s active and eclectic community of regular members rather than only
using the site for the express information gathering purpose. “Some people come to the WELL
only for the community, some come only for the hard-core information, and some want both”
(Rheingold 1993, 18). For some members, the purpose of the community was simply to maintain
membership, status, and participation in it. “The WELL is about more than simple fact-finding. It
is also about the pleasure of making conversation and creating value in the process.”(Rheingold
1993, 23).
WELL was an example of a virtual community existing in a third place independent of
the non-digital or outside reality. Members in the community were equal and connected; prestige
and identity existed only in the context and reality of that community. The goals of the WELL
community were: its continued existence, maintenance of the status quo, and the increasing of
prestige through the predetermined cultural mechanisms actions. “The reward for knowing the
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answer and taking the time to enter it into the WELL is symbolic but not inconsequential. People
who come up with accurate and well-worded answers win prestige in front of the whole virtual
stadium. Experts compete to solve problems; the people who harvest solutions become
believers.” In sociological terms, an individual member of the community could seek to add to
his prestige and social capital by manifesting theatrical and compelling thought and insight via
the medium of CMC.
I can increase your knowledge capital and my social capital at the same time by telling you
something that you need to know, and I could diminish the amount of my capital in the
estimation of others by transgressing the group's social norms. (Rheingold 1993, 22)
Indeed, Rheingold viewed the WELL as a community whose surroundings, qualities, and
environment typified a third space. Accordingly, he discussed the ways that the community
encouraged “context-setting” (Rheingold 1993, 22) behaviors, Rheingold refers to “idle talk” as
a practice that allowed members to determine the nature of the interlocutor, to evaluate and
establish trust, and identify shared fields of interest.
While The WELL is an example of an older generation of a virtual community,
understanding that community and the constructs that facilitated its development assist in
understanding contemporary communities. The modalities of traditional social constructs have
changed from their earlier counterparts due to the existence of this new mediating technologies
(mobile phones, changing CMC interfaces).
The WELL significantly differs from many virtual communities in that there is no practice
underlying the existence of the community other than mere presence. Its exchange system is very
limited; the only exchanges that occur are the informational text-based interactions of members.
Information and theatrical context-setting talk is the community’s only practice and output. The
WELL’s focus is on the virtual forum or agora or marketplace that has finally transitioned from
the physical reality to the ethereal third place called cyberspace. The WELL has no formalized or
codified system of economy, social capital, or prestige in place to assign roles and characteristics
to its members. The WELL bears a striking resemblance to another the third place, that Lori
Kendall another early ethnographer of digital communities, describes in her ethnographic study
on a playful text based environment (a MUD).
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The Falcon is a small, out-of-the-way place, known mainly to its regulars, who tend to
shun the occasional curious passersby. The utilitarian furnishings look a bit worn and
include so many different styles that one patron says it looks “as though a used furniture
store had exploded.” A large schoolroom chalkboard hangs next to the bar. Today when I
enter, the heading at the top of the chalkboard reads “Fave of the 50 Ways to Leave Your
Lover.” (Kendall 2002)
Kendall’s work is similar to Rheingold’s in the initial ethnographic methodology that it
adopts. Kendall has taken advantage of the pioneering work of Rheingold but instead of
attempting to simply characterize the entire community in a more topical manner, she actually
focuses on a particular phenomena of the community. Kendall’s work marks a transition from
the investigation of the existence of these communities to a deeper analysis of their structures,
impact, and culture. At this point, Kendall no longer discusses the emergence of these
communities. Rather, as Boellstroff suggests we do in his work, Kendall considers the existence
of these communities to be a given. It is the deeper analysis of particular themes, in her case
those of masculinity and hegemony that underscore her work.
When studying gay Indonesians, I do not ask “is it a good thing that gay identities have
emerged in Indonesia?”; I take their emergence as a given. Similarly in this book I do not
ask “is it a good thing that virtual worlds have emerged”... I take second life’s [and
virtual worlds] emergence as given and work to analyze the cultural practices and beliefs
taking form within it (Boellstroff 2009, 5).
In this first wave of research “…few scholars attempted to conduct ethnographic
research primarily in terms of emergent digital technologies…” (Coleman 2010, 489). The first
wave manifested an “explosion of scholarly and popular work that heralded the coming of a new
posthuman subject residing in a “digital age” or “network society” (Castells 1996, Hayles 1999,
Negroponte 1996, Turkle 1995).” (Coleman 2010, 489)
By the turn of the century and in chronological proximity to the burst of the dot com bubble,
the initial fascination and excitement that revolved around the advent and mass availability of the
Internet began to die down. Second wave researchers were less concerned with the existence of
the Internet and virtual communities. These scholars took upon themselves the task of attempting
to enrich the sociological scope of digital ethnographies, second wave research taking the
existence of these communities “for granted”. These studies significantly enhanced the focus of
virtual ethnographies to include interrelationships between online communities and offline
cultural constructs (e.g. gender, sexuality, identity, and religion).
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5. Second Wave Social Scientific Digital Media Research
“No mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture in reality
includes or exhausts all of human practice, human energy or human intention. Raymond Williams” (Coleman 2010,
Subsequent to this first wave of digital ethnographic research, new types of virtual
communities of practice have evolved. These communities were constructed on the foundations
of new technologies that facilitated the connecting of members to each other. Rather than study
the emergence and existence of these new communities, the “second wave” ethnographic
research agenda focused on particular facets of them such as: the folk culture exchange that is
manifest on communication chatrooms in IRC (Danet, 2001), fan cultures that emerge on
USENET newsgroup forums (Baym, 2000), relations among blogging respondent communities
(Hechter, 2009), the impact of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) on
gender, identity, and romantic relationships (Boellstroff, 2008; Nardi, 2010), or hacking culture
and its creation of the Open Source repositories and Copyleft movement (Coleman 2012).
Scholars view the second wave research as it “…illustrates how the study of digital media
transforms the possibilities and contours of fieldwork.” (Coleman 2010, 494). Coleman further
suggests that “far from stimulating novelty, digital technologies in many instances facilitated
social reproduction, catalyzing “expansive realizations” of self and culture...” (Coleman 2010,
This second wave research investigated “…the cultural politics of digital media, the
vernacular cultures of digital media, and the prosaics of digital media.” (Coleman 2010, 487). In
this second wave of ethnographic research, “… ethnographers are exploring the complex
relationships between local practices and global implications of digital media, their materiality
and politics, and their banal, as well as profound, presence in every-day life and modes of
communication.” (Coleman 2010, 489).
The investigation of this new world by adapting old world techniques is not a simple task.
“The bulk of this work, however, continues to confound sharp boundaries between off-line and
online contexts and between the past and the present (Kelty 2008, Sreberny & Khiabany
2010)…” (Coleman 2010, 492) Even within the context of further ethnographic investigation,
“…the digital age remains a powerful structuring emblem with material and cultural
consequences.” (Coleman 2010, 490) The research has now has highlighted new communities
that have evolved around interests that were previously impossible.
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The research here was carried out with the goal of contextualizing the worlds within
which the digital media exists; the ethnographic branch of the research explores the cultural facet
that exists within the role of digital media:
The second category explores the vernacular cultures of digital media, evinced by
discrepant phenomena, digital genres, and groups—hackers, blogging, Internet memes, and
migrant programmers—whose logic is organized significantly around, although not
necessarily determined by, selected properties of digital media. The final category, what I
call prosaics of digital media, examines how digital media feed into, reflect, and shape
other kinds of social practices, like economic exchange, financial markets, and religious
worship. (Coleman 2010, 488)
The research that has been done highlights the necessary ingredients for a canonically
good and standard virtual ethnography.
Different frames of analysis that have been brought to bear on the ethnographic study of
digital media. To grasp more fully the broader significance of digital media, its study must
involve various frames of analysis, attention to history, and the local contexts and lived
experiences of digital media—a task well suited to the ethnographic enterprise. (Coleman
2010, 488–9)
Although this one digital genre connects various worlds, types of people, and activities, one
cannot always entertain all these dimensions at once. What enters our analysis depends on a
particular type of mediation, as Weber (1949) famously insisted when he argued that we
cannot nakedly apprehend the full force and complexity of any social phenomena.
(Coleman 2010, 498)
While the methodology implemented in the carrying out of a virtual ethnography has
evolved, ethnographies have not yet been carried out on many communities that reside in the
online realm. One of those uninvestigated types of communities has evolved as a result of the
digital approach to, and the concept of sharing information and media. Sharing between the
members of an online community is a widespread practice that consumes large worldwide
amounts of bandwidth and practices by a large amount of people. The technologies and
communities that have been created to facilitate the practice of sharing online have made waves
significant enough that they merit ethnographic investigation.
6. Sharing, Piracy and the Emergence of BitTorrent Communities
Perhaps coincidentally, the rise of second wave research was also accompanied by the
emergence of web 2.0 and sharing communities. By the turn of the millennium, scholars noted
the rise of user-generated-content as a key practice and form of a communal mode of
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participation. The practice of posting clips on YouTube, commenting on newspaper talkbacks,
blogging and more, have become widespread and have been manifested by more transgressive
communities that practice large-scale copyright infringements, most notably via BitTorrent
Internet protocols.
John (2012) investigates the historic emergence of the concept of sharing. According to
John, “The concept of sharing is an undertheorized one, and explicit interrogations of the concept
are quite rare (though see Belk, 2010; Wittel, 2011). This is unfortunate, because while we all
feel we know what sharing is, the concept actually includes a number of differing logics that we
would do well to distinguish between.” (John 2012, 3). The offline concept of sharing underwent
a significant alteration when digital technologies implemented it in their own ways.
`“...the [offline] act of sharing is one of distribution and it is an active practice.
Importantly, it is also a zero-sum game − when I give you some of my candy, I am left with
less.” Both John and Kollock (1999) argue that digital goods are reproducible and therefore can
be used abundantly. John explains:
Sharing nonetheless remained relevant, only now in terms of disk-sharing and file-
sharing. In one sense, disk-sharing and file-sharing displayed the same logic of sharing:
they both referred to resources (hard drives and files) that were remotely accessible; that
is, they were shared, in the sense of being in common. However, file-sharing also came to
mean the copying of digital information (software, music or video files), which at least
partly explains the current catch-all status of sharing in digital contexts as referring to the
transfer of data. Here the logic of sharing is different again: there is no zerosum game (as
in time-sharing), and nor are we talking about shared resources. Rather, this kind of
sharing involves letting someone else have something that you have (somewhat akin to
sharing a candy bar) though without entailing any kind of material sacrifice on the part of
the sharer. Not only is this not a zero-sum game, but it is a form of sharing that leaves us
with more than when we started (John 2012, 4)
While John’s study focused on sharing that is mostly legitimized, he also addressed its
moral boundaries. As he pointed out, the act of sharing the digital realm was distinct because it
distributed content or data without significant loss to the sharer. This act took away a major
portion of power that had until then presided with the content producers and distributors (over
the web and beyond). This is perhaps most salient in the case of the growing sharing practices of
popular culture products (i.e. feature films, music, television productions, computer software), a
fact that made their producers and distributors (e.g. Universal Music Group, RIAA, BPI, BBC,
NBC) highly uncomfortable with the shifting reality.
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After this new conception of sharing between members was introduced into the popular
and public online realm initially via Napster 1. The large corporations responsible for the creation
and distribution of media and other content adopted aggressive approaches to challenge the
notion of non zero-sum sharing. They did this primarily by pursuing lawsuits and continuously
attempting (SOPA, PIPA, ACT agreement, DMCA, Net Neutrality) to change the legislation
regarding the Internet to restrict the ability of individuals to share content directly with each
other without passing through a central mediator or server administered by an authoritarian body.
In response to attempts of the industrial complex to centralize content distribution to
approved channels in order to increase accountability and profits, a decentralized style of
distribution was created. Rather than resulting in users that adhered to the behaviors and
practices of the industrial complex, the online community responded to what they considered
unrealistic and ‘bad’ demands by creating a sharing technology that was more sophisticated than
its predecessors (Napster, LimeWire), and no longer passed through a central server. Due to its
increased efficiency and anonymity coupled with and the pervasive distrust of authority present
online, decentralized content distribution has slowly become the norm and has accounted for a
significant percentage of global traffic since 2004.
Napster was a pioneer and attracted coverage by journalists, technology fanatics, and
political advocates of information freedom. Technologies that have since developed have
arguably not attracted the same amount of attention and public fascination. To date, most
anthropologists have largely ignored subsequent decentralized distribution mechanisms and
communities in their digital ethnographic investigations.
Perhaps ironically, in spite of their widespread proliferation in contemporary society, I
suggest that research into decentralized communities necessitates a return to the foundations of
anthropology and ethnography. As anthropologists’ original agenda was to investigate hitherto
unknown or unfamiliar communities, terrains, and practices, so it is again anthropologists’
mission to better understand and describe unfamiliar, decentralized online communities. These
1 Napster was the first popular peer-to-peer client. It worked to “facilitate the distribution of digital content by
allowing individuals to not only search for MP3s on the Web, but to search for MP3 and other files stored on other
people’s hard drives. Peer-to-peer networking dramatically expanded the universe of available music. Before
Napster, music and other content were only available if someone posted the content to a web page or newsgroup or
attached to an email” (Ku 2002, 9).
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paradoxically close yet far-flung communities present a unique and challenging set of legal and
potentially moral problems.
These communities and their foundational architecture have been designed to be
decentralized. This means that files are dispersed amongst millions of users (peers), rather than
being stored in, and accessed from, a central digital repository (“cloud”/server). These
underpinnings not only prevent the controlling mechanism that certain authoritarian bodies have
sought to implement, but also bears a striking similarity to hacking collectives and other forums
that stress freedom, openness, and collaboration (i.e. open source, Copyleft, Creative Commons).
Following Castells historical-evolutionary interpretation of the Internet, its first
generation of users fostered a culture of giving, sharing, and openness.
The culture of the Internet is a culture made up of a technocratic belief in the progress of
humans through technology, enacted by communities of hackers thriving on free and
open technological creativity, embedded in virtual networks aimed at reinventing society,
and materialized by money-driven entrepreneurs into the workings of the new economy.
(Castells 2001, 61)
In turn, this culture (stemming from its academic culture roots) has inspired the creation
of the libertarian movements whose advocates challenge the traditional notions and models of
capitalism, and view information and its derivatives (software, music etc.) as basic human rights
that should be available to all (see also Lessig, 2004). As Coleman states:
Digital piracy in its totality partly interferes with the smooth functioning of capitalist and
liberal-legal imperatives, tearing into what Derrida (1992) calls the “mystical foundation of
authority” and inducing a moral panic in the copyright industries. (Coleman 2010, 495)
In 2001, Bram Cohen pioneered a technology that coincided with this libertarian ideology
called BitTorrent. This technology, capable of ‘pure’ peer-to-peer distribution allowed a user to
download different bits of the same file simultaneously from many users to produce optimal
download speeds and anonymity. The upside of this technology was that it produced optimal
speeds, and demanded fewer resources to distribute files than ever before. The downside of this
technology was its complexity and the built-in lack of centralized governance of content in terms
of organization, legality, and quality controls.
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Along with this technology, online communities focused on providing users with well-
organized indexes of links to files available to download emerged. Among these communities
were private torrent trackers.
Perhaps due to their stipulations for technical proficiency, their controversial morality, legal
standing, and covert visibility, private file-sharing communities have not been extensively
academically documented, and are hardly mentioned in ethnographically-oriented studies. Most
notably of these are communities founded on BitTorrent technology: these virtual communities
of practice implement highly codified, formal economic and social capital systems. BitTorrent
communities offer new social and technological circumstances which can enable scholars to
reconsider the properties and construction modes of virtual communities.
BitTorrent communities are distinctive in that their collective and motivating force is a
practice that entails clear rewards manifested as digital goods (i.e. music files, movies). Scholars
discuss how these communities exist primarily to connect members to each other in order to
carry out the practice of distribution of media files to other members of the community. This
community is built around a practice shared by all members, such as the downloading of music,
which assigns each of its members indicative values based on their efforts, social capital, and
behavior. Choi notes that although downloading media is their underlying purpose, “The usage
patterns also shows that the BitTorrent websites do not merely offer free products to their
community members, but they also connect pirates to their communities for the purpose of
sharing information and passions (e. g., politics and technology)” (Choi and Perez 2007, 168).
However, Choi does not elaborate on the social constructs of the BitTorrent communities. Indeed
there is a clear dearth of research on the cultural aspects that facilitate these communities. To
some extent, some of these aspects are discussed in the relatively young legacy of human
computer interaction research, as follows.
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B. HCI on Peer-to-Peer Communities
The locus of research on peer to peer communities is located in the Human Computer
Interaction (HCI) school of thought that has emerged in recent decades. Since the 1980s (Card et.
al, 1980), a branch of interdisciplinary scholarship emerged that represents a foray into analysis
of online phenomena, known as HCI. This emergent form of scholarship developed a focus on
users and interactive computer systems. HCI researchers utilize the technological expertise of
their investigators, much of which stemmed from their training as natural scientists, and apply
these methodologies toward investigating human behavior and applying that knowledge to
furthering technological products to better-fit human inclinations. Over time, this form of
scholarship has been institutionalized through common peer-reviewed journal publications,
academic conferences and such.
HCI scholarship offers a twofold contribution to elucidating torrenting communities.
Firstly, HCI research affords a theoretical analysis of the dynamics of social interaction on
torrenting sites. Secondly, HCI research utilizing an applied scientific approach to offer concrete
suggestions for both technical optimization by engineering a social system, specifically with
regard to the study of torrenting ecosystems. Accordingly, HCI scholars do not only study social
interaction over torrenting systems but also actively contribute to the communal knowledge base
that is used to facilitate these social relations and constructs employed in the maintenance and
creation of these virtual communities.
Although some variation can be noted over the years, much of the discourse led by HCI
research relating to Peer-to-Peer (P2P) communities can be divided into four meta-phases as
1. Defining Torrenting Networks 2002-2005: Characterizing Torrenting communities from a
computer science and networking perspective.
2. 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.
3. Individual User Behaviors and Motivations (Altruism vs. Selfishness) 2008-2010:
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Learning, predicting, and understanding the factors that provide the basis for an individual’s
behavior and motivation.
4. 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.
Figure 1 Development of HCI Research on Peer-to-Peer Communities
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1. Phase 1: Defining Torrenting Networks 2002-2005
In this phase, scholars sought to define torrenting communities by relying primarily on
measurements of size, users, and governing rules. Its recurring theme was the quest for more
valid knowledge and measurement standards to understand and predict the emergence of Peer-to-
Peer communities and their members’ behaviors. It should be noted that at the time this research
was conducted, there was a lack of knowledge regarding the rapid evolution of peer-to-peer
communities that were consuming a significant and increasing amount and of global bandwidth
fueling concerns among corporations, governments, and the scientific community.
In the analysis of individual user metrics within early peer-to-peer communities, two
findings were underscored. First, P2P users were heterogeneous in terms of “…bandwidth,
latency, availability, and the degree of sharing…” (Krishna, et. all 2002, 1). Second, it was
thought that individuals would not behave cooperatively unless forced to, due to the inherent
self-interest of users. This theory t coincides with rational choice theoretical reasoning. These
two findings were used to predict the shape and functions that a future community must have in
order to be “successful and efficient”. Dejean and colleagues emphasized the importance for
future communities to get users to behave in a more rational and reciprocal manner. These goals
sought to counter the phenomena of selfish or opportunistic behavior, and bandwidth congestion.
These phenomena both occurred as a result of self-serving behaviors and diminished the
accumulation of common digital goods on P2P systems (Adar et al., 2000; Krishnan et al., 2007).
At this point, P2P communities were still in their infancy and had not efficiently accounted for
the unpredictable humanity its users.
Krishna asserted that all future systems must account for the heterogeneity of users,
expressed in the variety of capacity, network connection, and selfishness of users in
“…delegating responsibilities across peers.” (Krishna et. al 2002, 1) The future system and
community must be of an optimal size so that there are not free riders, and should be able to
direct individuals to the member who has the best technological capacity to have efficient
interaction or exchange of data.
Furthermore, it had been asserted that future communities must also implement a codified
and visible incentive and punishment mechanism. In the design of future systems, users would
not be expected to act altruistically out of hand by providing their data connection solely out of
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volunteerism. Thus, “...the [future] system should not treat its peers equally, but instead, it
should create incentives and rewards for peers to provide and exchange data” (Krishna et al.
2002, 7). In order to provide users with accurate incentives, Krishna urged the community to
enforce individual measures that acknowledged the need for a system of accountability to the
community designed for individual users. Future systems “…must have built-in incentives for
peers to tell the truth, or systems must be able to directly measure or verify reported information”
(Krishna et al. 2002, 1). A result of this accurate user data would be the implementation of a
mechanism that incentivized altruism and punished selfishness.
Altruistic behavior of users is accordingly viewed as a tenant of any peer-to-peer
technology because it is an essential component of decentralized activity. Instead of running data
through a central server, users download from each other without a central server mediating
between them. Hence, any successfully implemented behavioral controls through incentives or
punishments serves as “…an important determinant of resource sharing in P2P networks in
network design." (Asvanund et al. 2004, 155). As a result of the importance of altruism in the
community’s continued existence, selfish behavior that could harm the community would result
in severe punishments.
A few mechanisms that could be implemented to incentivize user behaviors included
“…network pricing (Cole et al. 2003), micropayment systems (Golle et al. 2001), reputation
systems (Lai et al. 2003), autonomous club formation (Asvanund et al. 2003), and admission
control systems (Kung and Wu 2003)…” (Asvanund et al. 2004, 161). All of these suggested
systems would result in the formation of a community with an economic system. Economic
success in these communities could frequently manifest in the form of online ranking or another
public communal acknowledgment.
Membership in well-crafted, future communities that took into account the guidelines laid
out above would have many benefits. Benefits would include “…ties to a community, social
support, and access to community resources (e. g., Kraut and Attewell 1993, Constant et al.
1996)” (Asvanund et al. 2004, 160). Members would be motivated to participate “primarily by
altruism and reciprocity” (Asvanund et al. 2004, 160). Scholars mention BitTorrent as a
technology that addressed the aforementioned findings.
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In line with contemporary scholarship, Andrade et. al. posits that for a Peer-to-Peer
community to thrive, its users must be efficient sharers of media. While the technology contains
limited built-in incentive mechanisms for its users, these incentives, “…do not lead to the
cooperation levels desired by some file-sharing communities” (Andrade et al. 2005, 115). The
built-in BitTorrent protocols do not accomplish optimal behavior by themselves; the community
itself needs to moderate and account for the user’s behaviors.
BitTorrent technology however, is viewed as bearing a high potential to foster future
communities with strong ties.
BitTorrent assumes each peer is selfish, and exchanges file chunks with those peers that
provide it the best service. The incentive mechanism in BitTorrent systems is instant,
because each peer must get corresponding benefit at once for the service it provides. For
multi-torrent collaboration, an exchange based mechanism can be applied for instant
collaboration through the tracker site overlay, which still follows the "tit-for-tat" idea.”
(Guo et al. 2005, 47)
According to this logic, future efficient BitTorrent communities must implement control
mechanisms at the individual users level, and account for heterogeneity among users in efficient
ways that will dissipate demands made on centralized resources (i.e. servers).
2. Phase 2: The Legitimacy and Legality of Piracy 2006-2007
At this point, the discourse focused around network ability and social control shifts into
the realm of morality and legality. The consequences of BitTorrent communities were
investigated in various contexts including economic, legal, and philosophical. The discussion
also turned to the companies and copyright holders responsible for developing and distributing
copies of digital media. Companies’ potential responses to media “piracy” protected by
copyright laws were discussed. Piracy claims included the transgression of copyright laws
toward digital goods. At this point in time, technology’s charisma, price, and overall accessibility
had facilitated the proliferation of pirating technology and practices.
In their 2006 study, Peitz and Waelbroeck stated that pirates believed the corporations
responsible for distributing the media were overly expensive and inefficient. Individuals who
chose to engage in piracy did so citing their motivations as a cheaper and higher quality
alternative for obtaining their coveted media files. According to Peitz and Waelbroeck’s line of
thought, early implementations of Digital Rights Management (DRM) copyright protections
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mechanisms were viewed by many users as anachronistic as copyright advocates created a
divergence between the emergent formats and distribution technologies and former economic
methods of distributing physical media. Under these circumstances, piracy became an attractive
option for users that embraced the technological improvements and formed movements (i.e. open
source, hacking collectives, Electronic Frontier Foundation etc.) that expressed demands of users
for DRM and even copyright free media. Given these developments, some HCI scholars focused
on industrial decisions that would make digital piracy less attractive
Because of the heterogeneity in the copying costs, for moderate prices, some consumers
prefer the original while others the copy. Clearly, if the firm's price is sufficiently low,
copying is unattractive to all consumers. (Peitz and Waelbroeck 2006, 452)
Indeed, online piracy provided users with the ability to download high quality non-DRM
files at faster speeds and in higher quality than the files’ legal counterpart. The availability of the
DRM files were typically time restricted while pirated files became available as soon as the
album was released (if a leaked copy had not become available earlier than the official release).
While digital piracy made the process of acquiring a file simpler, it did not necessarily
reduce the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). “The "true" cost of a piece of software is not only its
purchase price, but rather includes the cost to learn to use the software to its full potential and to
make it work with other software” (Peitz and Waelbroeck 2006, 468). Accordingly, customer
support became an invaluable service that only legal distributors offered, “…which gives a
higher value to the original than to the downgraded version or copy,” (Peitz and Waelbroeck
2006, 469) in an attempt to reduce the legal files TCO.
The TCO of pirated files also included the challenges of learning a system not as user
friendly as other mechanisms. Hence, the searching and identifying of files, along with later
organizing, and playing of the file itself were all difficulties that increased the TCO of pirated
First, file names do not always correspond to the requested file; they can be corrupted and
the downloading speed depends on the priority rating of the user in the P2P network.
Secondly, song and title information are often poorly documented and getting this
information is also costly. Thus, a digital copy (from a P2P system) provides less value
than an original but at a lower cost. This cost depends on the user's opportunity cost of
spending time online. (Peitz and Waelbroeck 2006, 471)
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Although piracy of files offered individuals a tempting money-free alternative to acquire
files, the process of downloading them involved a potentially higher TCO when accounting for
all aspects of the file-sharing process.
The development of peer-to-peer distribution technology was not the first destabilizing
technological development that content-producing corporations encountered. “CD and DVD
burning, portable devices for music in digitally compressed formats, and online file-sharing
technology have made copying, transferring and using of digital products by end users easier.”
(Peitz and Waelbroeck 2006, 472). When file acquisition and availability became more of a
nonissue for users, other aspects of the distribution process more strongly influenced the choices
that users made regarding their piracy or legitimate music acquisition choices. Corporations
became aware that digital copying and piracy were “…likely to affect industry profits.” (Peitz
and Waelbroeck 2006, 472).
The macroscopic economic effects of piracy are still not clear-cut; the downloading of
pirated files can stimulate financial success as well as cause hardship to a distribution company.
A pirate’s acquisition of a file was suggested to lead to economic profitability in the long run,
instead of damaging the file’s success as was previously assumed. Although counterintuitive at
first, it appeared that “…firms profits may actually increase with piracy. This suggests that in
such situations end-user copying appears in a more favorable light with respect to the long-term
welfare properties...” (Peitz and Waelbroeck 2006, 458). Two common example of that potential
success include the following:
…it has been documented that the popularity of an artist can actually be promoted
through downloads which then boosts demand for concert tickets. This may explain that
artists have a more ambiguous position towards Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networks than big
record labels because typically profits from concerts and merchandizing go entirely to the
artist… (Peitz and Waelbroeck 2006, 460-1)
…network effects for copying books and other written material and music. Copying
books and music increases the number of people who are knowledgeable about the
product. This may for example increase the social prestige of a legal owner in a social
gathering… (Peitz and Waelbroeck 2006, 461)
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While piracy seemed to have ambiguous results on the economic success of the artists
and corporations, corporations still tended to distrust the notion that they needed to alter their
system of distribution or conceptions of ownership.
Piracy does not necessarily have to signify adverse economic implications for
corporations. By utilizing pirate tools, companies could learn to act in an intelligent, business
and technology savvy manner by stimulating progress faster than their competitors and meeting
their customers’ needs in better, cheaper, and more efficient ways. The traditional model of
distribution became outdated as soon as individuals were exposed to a superior option of
acquisition that involved using pirate technologies. Thus, corporations could actually benefit by
implementing the BitTorrent technologies used by pirates.
However, after the Napster experience, it has become clear that there is a cheaper way for
some consumers to obtain this information: by searching, downloading and testing digital
music files made available through P2P or other file-swapping technologies. This
information transmission technology is rather different from traditional ads/promotions,
as consumers not the firms are spending time and resources. In a sense, it is information-
pull against information-push technologies. To sum up, digital copies of music files can
be expected to have a strong informational role. (Peitz and Waelbroeck 2006, 471)
In their work, Choi and Perez outline different ways in which piracy affects corporate
interests. They discuss how piracy pioneered new file transfer technologies. The impact is not
solely technological; “pirate communities have been a source of valuable market insight” (Choi
and Perez 2007, 169). Providing a representative sample of early adopters gave helpful feedback
“…identifying needs that legacy businesses were not adequately addressing.” (Choi and Perez
2007, 169).They also provided corporations with a potential future bloc of customers, provided
they were able to demonstrate that they could adequately compete with the pirate service.
“Today's piracy communities 4 million strong may become a legitimate consumer bloc as
businesses catch up to meet their demands (Economist, 2005).” (Choi and Perez 2007, 169)
These effects, in turn, spurred the creation of new “…innovative business models…” (Choi and
Perez 2007, 169) which were more capable of taking full “advantage of new technologies,
market insights, and installed bases created by the pirate communities.” (Choi and Perez 2007,
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One historical example that demonstrates particularly well the evolution of a pirate
community and its potential ramifications on the business world is the case study of the Napster
community. Initially, this piracy oriented program advanced peer-to-peer file-sharing technology
and offered insights on how a new, more efficient distribution system could function. Napster
then built up a large and loyal following of users in its community that was eventually converted
into a customer base for their “innovative and legitimate businesses." (Choi and Perez 2007,
Large corporations and governments still view piracy through a mostly negative lens,
their view has not yet been swayed, although there are demonstrations of some positive effects of
file-sharing and illustrations of piracy as “…instrumental for innovation and new business
creation." (Choi and Perez 2007, 177).
As has been noted, piracy bears potential as a strong influence on any industry producing
content that is easily transferable as media files. Potential industrial responses to piracy can be
divided into two categories: The first is an adaptive dynamic reaction where a corporation could
use the knowledge and technology developed by piracy to improve both business and
distribution models. The second category is a reactionary approach that would view the
community and its behavior as morally deviant, which could lead to negative social sanctions.
A firm has two possibilities to eliminate copies: it can lower its price or it can spend
additional resources in a technology that increases the detection probability. (Peitz and
Waelbroeck 2006, 453).
In tandem with the evolution of the Peer-to-Peer models, the libertarian pro-piracy
movement led government, users, and corporations to initiate a dialogue centered on the rights to
privacy, copyright protections, monetization, and online ethics. The anachronistic stance
highlighted the fact that the laws to govern the Internet had been written long before its current
incarnation had taken shape, making them less applicable and relevant. Under this social and
legal approach, the research phase reflected the strengths and weaknesses of file-sharing and
emphasized a need for a systemic evolution in order to incorporate the benefits from newly
developed technologies.
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3. Phase 3: Individual User Behavior and Motivations (Altruism vs. Selfishness) 2008-
Phase 3 emerged in the wake of criticism of some of the underlying assumptions that
underscored the scholarship of phases 1 and 2. According to this critique, HCI analysis of early
peer-to-peer communities’ shortcomings laid in its assumption of user’s rational choice
reasoning. Accordingly, it was asserted that individuals were often perceived as nodes in a
system guided by rationality. However, humans and their individual behaviors, choices, and
philosophies were not as predictable as that initial model suggested. Rather, people acted in a
manner that was inconsistent with the standards that had been set forth in the HCI studies. Two
traits that were particularly visible and had not been accounted for as unpredictable human
qualities were the selfishness and altruism that motivated many individual choices.
To be successful, a peer-to-peer system must implement one of the“…bandwidth trading
schemes…”(Eger and Killat 2008, 201) to encourage altruistic actions and motivations. Eger and
Killat argued that the benefits of BitTorrent downloading technology were not distributed
evenly. Rather, BitTorrent assigns users with more resources and bandwidth greater priority
resulting in even faster Internet speeds and better connectivity.
These scholars discussed how the BitTorrent protocol has a built-in reciprocal
mechanism that increases download speeds of a user who is contributing data at high speeds and
limits download speeds of a user who is not contributing data. “BitTorrent's tit-for-tat strategy
gives peers an incentive to contribute upload bandwidth to the network. But it cannot avoid
unfairness between peers with respect to the experienced download performance...” (Eger and
Killat 2008, 210).
Users of BitTorrent communities were cited as exhibiting a behavior known as hoarding.
Hoarding takes place when the class of very rich users does not spend their accumulated wealth,
creating a credit squeeze. These “data-rich” users hoard their upload to themselves to use as
“credit”, choosing their personal interests over those of the community.
Our simulation results show that even in a trivial model where all peers have the same capacities and user
behaviour, all swarms have equal popularity and all peers start with equal credits, the performance of the
system may be inhibited by credit shortages. This is because high levels of credit skew emerge due to the
fact that a peer can only upload a file it has already downloaded. (Hales et al. 2009, 103)
When the selfish act of hoarding creates “a "credit squeeze", lack of spending of
accumulated credit impacts the overall efficiency of private tracker systems” (Hales et al. 2009,
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104). This problem can be addressed by implementation of policies that resulting in infusions of
capital into the economy. These types of policies frequently take “…the form of a "seeding
bonus"…” (Hales et al. 2009, 103) that can be used to ameliorate the credit squeeze.
Implementing this solution to counteract damage done by hoarding behaviors creates a problem;
it displays acceptance of selfish behavior and maintains an ever-increasing gap between the
people with more and less resources, which makes it more difficult to ascend classes.
Scholars in the third phase expanded on the motivations of users. Rather than
emphasizing the opportunistic nature of users to explain their motivations, third phase scholars
elaborated on their social psychological dimensions to incorporate mixed sentiments and
motivations of altruism and selfishness. Scholars further suggested that a Peer-to-Peer system
seeking efficiency and longevity must implement economically-oriented mechanisms to
account/control for these user characteristics.
4. Phase 4: Economics and Sustainability of Torrent Trackers 2010-2012
Phase 4 aggregated the data and conclusions from previous scholarship and aimed to
incorporate it into an optimized data economy that balances users’ sharing motivations (i.e.
selfish, altruistic or opportunistic) with a collective aspiration to enlarge the shared data base.
This aggregation led scholars to devise alterations to the data-economy to better predict users’
needs, wants, motivations, and actions. The meta-analysis led to a number of results that laid out
certain basic requirements for communities to meet in order to be efficient. In their 2010 work,
Dejean et. al described these requirements in terms of size, accessibility, and economics.
For a community to be efficient, it must achieve and maintain an optimal size, because
there is “…a positive relationship between the size of a community and the amount of collective
goods provided. Initially, scholars estimated “...the optimal size for...[a Peer-to-Peer] community
is bounded.” (Dejean et. al 2010, 4). However, later scholarship found “...individual incentives to
contribute slightly decrease with community size” (Dejean et. al 2010, 2).
The need for control and strict moderation in terms of the community’s size became
clear. When controls were set in terms of amount, behavior of users led to the creation of smaller
and more specialized communities. These “…specialized communities are more efficient than
general communities to promote cooperative behavior.” (Dejean et. al 2010, 2). The specialized
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communities also have strictly codified rules that “…play an active role to manage voluntary
contributions and improve file-sharing performance.” (Dejean, et. al 2010, 2).
This information is presented with the intention that it be used to create a more
sustainable environment for users that counters harmful behaviors in a sustainable manner.
First, these communities are more exposed to free-riding than physical communities
because they gather anonymous and distant users (Adar and Huberman, 2000; Dang
Nguyen and Penard, 2007; Krishnan et al., 2007).” (Dejean et. al 2010, 4)
Sustainability and consistency are viewed as pivotal elements to this type of community
because of their potential for volatility, “… these communities can be extremely volatile because
the cost of entry and exit is low. They can attract thousands of new members in a few days, but
their size can also rapidly decrease” (Krishnan et al. 2003). To engage the challenge of volatility,
Dejean proposed Private BitTorrent communities as a more stable, efficient, and governable
Peer-to-Peer Community model resulting, in a more consistent and reliable user-base.
With that in mind, individual incentives for users who exhibited altruistic behaviors were
The BitTorrent protocol was designed by Bram Cohen to overcome this issue. It is based
on a tit-for-tat mechanism of file-sharing that imposes a minimum of cooperation... Each
peer is modeled as an intelligent automaton that maximizes its own interest (i.e. the
downloading rate), rewarding peers who cooperate and punishing those who do not share.
The more pieces of files a leecher is uploading towards another peer, the more pieces of
files he can download from that peer. (Dejean et. al 2010, 7)
Accordingly, Dejean discussed how BitTorrent communities implement an enforced
sharing ratio policy in order to answer the needs that these communities have to maintain a
trusted system that performs tracking, supports accountability, and incentivizes good behavior.
While the exact sharing ratio that each community chooses differs, there is a universal adoption
of tracking the ratio and an almost universal adoption of a minimum ratio requirement.
The enforced sharing ratio varies across communities, but is usually around 1 (the members must share at
least as much as they download). This coercive rule should prevent individual voluntary contributions from
shrinking whatever the size of the community, enhancing the stability of large communities. But by
providing external incentives this rule could crowd-out intrinsic motivations to contribute….and undermine
the quality of content shared by the peers. If the impact is clearly positive regarding the ratio of seeders to
leechers, this rule has more ambiguous effects on the number of files. (Dejean et. al 2010, 13)
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In order to enforce these minimum requirements on their users, torrent communities
adopted a closed platform that resulted in the formation of exclusive accessibility. These private
communities chose to promote exclusivity in order to increase the efficiency of the exchanges
occurring within the their borders. Private communities are defined as communities where
“…new users must be invited by a member of this community.” (Dejean et. al 2010, 12). These
communities employ an “…enforced sharing ratio…” (Dejean et. al 2010, 13) and have become
specialized in the “… nature of content exchanged.” (Dejean et. al 2010, 13) (i.e. focus only on
music, movies, etc.). It is noted that filtering mechanisms that the community employs, such as
the invitation system and minimum ratio, foster cooperative behavior and reciprocity among
members. Scholars discussed the added affordances that were enabled in these systems. Kash
(2012) stated that:
Private communities build on the BitTorrent protocol by developing their own policies
and mechanisms for motivating members to share content and contribute resources.
Communities tend to be organized around a particular interest e.g., live concert
recordings, high definition movies, or the newest TV shows-and registered members
acquire files of interest in return for sharing files with like- minded users. (Kash et al.
2012, 221)
According to Dejean, as a result of these adopted measures, private communities
expected to have higher voluntary contributions and a homophily effect resulting in homogenous
user base. Private torrent communities used these rules as a solution since it met their needs for
success as a peer-to-peer community.
Using a predator prey model, Chen (2011) studied the seeder/leecher Ratio [SLR]
ecology and developed the algorithmic ability “…to analyze and achieve the stable SLR range to
solve “Poor Downloading Motivation” problem”(Chen et. al 2011, 6). Abilities like this resulted
in private trackers that had faster speeds, better organization, and higher quality than their public
tracker counterparts.
Our most important findings are that: (1) the download speeds in private communities are
3-5 times higher than in public communities; (2) the observed average download speeds
are at least 4 times as high as those observed in 2003-2004; (3) around 47-48% of the
peers in public communities are unconnectable, whereas in private communities this is
only 20-34%; (4) the seeder/leecher ratios in private communities are at least 10 times as
large as those in public communities; (5) peers seed for a significantly longer duration in
private communities, with more than 43% of the peers seeding longer than 1 day; (6) in
private communities, almost all data is supplied by seeders, therefore rendering the
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contribution and importance of BitTorrent's tit-for-tat mechanism virtually irrelevant.
(Meulpolder et. al 2010, 5)
The findings highlighted above illustrate the potential quality that can be achieved when
a private community has been technically and efficiently designed.
…the rules designed by the administrators of these communities have a significant impact on their
performance and their sustainable size. We find that stricter monitoring schemes have a positive impact on
the incentives to contribute. However, the amount of unique files shared is lower in a private community.
In other words, the provision of a large catalog (or a long tail) of contents that match individual preferences
cannot be disconnected from the design and management of these virtual communities. This challenging
issue deserves further investigation. (Dejean 2010, 20)
To sum, HCI Research analyzing BitTorrent communities has chronicled and reviewed
the development of torrenting technology and the surrounding communal constructs. Adopting
an interdisciplinary orientation, this scholarship applied a scientific approach in its investigation
of these communities. Specifically, the research proposed and developed three parameters: 1) A
modified model of a non-material economy to be used by a private tracker; 2) Social
enforcement mechanisms using numerical measures; 3) Ways to incorporate human decisions
into algorithmic models. HCI scholarship highlighted the development of the knowledge/data
economy and its cultural impact.
HCI stresses rationality in its approach. In spite of its overall agenda to converge human
and technological aspects, its emphasis apparently is largely set on the technological facets. The
HCI legacy, as it ascribes to BitTorrent communities, seeks to address the tension that exists
between creating a more efficient system that engineers not only its software, but its users to fit
the system. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the sociology of the scientific
enterprise of HCI research, the merits of a numerical computer science oriented analysis are
clear. A synthesis of the aforementioned HCI insights, combined with virtual ethnographic
methods and the sociological theories highlighted will be used to frame the case study at hand.
To conclude, the primary focus of a private peer-to-peer community is to provide
members with access to collective digital goods. To better achieve these goals, private peer-to-
peer communities can engineer their rules and expectations of user behavior to precipitate trust
between users and foster a sense of community and reciprocity, as will be further elaborated.
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III. Methodology
As aforementioned, this study aims to uncover the ways that semi-anonymous and
decentralized collectives construct a community. As discussed earlier, BitTorrent communities
have been investigated with an eye to their technological facet through an HCI lens.
Ethnographic investigations of online communities include highlighted rituals, norms, identity
construction, and the phenomenology of users. In this study, I aim to converge the
methodological approaches underlying both research traditions by developing a balanced
methodological approach that attributes importance to both the cultural and technological
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 by becoming 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. 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 example on
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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.
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.
A. Access, Trust and Embedded Knowledge Acquisition
In order to carry out this research, an intimate understanding of the site’s internal
machinations, as well as its explicit and implicit rule structure was essential. This embedded
knowledge was collected from interviews conducted over various virtual mediums (irc, Private
Messages (PM), Skype, gchat, site forums), and user’s public sitewide measures (ratio, user-
class, number of forum posts), and other torrent related publications.
The project was contingent upon the trust of a traditionally cautious and publicity-averse
community and its members. The subjects’ eventual trust and interest resulted in personal and
very informative one-on-one interviews. The interview questions (see Fig. 2) were crafted to
investigate the precise nature of a user’s subjective perception of himself within the context of
the website, and not simply the official designation he is granted by the site.
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B. Site Selection and Description
The research focuses on the private BitTorrent Community of
(MusicTorrents). has been selected as it is a highly salient community in the
private BitTorrent landscape. This is largely due to its historical prominence and its impact on
private BitTorrent communities.
I learned of the existence and centrality of BitTorrent communities by extensive efforts
on search engines and from users’ accounts on forums and technology blogs. While searching for
an optimal site, I stumbled across one site referencing the fact that this torrent tracker was highly
prominent within the Torrenting landscape.
When writing about the community prominent technology blogs, reference the
community’s significance by indicating that the tracker has a large and well-organized database
of torrents. Hence, examining the case of enables us to view this as an
extreme (or deviant) case study that allows to identify the proclivities that enable the
construction of a semi-anonymous, decentralized, and closed online community.
Indeed, MusicTorrents is considered one of the largest and most established private
trackers. A tracker is a search engine that provides users with links distributed in the form of
torrent files containing a link to a file. When read by torrent clients, these links direct the client
application to identify all of the people who are sharing the album, and then download it from a
selection of files from other users. The torrenting community is comprised of two types of
trackers, public and private. Public trackers are open to all users, require no registration, and are
very loosely moderated. Private trackers are exclusive and demand an adherence to the
community’s highly codified and rigid bureaucracy, rules, and quality standards. In addition,
they traditionally specialize in a particular subset of media (i.e. only music or only television
shows or only movies) on their heavily moderated torrent index.
MusicTorrents is a hub of online torrenting culture. Changes in their code, norms, and
decisions resonate throughout the online private torrenting communities. Many other private
trackers use similar open-source code and a similar version of their rules and guidelines. This
tracker is a self-sustaining entity that affects many others as well being a distributive hub of
online culture, learning and social exchange, as will be subsequently discussed.
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43 chose to specialize only in the distribution of music, e-books, and
applications. They also implemented controls that limited all access to the trackers’ features and
functions to registered members. The site obscures the ‘real’ identity of its users while assigning
them alternate digital identities; the permanence of these virtual profiles facilitates and
encourages virtual social interactions. The community has a secretive, unique, and pioneering
nature as evidenced by their modus operandi.
C. Methodological Challenges
The study of BitTorrent communities evoked several challenges that were encountered in
the investigation of this community.
1. Trust amongst Deviant Communities
In interacting with the community, reticence was a frequent occurrence. This community
centered on the questionable legality of the fundamental practice in which its members were
engaged. As an outsider seeking to learn and publish information about a community where file-
sharing occurs, I was required to make and repeat frequently promises of anonymity and
obfuscation. Members and staff were concerned with their private user details being revealed and
the community’s name, address, and information being broadcast publicly. Discussions took
place over many mediums. Eventually, members of the community grew to trust me because of
the understandings and relationships that resulted from the extensive discussions.
Some members refused contact. Others were unwilling to discuss the community and
their place in it in any terms but the broadest, fearing repercussions of their identities being
published as participants in this deviant community. This challenge was addressed by gaining
access to an in-group and being validated and vouched for by users with high prestige/userclass.
Once I gained the trust of a community member with high user class admittance, that user
vouched for me and became a mediator between the community and me. This inspired other
members of the community to place their trust in me as well.
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2. Validity in an Anonymous Setting
In offline communities, members and the researcher are familiar with each other’s visible
identities. Under these circumstances, there is an overt consistency between the basic
broadcasted parts of a persons’ identity and the researcher’s perception of a subject. In this
research, the community intentionally hides all information about a user that could be used to
discover their offline identities, making it a semi-anonymous community.
The researcher in this paper met this challenge by adopting similar means used by other
ethnographers, such as using permanent anonymous online identities to explore virtual
communities (see Baym, 2000; Blais, 2001; Danet, 2001; Boelstroff, 2008). The researcher used
the recurrent and stable MusicTorrents avatars and people as anchors to ground his analysis.
This identity validated this individual’s membership in the community and addressed the
perception of the individual in the context of the community.
3. Virtual Ethnographic Ethics
This research was carried out in an arena whose private vs. public status is still contested,
making ethical considerations complex as they involve innate tensions between the public
offerings of internet communication, and expectations of user privacy. Accordingly, extensive
measures were taken to protect the study’s subjects and to maximize their protection from
potential exposure and harm.
The Association of Internet researchers (AoIR), in their 2012 ethics recommendations,
discuss some challenges of internet related research:
“Individual and cultural definitions and expectations of privacy are ambiguous, contested, and changing.
People may operate in public spaces but maintain strong perceptions or expectations of privacy. Or, they
may acknowledge that the substance of their communication is public, but that the specific context in which
it appears implies restrictions on how that information is -- or ought to be -- used by other parties. Data
aggregators or search tools make information accessible to a wider public than what might have been
originally intended.” (Markham 2012, 6)
Accordingly, all information provided by community participants was extensively
anonymized and stored in an encrypted offline fashion so that no identification of the participants
could occur. Understanding the ambiguous nature of the virtual arena is a conversation that has
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been ongoing among researchers, “the enterprise of internet research is expansive -- that is
globally informed but also situated in innumerable locales.” (Markham 2012, 2).
Frequently, when my ethnographic goals to illustrate and represent the community and its
members posed potential harm to the community or interview subjects (usually because it could
provide sensitive information that might potentially be used to identify them, that risk was
mitigated by removing that discussion, images, or information in order to reduce harm. Another
consideration that was deliberated upon was “…if the TOS [Terms of Service] defines the space
as off limits for researchers but the individuals want to participate in public research of this
space, what risk might exist for either the researcher or individual involved?” (Markham 2012,
Following AoIR guidelines, I asked myself, “what are the ethical expectations users
attach to the venue in which they are interacting, particularly around issues of privacy? Both for
individual participants as well as the community as a whole?” (Markham 2012, 8). Consistently
with these standards, throughout the research and publication process every attempt was made to
ensure anonymity and minimize the risk of identification of any of the research subjects. In this
way the research prioritized the rights of the individual over the research data and findings.
To conclude, in order to account for ethical challenges, the dislocation of the arena, the
decentralized nature of the community, the statistical validity, and general community
cooperation were challenges detailed above. All of these challenges were encountered in the
creation and implementation of the methodological paradigm.
D. Data Gathering
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.
As aforementioned, I developed a semi-structured list of questions arranged by theme to
help guide the overall interview progress. This included background questions about a user’s site
profile and identity, a set of questions designed to uncover a user’s online practices and modes of
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conduct in the community, and a final set of questions that discussed her/his conception of the
BitTorrent community (see Fig. 2).
The developed approach sought to encourage the subjects to express their opinions on the
things they felt most passionately about regarding the community. The interviews relied on
generating and sparking excitement and passion from the subjects being interviewed. The design
resulted in interviews that had a similar thematic coherence and organization to them, but let
each individual dictate the placement, length of answers, and emphasis within the thematic
construct. By doing so, the gathered data elicited narratives and representations of social
worldview, including beliefs, ideologies, mode of justification, and motivations of community
I interviewed 7 subjects that were mostly males under age 35. After transcribing the
interviews, I gathered additional data about each user’s community oriented profile statistics
visible in the Table 1 below:
Table 1: Site-wide User Data
These characteristics were acquired by accessing each member’s publicly available
profile page, which contains the site-wide statistics of that user. When certain statistics were
unavailable, I sent follow-up questions regarding those values to members. Findings from the
data collection illustrated that on an individual basis, every single user entered data for each of
the following three categories: transported interview, avatar image, and user tracked sitewide
I also performed my own observation on the interface by interacting with it, creating a
profile, sending messages, reading and posting on the forums and wiki, and joining in
community IRC discussions. This complemented information that was gathered from inspecting
technology bloggers’ postings on MusicTorrents. The data was used to establish a sense of
context and to derive constructs implemented by MusicTorrents in the building of its semi-
anonymous, decentralized, private torrent community.
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E. Mixed Method Analysis
The data analysis approach utilized methods derived from principles set forth by
grounded theory (Shkedi 2005; Glaser and Strauss 1967). The analysis was carried out using the
qualitative analysis program, Nvivo. While rich, the data provided a complex network of ideas
and themes that needed to be interpreted. Initially, the researcher manipulated the data in many
different ways to become more familiar with it. “The most fundamental approach to data analysis
is to engage in a rigorous intellectual process of working deeply and intimately with ideas”
(Boellstorff et al. 2012, 159). As I became familiar with the intricacy of the data, I incorporated
the use of mixed method qualitative analysis software with a critical ethnographic approach.
The gathered ethnographic data was converted using a systematic approach to
consistently categorize many fragments of data. Each user’s response and other data were
mapped into qualitative terms; they were tagged and coded into a conceptual paradigm created
by the researcher. This action encompassed the necessary first step of virtual ethnographic
For this first step, the data was systematized to reveal patterns that might lead to larger
insights when combined with other concepts and principles. Systematization was performed by
reviewing the material, classifying and annotating it where needed. This process usually involves
some form of tagging; that is, labeling data with micro-units such as “gender,” “conflict,” “alts,”
and then moving to coding. (Boellstorff et al. 2012, 165). Subsequently, I composed a list of a-
priori categories and then added more categories and structure throughout the process of coding.
Once all of the interviews were transcribed, they were coded according to the list of
themes using the mixed method analysis software Nvivo to help “…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 table 2 below:
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Table 2: A List of the Themes Coded for and Preliminary Results
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IV. Findings
Ethnographic observations and interview analysis point to three major modes of
community building employed by private Torrent Tracker Communities as illustrated in the
MusicTorrents case study. This includes:
A. Boundary Construction - Seeking to create an exclusive community of technological
virtuosos, the community implements social controls, a vetting process for new members,
and making publicly available quantitative measures of social capital.
B. Membership Maintenance - To maintain user membership and avoid anomic
inclinations, the community maintains rigid social exchange constructs that conform its
userbase to adhere to a set of accepted guidelines. These agreed-upon rules are made
explicit and visible, and reinforced by implementing tracking and enforcement
mechanisms that reward pro-social behavior in the context of the meritocratic-stratified
system, and negatively sanction selfish acts.
C. Belonging and Communal Solidarity - In promoting a collective sensibility,
community activists have created an environment that recognizes users for their
contributions and rewards them with prestige. Accordingly, the sense of communal
affinity is conveyed through a gradual socialization process that members undergo to
become culturally fluent. Hence, fully socialized users feel compelled to assist the
community thrive, by proactively contributing in an altruistic manner.
A. Boundary Construction: Engaging and Entering the Private Torrent
In processes of community construction, a key issue is that of making and maintaining
social boundaries. Social boundaries are conducive in delimiting the collective distinction of
members as in or out of the social system, and fostering group identity. In constructing their
social boundaries, the MusicTorrents community has erected an elaborate vetting process serving
as a rite of passage that individuals seeking membership must undergo. The boundary construct
filters out non-contributive or potentially harmful candidates 2. This is accomplished by testing
for the technological virtuosity necessary to be a beneficial denizen of this collective. Through
2 Harmful candidates refers to candidates seeking to destabilize the system on which the community is based such as
‘ratio cheaters’ and leechers. See Glossary for explanation of these terms
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this process, the community implicitly encapsulates its critique towards popular forms of file-
sharing (comparable to creed of the religious virtuoso, see Silber, 1995). This process maintains
a high level of proficiency in the community and affirms its exclusivity and elitism. This vetting
process, and further mechanisms implemented in place for maintaining an account, are separate
and exclude users who have limited knowledge and do not contribute from those users who
positively impact the community and its collective digital commodities.
The MusicTorrents community has designed its boundaries in an attempt to meet its basic
mission statement of attracting users passionate about music, with sufficient technical
comprehension to use the site and protocols correctly. Candidates who wish to join the
community may attempt to do so in one of two ways. The first method of acceptance is a
snowballed social networking approach where invitations are issued by a community member of
sufficient rank and privilege. This member vouches for the candidate and is accountable for any
potential misdeeds of the invitee. If the candidate is not familiar with any MusicTorrents
members willing to vouch for them, a candidate can go through a text-only interview process
executed in a chatroom environment, on an Internet Relay Chat (IRC) client 3. This interview is
designed to test a user’s technical proficiency with the private torrenting protocols.
When inviting a candidate to the MusicTorrents community, a member is in effect
attesting to the technological and moral competency of the invitee, asserting that the candidate
will be a productive and helpful member. Members were asked to typify the nature of what
constitutes an ideal new member. To this query, subjects provided impassioned answers. For
example, User F said that:
A love for music, an appreciation of technology as a whole and a respect for the Internet
as a threshold you have to cross to understand. What the site does…talk to my
grandparents about it; they don’t want or need it… You need to appreciate technology
enough to be willing to break the law. That will set a lot of people apart. A lot of people
are not willing to break the law, so that’s a large factor. Love of Internet, love of
technology… appreciation of music.” (User F Interview)
User F is emphasizing the technological underpinnings of the community and its
significance as a provider of a file-sharing system. User F emphasizes that the affinity for
technology must be enough to make you willing to break the law. These characteristics are
3 See glossary for explanation of IRC clients
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accentuated via a metaphor using a generational digital gap (“Talk to my grandparents”). User A
highlights similar characteristics, yet attributes them to morality and freedom:
“[Users should be] Generally tech savvy, understand copyright law, and the importance
of a free and open Internet. I think these would all be core values [of candidates and
members].” (User A Interview)
Users C, D, and E all focus on the balance between savviness and propensity for music that is
needed to be a members:
“Users are a fairly vocal music community. They are likely to spread the word about a
band they like.” (User C Interview)
“[Users are] nerds, computer savvy, online community savvy…You wouldn’t teach your
grandma MusicTorrents.” (User D Interview)
“Members are information seekers, music seekers, a little bit offbeat, well rounded…
intimidating, intelligent… [and they] know how to use torrents.” (User E Interview)
These and other not included responses highlight certain expectations regarding the
characteristics of users and viable candidates. Those characteristics include: A love of the
Internet, music, and openness along with a willingness to break the law and a degree of
technological savvy. Once a candidate is determined to have met these criteria, he or she is
invited to become a member of the community.
Once the invitation is used to create a new account, the inviting member is credited with
a new entry (in his ‘invite tree’ 4), which increases accumulated social capital within the
community. It should be noted that the inviter is held accountable for any shortcoming of his
invitee. If the invitee is found to be violating rules (i.e. misreporting download/upload statistics
to gain a higher ratio, and trading or selling invitations) than the original inviter will be
sanctioned accordingly. This accountability construct thickens boundaries as users will be less
likely to invite new members. Since the interview process may be the only viable option for
some candidates seeking admittance, the scarcity of direct invitations means a restriction on the
flow of new members.
4 An invite tree is a listing of all members invited by a user, a bigger invite tree results in more prestige.
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The second method through which a user can gain admittance to the community is the
interview admissions process. In order to help candidates succeed, the community set up an
external website dedicated to interview preparation. On this website, users can find and learn all
of the information needed in order to better understand the MusicTorrents community. They can
learn about different types of music files and the fundamental technologies involved with
Once a candidate feels prepared, he or she is interviewed on IRC by an existing member
who verifies their bandwidth, and tests their knowledge of torrenting, and music files. The goal
of this interview is to determine if the candidate has what it takes to be a good, productive
member of the MusicTorrents community. If the candidate does not pass the initial interview,
they may be interviewed twice more (there is a limit of 3 interviews per candidate per lifetime).
If the interviewee successfully displays acceptable levels of technological prowess and passion
for music, then the candidate receives an invitation to join the community and become a
To conclude, MusicTorrents’s boundaries are defined clearly and enforced with vigor,
letting in only a select few. This is due to a highly socially controlled environment. This elitist
community of virtuosos has carved itself a digital enclave in cyberspace that appeals to many
like-minded, technically-oriented music collectors. The combination of the technical and musical
proficiency that MusicTorrents demands yields a type of users known as audiophiles.
B. Membership Maintenance Mechanisms and Reciprocal Social Exchange
Governing a deviant, decentralized, and anonymous community is a challenge, as its
members display individualistic tendencies (Eger and Killat 2008) that could cause them to
disengage from the community, foster chaotic tendencies, and social anomie. To counter these
tendencies, the community implements constructs that drive users to adhere to a threshold of
acceptable behavior necessary to maintain the community. Key features in the construction of a
viable and sustainable community include the institutionalization of shared values and the
establishment of norms. MusicTorrents is notable in its implementation of social controls that
lead to pro-communal behaviors. This is manifested through a users’ progression through
MusicTorrents’ institutional constructs.
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Upon joining the MusicTorrents community, new users select a username, upload an
image to use as an avatar, and add any other information they opt to include in their public
community profile. New members are then assigned a userclass, which is based on three criteria:
1. Ratio - The user’s relative contribution of digital goods to the community, measured
by the proportion of uploaded data divided by downloaded data.
2. Uploads - Introduction of new media files to the community’s database.
3. Community Contributions - Non-Data participation in the community, such as
activities the users engage in that go beyond the scope of file-sharing and have a
social focus (i.e. forum posting, discussions, coding\suggesting new features, or
participation in community-wide projects).
The Userclass construct acts as an explicit hierarchical manifestation of social capital as
determined by the community’s rules; it varies from “User” to “Elite”, with extra privileges
accumulated with each class ascension5. This approach adopts a rational and meticulous
methodology towards self-advancement that encourages exact calculations of pro-social
behavior. Accordingly, the system affords quantifiable measures within the virtual economy of
Immediately upon their admission to the community, users are
expected to learn and adhere to its exacting rules regarding ratio, seeding, and upload
specifications. In order to clearly and simply present all of the rules, the site offers a community
wiki. All rules, how-to guides, FAQ’s, and other relevant site information are made available and
presented simply there. New users are highly encouraged (at the minimum) to read the basic
articles in the wiki to ensure their technical and bureaucratic fluency. All users in the community
undergo constant automated reviews of their technical behavior (ratio, torrent client, seeding) in
order to maintain adherence to the exacting standards. When users fail a review, they are either
warned (with or without punishment) or banned from the community, depending on the severity
of their transgression. This intense and ongoing scrutiny keeps the site functioning effectively
and is an indication of the community’s highly effective and bureaucratic nature.
5 A more detailed explanation of the userclass hierarchy is available in the glossary.
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A key aspect of the social exchange that these mechanisms foster is the quantitative
classification of users’ contributions. Accordingly, the data contributions that users make are
analyzed by an automatic algorithm and defined in terms of an exact numerical contribution. At
first glance, in line with the community’s online guidelines, these measures determines a user's
social standing within the bureaucratic system. In the interviews, when asked questions that
examined the social stratification system, subjects disagreed with this cybernetic despotism.
Rather, subjects felt the quantitative measures alone did not manifest the value of socially
oriented contributions and were not expressed in the userclass designation. When asked about the
value of community participation, subjects responded ambiguously. The question was asked in
the following manner:
“Who in your opinion contributes more?
Option 1: A user with a lot of upload but no other community
Option 2: A user with limited data but high community participation”
The goal of this question was to attempt to comparatively establish the importance of
community participation and its meaning in the digital exchange system. Accordingly, many
members strongly believed that of the two possible contributions a user could make to the site,
the more important type of contribution was actually community participation.
[option] B is providing a service to the site that can only be matched in dollars. They are
giving their time to improve the site, assuming they are helping and answering questions.
Companies pay for that; that’s called tech support. That’s something companies pay for
and these people are giving up their time and doing it for free. That’s an incredible thing.
Uploading a ton of ratio is done if you have the hardware... investing the effort in
improving an online community… the site would survive on ratio alone [but] there would
be no content and then the site would die (User F Interview)
If the discussion are encouraging community interaction, then this person contributes
more because the dissemination of information encourages users to behave well. That
could have more impact than a significant user could. (User A Interview)
Forums are something that keeps the site alive in addition to content. (User A Interview)
There were a few really big albums that I really wanted to discuss with people and that’s
the first place that I would go. (User F Interview)
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These responses indicated that the contributions made by members to the community in
the non-data arena were highly valued. These opinions lent to the act of participation in the
community an additional sense of legitimacy and prestige. The sense of legitimacy derived from
membership and participation in the community fortifies the construction of this online
community. Another construct that assists in sustaining active membership in the community
was described by members as a construct facilitating exchanges with “real life” prestige.
In the course of the interviews, subjects were asked how and if membership in the virtual
community affected them in “real life”. A majority of the responses indicated that the two largest
values derived from membership were the knowledge that resulted from an understanding of the
rules, and instant access to an extensive high quality catalogue of music.
After joining the site, my understanding of torrents and why people use torrents
increased, which has directly affected my understanding of how that traffic appears on a
network. My job now has to do with networking, and torrent traffic is something that
organizations want to [be able to] identify directly. It has contributed to my
understanding of an open and free Internet, and has helped me to seek further knowledge
in that area by generating interest. (User A Interview)
There are frequent references to increases in prestige and social capital, among real life
friends, as members become the go-to source to acquire music.
People ask me to download things for them. It is very obvious they don’t have
membership because then they wouldn’t need help. (User A Interview)
A lot of things are tied into…exchanging digital currency for digital content. I don’t view
it as a real world thing. I buy CD’s; I spend a good amount of money on CD’s because I
derive benefit from owning them. The only reason I use is that until
recently there has not been any reasonable type of alternative. I spend loads on the act of
listening to music. I have certain expectations for that and, until recently, I couldn’t get
what I wanted without the use of MusicTorrents. (User F Interview)
[Membership] Gives me a sense of wealth. (User E Interview)
… [With other services, like Spotify] there is no permanence. [MusicTorrents is] like a
vault that will hold music; that’s why people bother dealing with the site and are so
passionate about it. I’m not a very high up user and I respect it. I would be sad to lose my
tiny little account. (User F Interview)
[You can choose to have] all the restrictions that has or you can have
huge team that costs a lot to check and recheck content, but that is not a practical model
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for a company that is running from the law. They are forced to rely on the community,
cooperating with the quality standards…(User F Interview)
Membership in the community grants individuals a symbolic elitism that defines them as
a more connected, musically knowledgeable, and digitally savvy personality. In addition to
having a more extensive database of available music, community members have the opportunity
to “fall in love with artists before other [non-member] people even hear them” (User E
Interview). One member purchased a T-shirt from the store with a logo of the community on it,
and as a result of that shirt “…people would see [the user wearing] that and get excited and talk
to me about MusicTorrents” (User F Interview). This example serves as an explicit occurrence
where social capital was translated from the online to the physical reality. Indeed, we see a
cultural balance in which elements not reflected quantitatively also play important roles in
determining prestige and social standing.
Ultimately, the community has constructed a balance in which two mechanisms facilitate
exchanges and maintain membership. There are bureaucratically enforced numerical mechanisms
and a social reinforcement mechanism where the community fosters pro-social behaviors. These
two mechanisms have resulted in a user base in which members must, and do, engage frequently
in both of these ‘optimal practices’ that ensure the long term sustainability of the site. The
numerical mechanisms affirm measures suggested in the aforementioned HCI research as being
important for the long term sustainability of torrenting communities. The HCI research however,
failed to account for the socially oriented, pro-community tendencies of the users in the
community expressed by the users that serves to advance their social standing within the
community and beyond.
The aforementioned mechanisms aid the community in constructing and maintaining a
vibrant membership that engages in encouraged behaviors. Accordingly, these mechanisms
reinforced the construct of community in the decentralized semi-anonymous collective.
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C. Belonging and Communal Solidarity
“This site isn’t just a [public tracker like] pirate-bay filled with ads, its community based. If you’re willing to be a
part of a [virtual] community that tells you something…if you’re willing to explore realms online…” (User D
A key component in community building is that of cultivating a sense of belonging.
Belonging is considered a part of membership (McMillan and Chavis 1986, 9) and refers to the
shared affinity of being part of a select collective. In turn, this sense of belonging expressed
communally, contributes to the formation of a collective solidarity.
Accordingly, the MusicTorrents community strives to cultivate a sense of belonging in
their members. Indeed, interviews indicated that the subjects’ sense of communal belonging was
facilitated by a sense of solidarity. This sense of solidarity was attributed by members as the
reason they contribute at levels above the minimal requirements set forth by the by the
aforementioned community boundaries and norms.
When analyzing the parts of the interview surrounding the theme of collectivity within
MusicTorrents, certain recurring themes emerged. Many users felt that membership in the
community fostered shared values. These values included an appreciation of music, technology,
and downloading culture trust, and the Internet as a whole.
“I would say that when I was downloading a lot it was a pretty cool thing to be a part of
and tried to read up on the blog posts and was proud of that status I really wanted a
PU+[Power User (userclass)]” (User A Interview)
User A expressed the ambition to transcend hierarchical class fostered by membership in
the community, and an awareness of the prestige triggered by class ascension. This sentiment
was echoed by most other subjects. The majority of subjects expressed this same yearning to
climb the social ladder and achieve an elevated status within the community that would inspire
Another recurrent shared value that arose in the interviews was the ability to appreciate
music in all of its styles (e.g. classical, scream death metal, contemporary pop) and various
digital formats (i.e. MP3, FLAC6).
6 For a more in depth explanation of different music containers see glossary
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An appreciation for the international nature of music, not everybody likes world music
but everyone recognizes that music is a transnational phenomenon. In the U.S. you
always hear about billboard charts exclusively focused on the U.S. as opposed to charts in
other countries. I think being on there [MusicTorrents] and being around people from
different places, helps recognize the globalization of music (User C Interview)
This notion of the symmetric value of all music was echoed in User E’s interview as the subject
was asked to depict characteristics that all users had in common:
[MusicTorrents users are] Information seekers, Music seekers, A little bit offbeat, [and]
well-rounded. As someone [who has] access to all types of music [members are
generally] listening to [more than]… one genre of music (User E Interview)
Users E and C both discussed individuals’ appreciation of music as collective communal
traits. They described variations in musical tastes as a result being in a virtual community that
featured a geographically and culturally diverse user base. For both subjects, the style of music
did not guide the collective sense of musical empathy. Rather, it was the appreciation of the
concept of music itself, and the choice to participate in an attempt to spread high quality music as
a shared value.
The appreciation of the subjects, however, was not exclusively focused on music. In fact,
many users spent a larger portion of their interview discussing their appreciation of the
technology used in MusicTorrents.
[MusicTorrents’ users have] an appreciation of technology as a whole and a respect for
the Internet. [There is] a threshold you have to cross to understand the site. [I] don’t talk
to my grandparents about [MusicTorrents] and they don’t want or need it. (User F
User F refers to the expertise that the community expects its users to master, and some
generationally-oriented expectations of the userbase. Other users highlighted the active role of
members in virtual community building. User D explains:
You can tell there is a definitely a community behind the screen. Even though you’re on the computer,
there is definitely camaraderie (User D, Interview)
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The spirit of community expressed by User D as “camaraderie” is particularly notable
because it exists in a community in which members are connected without any physical parallels.
Framing camaraderie along with the other aforementioned characteristics, subjects described
MusicTorrents as a successful torrent tracker.
The characterizations of MusicTorrents as successful relied on a combination of
subjective and quantitative measurements. Hence, subjects perceived MusicTorrents as having
both the most prodigious amount of users and the largest amount of data in comparison with
other private music oriented virtual communities.
This site is really awesome. Because this is the [a big] site, so many people see it (User F,
This perceived success of MusicTorrents allows the community to enact more
demanding rules and measures designed to exclude more users; that fosters a stronger sense of
belonging in those who are allowed to join. The resulting elite, exclusive community is
according to User A
… a pretty cool thing to be a part of. (User A Interview)
The ‘coolness’7, User A refers to, implies a sense of admiration or pride derived from
participating in the MusicTorrents’ community. Alongside the benefits of participation in the
community (i.e. access to high quality media), User A uses ‘coolness’ to justify the necessary
investment of efforts users can make to impress their belonging.
To sum, ongoing membership in MusicTorrents includes a gradual socialization of
collective values and abilities. In the construction of its operational paradigms, MusicTorrents
relies upon the communal sense of belonging to drive its members to behaviors that exceed the
explicit minimum requirements.
The repeated depiction of MusicTorrents in similar, if not, identical and positive terms
affirms a sense of belonging. When asked, members of MusicTorrents depicted other members
as technologically savvy, intelligent, well-informed and having good taste regarding music. The
7 On the sociological meanings of "cool" see Danesi, 1994; Thompson, 1973.
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subjects’ descriptions of their senses of collectivity were frequently expressed as a friendly set of
overlapping values and self-interest that had converted a heterogenic collection of people into a
cohesive virtual community.
To conclude, in fortifying its boundaries, fostering reciprocal social exchange
mechanisms, and cultivating a strong sense of belonging, MusicTorrents has crafted a powerful,
loyal, and dedicated community. The administrators of the site have created a space in which the
community fosters a strong spirit of volunteerism with altruistic tendencies.
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V. Conclusions
This research addressed the question of construction of virtual decentralized
communities. Initially, sociological theories relevant to the matter at hand were reviewed. Basic
collective characteristics of communities were discussed, cyberspace was proposed as a modern
iteration of the third place, theories of social exchange were modified to fit virtual reality, and
investigation into the reimagination of the concepts of sharing, piracy, and social deviance in the
new millennium were introduced. In considering the construction of torrenting communities
within the context of the Human Computer Interaction (HCI), explicit conceptions, behaviors,
and mechanisms were highlighted as either essential or detrimental to the existence of private
torrent communities.
Once the larger theoretical context in which these communities developed was made
clear, an ethnographic case study of one notable private BitTorrent community was used to
illustrate the communal mechanisms at work.
The ethnographic investigation of the particular case study illustrated in its findings three
constructs that the community employed in order to foster the optimal community. Fortification
of its boundaries, mechanisms implemented to maintain behaviors, and a sense of belonging all
served to create a cohesive, highly qualified, functional, sustainable, decentralized semi-
anonymous community.
Findings of the study point to four developments that have emerged amongst peer-to-peer
torrenting communities:
A. Beyond Their Clients: The Emergence of Digital Peers
The HCI research adopted a deterministic approach, focusing on the instrumental
classification of the user as a rational predictable node on the Internet; they presented the
technological architecture and commented on it knowledgeably. In this domain, there is an
implicit assumption that technology determines behavior in contrast with 21st century
individualism. Accordingly, the programs that connect peer-to-peer users (‘Clients8’) are
8 See Glossary for detailed explanation of Clients.
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considered the leading influence that shapes the relationships of the peers within the
communities at hand. In contrast, this study points to a Peer-to-Peer collective as more of a
gemeinschaft (Tonnies 1912) community (borrowing Tonnies’ renowned term) than previously
assumed, particularly by HCI scholars.
This coincides with ethnographic studies that commented on the affective nature of
online culture but discounted the technological underpinnings of these societies. This research
highlighted the importance of community and culture in the digital arena, and thus aimed at
linking both streams of research. Themes of collective identity, collaboration, freedom, and
exchange were presented as guiding forces in digital communities.
In accounting for both domains, the community at hand was found to have employed
cultural mechanisms synced with the technological needs of the community. These mechanisms
including fortified boundaries, stringently enforced measurement mechanisms, and a sense of
belonging, facilitated the creation of the new pro-social digital peers.
In accordance with these developments, we see a new portrayal of digital peers, that is to
say individuals as they exist in Peer-to-Peer online settings. These digital peers do not act solely
for their individual benefit at the cost of others. Rather they perceive themselves as a part of a
community, albeit a deviant one, in which they invest a fair amount of time, resources, and
efforts to become a productive member, instead of simply acting as an individually motivated
being. These communities are particularly relevant in the context of modern society, particularly
the American variant of modern society, as the United States frequently and perhaps
paradoxically pursues, investigates, litigates, and nurtures these emergent communities.
B. Freedom and Third Spaces Online
Rather than viewing peer-to-peer communities as utilitarian or cybernetic by nature (as
suggested by the HCI legacy), the study highlights the communal aspects of Peer-to-peer
communities, and suggests that they can be viewed as third places that facilitate a measure of
social moratorium, to lend Kahane’s term (1997).
The MusicTorrents community has by the nature of its individual users and rules,
established itself as a third place that largely adheres to Ray Oldenburg’s characterizations of a
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third place (Oldenburg 1989). For its members, the community exists on the easily accessible
Internet, which also serves as a leveler between participants. Conversations between veteran
users (‘regulars’) and new members (‘newbies’) are one of two main activities that occur.
Although the community maintains a low and secretive profile, once an individual gains access
to it, the benefits of membership become apparent. At MusicTorrents, the above mentioned
characteristics add up to a playful undertone that make the always available community “feel”
like a comfortable and welcoming collective. In this, it is comparable to the local pub or the
“great good place” that Oldenburg discusses.
Needless to say, MusicTorrents represents only a small part of all digital downloading
culture. The accessibility, hierarchy, and restrictions present in the communities differ greatly.
These differences are particularly evident when comparing public tracker communities (e.g. The
Pirate Bay, Torrentz, Isohunt) to more exclusive and secretive private tracker communities.
According to the study’s findings, private Peer-to-Peer communities allow their members large
measures of freedom that is embedded in their social moratoric structure and allow members to
share and pursue less familiar ideas that would encounter resistance if proposed in offline
contexts (e.g. software development, hacking, alternative media). Thus, its secretive mode and
anonymity in a collective environment allow the private community to serve as a testing ground
for ideas to be developed and polished using a trial and error approach.
Many private trackers have been constructed as communities of practice that demand
digital prowess from their users, and have constant supervision from their administrators. In
these communities, contributions of users that go beyond the practice of file-sharing (i.e. forum
comments, formation of groups, coding projects) are encouraged and informally recognized by
fellow users. In interviews, members of MusicTorrents have indicated that their participation and
behavior in the community can be attributed to a mix of two motivations: First, members
expressed a yearning to acquire media efficiently and in high quality. Second, members
conveyed a longing to belong to a community of peers. This reasoning is in line with
descriptions of the uniqueness of informal and third places (Kahane, 1997; Oldenburg, 1989),
and may be perceived as facilitating the sense of freedom at the heart of the digital experience
and movements.
These characteristics set these communities at odds with more canonized and traditional
communities. As a secretive society, MusicTorrents is concerned with facilitating piracy and the
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exchange of content regardless of legality. Hence, this may be perceived as a deviant
community. However, rather than highlighting is deviant attributes, it should be noted that
MusicTorrents’s members’ deviant behavior can be viewed as that of a subversive community
that struggles for freedom as they challenge the control of capitalism. The constraints of
capitalism are difficult to enforce on a decentralized semi-anonymous community designed to
withstand takedown attempts. Thus, primordial background and other traditional limitations that
challenge individuals in physical reality do not apply to this type of virtual community.
In conclusion, these virtual semi-anonymous and decentralized collectives occupy a third
place status. Much of this non-territorial ‘citizenry’ fosters a sense of belonging that inspires
members and motivates them to become and remain a part of the community. As collectives of
resistance, these communities evoke a certain measure of charisma, based on their ability to
intimately understand and guide the culture and norms that govern their membership’s behaviors
and beliefs. This charismatic appeal is complemented by the new modes of exchange fostered by
these communities in cyberspace.
C. New Modes of Social Exchange in the Virtual Marketplace: Towards a Cybernetic-
Affective Approach
Radical transformations imposed by the telecommunication revolution led to the
development of new modes of exchange that utilized ethereal goods and nonmaterial exchanges
(Mauss 1966: Kollock 2001: Golan 2006). MusicTorrents and other private torrent trackers offer
implementations of this new mode of generalized exchange, featuring a highly structured gift
economy that highlights reciprocity, and amalgamates economically driven cybernetic theories
with a fluid and affective approach.
Cybernetically, this exchange model “...effectively establish[es] credit systems, and with
them full-fledged economies."(Kash et al. 2012, 221). These economies are constructed with
rigorous attention to detail and a rational mathematical efficiency approach. This approach
involves designing an ecosystem in which user behaviors are predicted using causal models and
algorithms; this information is used to predict how to best motivate, punish and reward users to
ensure ideal behavior. In short, the cybernetic approach involves the creation of a system that
directs the social exchange among members to ensure a rich, and ever-growing pool of collective
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(digital) goods. As aforementioned, this approach has been proposed and supported by HCI
scholars. This study has demonstrated the existence of an affective approach that amalgamates
with the cybernetic.
Affectively, the MusicTorrents community created additional mechanisms rooted in the
cultural aspects of the community. These constructs involve a fervent community of involvement
and exchange in its forums, chatrooms, and Social Network Service (SNS) interactions. These
interactions assign value beyond the pure cybernetically determined value to user ‘cultural’
In combining the two approaches, private torrent trackers have created economies whose
design manifests a symbiosis fostering an affective (long-term) commitment, along with
cybernetic (short-term) norms and enforcement mechanisms. This combination of approaches
results in an enlarged communal pool of data (fostered by the cybernetic approach), and
maintains the long-term commitment of users to act in ways that support the community
(promoted by its affective properties).
To conclude, the peer-to-peer economy’s structure affirms Dejean’s hypothesis that
torrent communities can “overcome free-riding by providing private incentives or exclusive
services to the active members” (Dejean 2010, 19). This research suggests that in extending the
hypothesis, this exchange model adds an affective component to its economy and uses it to
highlight and maintain the long term commitment of its members. Although the community’s
stated, essential, and defining practice is that of peer-to-peer distribution of media, via the
incorporation of affectivity into its economy, it has evolved into a cultural entity whose influence
extends far beyond that of media files.
D. The Downloading Virtuoso Community
Members in the MusicTorrents’ private peer-to-peer community, and particularly those of
higher ranking in the community, define their position as that of a ‘downloading virtuoso’. This
is to say, they stand in contrast to lay members of the community that either purchase digital
goods, or acquire them by means of public downloading exchange systems (e.g. The Pirate Bay,
DC++, Napster, Soulseek).
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As members are required to adhere to MusicTorrents’ exacting and very demanding
standards, they eventually acquire a high acumen of technical knowledge. Eventually this
knowledge turns members into downloading virtuosos who enjoy a measure of multiplexity (to
borrow Kahane’s 1997 term) within the confines of the site, separating them from laymen who
are not as qualified. While discussing Weber’s analysis of the religious virtuoso, Silber (1995)
asserts that “an abyss separates the virtuoso's lifestyle from that of the layman” (Silber 1995, 26).
As downloading virtuosos, members see themselves as experts on both the technological
aspects, and the cultural (e.g. musical, comparable to fans) distanced far beyond the lay public’s
knowledge. The influence of members’ virtuosity is not, however, limited to the online world
alone. Members described explicit occurrences where their virtuoso status was translated from
the online to the physical reality (demonstrated in the MusicTorrents T-shirt narrative discussed
Contrary to the majority of the communities of practice (in Baym’s terms 2000) including
fan communities (of sports, music, stardom and such), MusicTorrents has constructed a media-
oriented community that has distinguished itself from other downloading populations. The
community has created a stratified prestige system among its members in which prestige is not
determined by musical tastes, but rather by technical fluency and altruistic tendencies.
Furthermore, the quality of a member’s experience in the community is assured, so long as the
member adheres to the explicitly delineated rules. In that case, the member gains the privilege of
virtuosity within a collective of a qualified members in a community with highly fortified
* * *
This research demonstrates the empirical and anthropological richness present in virtual
communities and suggests a tailored combination of ethnographic methodology, as the most
appropriate investigative tool in both this and future investigations of these communities. The
study aimed to investigate the construction of a virtual community in a semi-anonymous and
decentralized collective. Drawing on a theoretical orientation to frame the findings, the research
combined the domains of online ethnography, classical sociology, and Human Computer
Interaction (HCI). In investigating the constructs employed in an exclusive peer-to-peer
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community, findings emphasized the importance of three community-oriented practices.
Boundary Construction and fortification, member maintenance, and a collective sense of
belonging were highlighted in interviews as fundamental constructs.
Through further reflection on the findings, four developments are suggested that involve
emergent developments in users’ online activities in the Internet landscape. These includes the
emergence of digital peers, freedom and third spaces online, a cybernetic-affective approach to
social exchange in the virtual marketplace, and the emergence of downloading virtuoso
E. Shortcomings of the Research
Due to the secretive nature of the communities being investigated, this research has
adopted a limited scope of investigation and analysis. The research was also constrained by a
lack of resources and time. The limited scope of data sources and high level analysis result in the
research resembling that of a rapid ethnography, an approach that involves “…marginalizing or
even eliminating the participant observation component of the research. In the case of online
research, they usually involve interviews paired with the analysis of websites or blogs”
(Boellstorff et al. 2012, 88).
Since the interviews were conducted anonymously via anonymizing platforms, the
veracity and reliability of the statements made by the users as individuals cannot be confirmed.
In addition, the utilization of communication technologies in order to carry out interviews is
frequently cited as problematic because it removes many nonverbal, communicative elements
from the interaction framework.
In addition, the legacy of ethnographic studies on virtual communities contains a lack of
standardization with no established cannon in the field. To meet these challenges, the mixed-
method approach attempted to capitalize on the strengths of certain techniques while negating
their shortcomings. Thus, virtual ethnography was complemented by interview data and semiotic
analysis of websites, media reviews and other sources (as aforementioned in the methodology
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F. Potential Future Areas of Research
Further research in developing and verifying the themes uncovered by this work and
measuring their distribution within other online populations could be conducive for a large-scale
understanding of peer-to-peer communities. This could include large scale data inspection and
longitudinal research, utilizing cutting edge research methods that are most fitting for online
research (i.e. big data, analytics, and data mining).
Following the findings of this study, future research could investigate the value of a third
place as a shared platform of innovative ideas and technologies and its ability to be translated
into new forms of creativity and entrepreneurship. Given the community’s ability to facilitate a
moratoric safe haven for the convergence of ideas, we can expect this to foster new forms of
cultural, political or social ventures that go beyond the parameters of today’s peer-to-peer
communities (e.g. developing new social movements, media content, software).
Research could further review other communal developments in gift and exchange
systems that occur (and have occurred) within the ever-changing technologies and user responses
to these software changes (e.g. ideologies, communities of resistance). Accordingly, attention
could be paid to the changing relationships (e.g. friendships, collegial relations) that emerge and
decline under these social/technological circumstances.
It should be noted that comparative research has always provided the foundation of social
scientific work; with clashing and differing perspectives, compared cultural insights are always
bound to arise. Currently, a particularly absent theme in the literature is a comparative one.
Future research should ethnographically compare and analyze an exclusive online community
(i.e. MusicTorrents) to other closed communities that exist offline, such as the Amish or Jewish
Haredi communities. Comparative investigation of these communities could highlight the
commonalities between the their underpinnings. In comparing two iterations of territorial and
non-territorial closed communities, the research could discuss a myriad of topics in depth. These
include but are not limited to social control, boundary making, socialization, and its implications
to social reproduction.
In light of the emergence of big data investigative tools and further quantitative means, a
return visit to the questions and qualities that have accompanied anthropological research from
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its beginnings may be warranted, albeit in an interdisciplinary, mixed method approach as
demonstrated in this investigation of peer-to-peer communities.
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Figure 2 Interview Beginning Structure
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Figure 3 Sandvine North America Bandwidth Usage
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o Torrent File
A file that contains a link that can be read by a torrent client and used to
download media
“The .torrent contains information about the file, its length, name, and
hashing information, and the url of a tracker.”9
o Torrenting
The act of downloading a torrent file, and then opening it via a client, and
downloading the linked media.
o Torrent Tracker
Website used to track, distribute, and organize torrent files; used to create
an index of available media and users.
“ Trackers are responsible for helping downloaders find each other”10
“Some information about upload and download rates is sent to the tracker,
but that's just for statistics gathering. The tracker’s responsibilities are
strictly limited to helping peers find each other.”11
Private tracker
An exclusive tracker which demands users meet certain
requirements to be admitted and maintain membership
o Client
An program that opens and reads a torrent file, and then downloads the
media that the torrent links to
o A popular client recommended for use by
o Code base
The foundation of a website, used to operate the website itself as well as
the file distribution technology.
o Open source
A method of code development in which a large portion of the code is
shared publicly. Improvements, additions, and changes are submitted by a
large community. These are vetted and integrated into the code eventually
by the administrators.
“anyone interested can download and have free access to program source
“Open source software has its roots in the "free software" movement
started by Richard Stallman in the early 1980s. Stallman founded the Free
Software Foundation (FSF) as a means to counter the trend towards
proprietary development of software packages and the release of software
without the underlying source code. The purpose of the foundation was to
9 (Cohen 2003, 2)
10 (Cohen 2003, 2)
11 (Cohen 2003, 2)
12 (Lakhani and Von Hippel 2003, 925)
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encourage the development of software that would come with a source
code and be available to users for their own modification. A key feature of
FSF-based development is a licensing scheme called `Copyleft'. Under
Copyleft, the author of the program has the traditional and legal
entitlements of copyright protection along with a license for users to
redistribute and change software. The Copyleft license provides unique
distribution terms that gives all users the rights to use, modify and
redistribute the programs code or any program derived from it but only if
the distribution terms are unchanged. Thus, the code and the freedoms
become legally inseparable.”13
o Wiki
A site feature that allows many users to collaborate on the creation and
content of webpages.
o Bitrate
“A bitrate is the number of bits conveyed or transferred in a unit of time.
When talking about music formats, bitrate is used in kilobits per second
(kbps). When comparing files with different bitrates (of the same song),
the file with the higher bitrate has the higher quality.”14
o Forums
Site-wide discussion boards where users can post text, survey questions,
and pictures.
o Ripping
“A way to extract the music files from a CD;” 15 the output can be put in
various containers.
o Containers
Various formats in used to contain data. The most common containers on
the website are for music files are: FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec 16,
and MP3)17
o Uploading
Sending data from a computer to another source.
o Downloading
Receiving data to a computer from another source.
o Peers
Users engaged with a particular torrent.
o A person who is making his data available to others,
seeking to upload it to leechers.
o A person downloading data made available by seeders.
13 (Lakhani and Von Hippel 2003 p 925)
14 (“ Interview Preparation | Audio Formats” 2014)
15 (“ Interview Preparation | CD Burning and CD Ripping” 2014)
16 (“FLAC - Faq” 2014)
17 (<> 2014)
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An exact combination of all peers on a particular torrent. (seeders
+ Leechers = Swarm)
o Avatar
“…virtual worlds allow participants to embody themselves, usually as
avatars… such that they can explore and participate in the virtual world) 18
“…The notion of an “avatar” a Sanskrit word meaning “a god’s
embodiment on earth.””19
An individual’s digital identity that he presents to the online community
usually consists of a picture, username (handle), and accompanying text.
o Peer-to-Peer (P2P)
An exchange of data is initiated and provided by users for users
“A distributed network architecture may be called a Peer-to-Peer (P-to-P,
P2...) network, if the participants share a part of their own hardware
resources (processing power, storage capacity, network link capacity,
printers ...). These shared resources are necessary to provide the Service
and content offered by the network (e. g. file-sharing or shared
workspaces for collaboration): They are accessible by other peers directly,
without passing intermediary entities. The participants of such a network
are thus resource (Service and content) providers as well as resource
(Service and content) requestors…”20
“Although the exact definition of ``peer-to-peer'' is debatable, these
systems typically lack dedicated, centralized infrastructure, but rather
depend on the voluntary participation of peers to contribute resources out
of which the infrastructure is constructed.” (Krishna, Gummadi, Krishna,
and Gribble 2002, 1)
o Decentralized distribution
A peer-to-peer download methodology that relies on users to exchange
data and resources with each other without passing through a central hub
that routes data.
“…decentralized distributed virtual environments (DDVEs). According to
[8], DDVEs promise to deliver the required scalability and load balancing
but complicate consistency provision within such environments. In
centralized virtual environments, consistency is comparably easy to
achieve since only a single copy of data or state representation on a central
instance (server) exists.” 21
o Ratio
Is determined by the calculating the ratio of 
18 (Boellstorff et al. 2012, 7)
19 (Boellstorff et al. 2012, 23)
20 (Schollmeier 2001, 101)
21 (Schloss et al. 2008, 249)
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A measure quantified by the website for the users, it represents a complex
part of the user’s identity. The ratio is a representation of the user’s
contribution to the site in terms of data.
A user who does not upload enough data to compensate for the data that
he downloads is considered a leecher, someone who takes without giving
back to the community. On the opposite end of the spectrum, however,
there are users who are hoarders. Hoarders accrue much ratio by uploading
data, but they hoard their ratio instead of spending it on downloads. This
results in diminished activity and less distribution of the wealth. has two measures of ratio
Minimum required ratio
o This is the minimum amount of ratio that a user is required
to maintain in order to continue membership.
Actual ratio
o This is a measure of a user’s actual ratio. In order to ascend
userclass, this ratio must significantly exceed the minimum
o Userclass22
A division of users into a site hierarchy. The following list is in
hierarchical order (precise wording and amounts have been modified to
protect the communities anonymity)
o Requirements
o Requirements
Been a community member for over X week
Uploaded over X GB
Ratio above X”24
Power User
o Requirements
Been on the site for over X weeks
Uploaded at least X torrents and X GB
Ratio above X”25
o Requirements
Been on the site for at least X weeks
Uploaded at least X torrents and X GB
Ratio above X”26
o Forums posts
22 (“User Classes” 2014)
23 (“User Classes” 2014)
24 (“User Classes” 2014)
25 (“User Classes” 2014)
26 (“User Classes” 2014)
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A numerical measure of the number of times a user posts in the forums
o Original uploads
A numerical measure of the quantity of new material a user uploads to the
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A theoretical essay laying out the argument for the Hoover/Echchaibi concept of "Third Spaces." Will appear soon in a book by the same name.
Full-text available
In this article, the author uses Foucault's largely overlooked but vital concept, the dispositif, in relation to the recent rise of mobility, explosion of data and proliferation of platforms and apps. With a focus on how data an individual generates increasingly moves autonomously of their control, he presents the dispositif of ‘data motility’ to develop a new materialist analysis of the digital human as a discursive and non-discursive assemblage.
Ethnography and Virtual Worlds is the only book of its kind--a concise, comprehensive, and practical guide for students, teachers, designers, and scholars interested in using ethnographic methods to study online virtual worlds, including both game and nongame environments. Written by leading ethnographers of virtual worlds, and focusing on the key method of participant observation, the book provides invaluable advice, tips, guidelines, and principles to aid researchers through every stage of a project, from choosing an online fieldsite to writing and publishing the results. In this useful volume, the coauthors, each of whom is an accomplished virtual world ethnographer, pretty much put to rest threshold questions that might be raised about whether virtual worlds and online cultures can be proper objects of anthropological research. . . . [T]he authors provide as much insight and instructive commentary about traditional ethnography as they do about the ethnography of virtual worlds. © 2012 by Tom Boellstorff, Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce, and T.L. Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
The question of what counts as culture in the spaces of virtual worlds has emerged as a compelling topic for research, and will likely remain so into the foreseeable future. This is a question not just of theory, but of method. In this formative period for an emerging research community on culture in virtual worlds, it is thus crucial to foster a wide range of approaches, and to challenge forms of methodological partisanship that assert the superiority of any one approach.