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Downloading culture: community building in a decentralized file-sharing collective

Pages 1737-1755 | Received 31 Mar 2016, Accepted 29 Sep 2016, Published online: 19 Oct 2016


File-sharing collectives have significantly disrupted models of digital media distribution since their emergence and widespread popularization in the late 1990s. This study investigates how semi-anonymous and decentralized collectives construct their communities of practice. Conducting a case study of a private torrenting community, data were gathered via participant observation, interviews, and online postings (i.e., blogs and forums). Findings challenged dominant notions of opportunism, selfishness and task-oriented individualism advanced by Human–Computer Interaction scholars. Three key constructs were identified in private torrent community building: boundary construction, membership maintenance, and a sense of belonging and solidarity. Findings illustrate how a file-sharing community cultivates the formation of prosocial digital peers, fosters an affective approach to peer-to-peer collectives, and ultimately forges a downloading virtuoso community. This sisyphean, goal-oriented community seeks to create a comprehensive archive of media artifacts independent of and in opposition to dominant corporate platforms. The community demonstrates a downloading culture inspired by technological design, yet driven by trust and solidarity.


The authors wish to thank the editor, Brian Loader, and the anonymous reviewers of Information, Communication and Society for their reflective comments. In addition, thanks are given to David Lehmann for his helpful comments on an earlier draft and Betsy Benjaminson and Dr Betsy Diamant-Cohen for their devoted editing of the manuscript.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors

Alon Diamant-Cohen completed his Master of Arts in Social Anthropology and Sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and collaborates on digital research projects with the University of Haifa. His research interests include digital ethnography, mixed-method analysis, and online communities. [email: adiamantcohen@gmail.com].

Oren Golan is a faculty member at the Faculty of Education at the University of Haifa and a principal researcher at Israel’s LINKS Center of Scientific Excellence. Golan’s axis of research centers on the relations between new media, community, and informal education. [email: oren.golan@edtech.haifa.ac.il].


1. Sharing ratio is a decimal value assigned to each member and visible to the entire community, and is calculated by ratio = uploaded data/downloaded data.

2. Harmful candidates references individuals seeking to act selfishly (i.e., ‘ratio cheaters’ and ‘leechers’) or unable to contribute (i.e., limited connectivity, censored networks, and bad computer).

3. MusicTorrents maintains a list of disqualifying geographic locations due to high rates of unacceptable conduct (i.e., reporting false ratio statistics, and limited or censored bandwidth).

Additional information


This work was supported by the I-CORE Program of the Planning and Budgeting Committee and The Israel Science Foundation [grant No. 1716/12].

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