If you’ve ever used one of the more popular BitTorrent sites (for the record I hear they are wonderful ways to enjoy free media, especially US TV shows you can’t get in countries like, say Spain. That’s what I hear at least.), it probably didn’t take long to realize that they are built on a deep foundation of digital altruism. Obviously those downloading the free files do so from self-interest, as well as the owners of the site who must generate millions of ad impressions per day. But at their heart these are sites built around the “kindness of strangers”: people willing to share for sharing’s sake.
If you stop and think about it, this is really quite remarkable. These digital altruists are willing and able to overcome some pretty significant entry barriers: specifically the time and processing power needed to successfully rip digital media as well as the means to encode the media into a “share-friendly” format. When you add to this the fact that there is always, even for uploaders in Togo, a looming legal threat, their behavior is all the more fascinating.
BitTorrent sites not only rely on digital altruism to generate value, their semi-illegal nature actually decreases some of the other basic motivations for contributing. Reciprocity is obviously not an issue, considering the vast difference between uploaders and downloaders, and the exclusive nature of some of the content (how can the guy that uploaded the leaked Oscar screening copy ever expect others to contribute in a similar way). Reputability is less of a factor, though building your rep within the P2P community itself, is obviously attractive. Still, the self-interest here is really limited to being semi-anonymously cool, since unlike an answers site or any other social learning site I can’t directly reference my contributions when looking for work or expect to be paid for them.
Frankly, the more that I think about it, about the motivations of an uploader, the more they remind me of those of a scientist, inventor, blogger or journalist. The desire to be the first to get the scoop, or to achieve recognition for mastering some new kind of technology feels pretty far removed from the market system, coming closer to our basic needs to create to contribute to a bigger, better world. In fact, though the RIAA would never admit this, many uploaders actually display a kind of revolutionary zeal stemming from their belief in free content. What’s more, there is even less self-interest than in the fields mentioned above. Posting “Ocean’s 13” first won’t increase blog ad revenue, land you a job at a better newspaper or get you tenure. It will make you “cool” in the eyes of thousands.
One final note: the best torrent sites are definitely aware of the power of the digital altruism embedded in their sites. Sites like Mininova actively encourage it with their wonderfully elegant “thank the uploader” feature and their easily posted, easily accessed comment sections. These features fan uploaders digital altruism and have the added benefit of allowing users to easily find the best copies of files as well as spot fakes from a mile off.