Mechanisms for Understanding Participation in Online File Sharing

Mechanisms for Understanding Participation in Online File Sharing

Kenneth Shemroske (University of Southern Indiana, Evansville, IN, USA) and Leiser Silva (University of Houston, Houston, TX, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/IJICTHD.2015010102


This study researches behavior associated with online file sharing activities. Specifically, a technology known as ‘Bittorrent' is studied in an auto-observational technique and supported by information gained through forums and blogs to gain insight. The main research question the authors ask is: what are the factors and processes that facilitate an individual's participation in online sharing of copyrighted files? They propose a social mechanism that concentrates on the actions of individuals leading up to and including their participation in a group file sharing activity. A higher level mechanism is then presented which links individual participation with exogenous forces. This research addresses a need for understanding the behaviors of those that choose to participate in online file sharing of copyrighted digital media. Further the proposal of mechanisms presented here may prove fruitful for use in studies beyond the context used here.
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Online File Sharing has not only changed the perspective from which we view ownership of information (Lessig, 1999) but it has changed the way we interact. This study uses the former as an argument for the importance in understanding the latter. Here we look at a commonly used file sharing software tool called ‘Bittorrent’. Bittorrent is a file sharing application (and also the name of the protocol which enables this application) currently being used to download primarily multimedia files (i.e. music, movies, books). In examining this tool and its uses we find there are certain protocols or etiquette that is necessary for both success in working with the tool at the individual level, and success for the continued use of the tool throughout the community.

This study aims at answering the following question: what are the factors and processes that facilitate an individual’s participation in online sharing of copyrighted files? This is a puzzling question because the sharing of copyrighted material could be considered unethical or unlawful (Lessig, 1999) so it is reasonable to assume that people would refrain from this practice. While there is a body of literature which has identified factors leading to intentions to participate in such an activity (Chen, et al., 2008; Chiou, et al., 2005; Gopal, et al., 2004; Ingram & Hinduja, 2010; Kwong & Lee, 2002; Shang, et al., 2007; Xia, et al., 2012), there is little which has been done to understand the interactions between all factors, members, and technologies as an entire system. Further research has suggested the phenomenon can be best viewed from multiple angles/categories of research (Lee, et al., 2011). This study follows after those that have taken a more holistic approach to the problem (Beekhuyzen & von Hellens, 2009) and seeks to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon through proposing a social mechanism that depicts the process (Mayntz, 2004). This mechanism views the phenomenon as an interaction of parts (social, psychological, and technological) and analyzes their interaction as a whole. Further addressed is the process by which individual actions comprise the mechanism.

Thus, we are interested in theorizing on how individual activities are related to macro social processes, such as the effect that these groups may have in values and culture, namely the indifference that Bittorrent members may show towards the buying of digital music; we deem social exchange theory an appropriate lens for facilitating this analysis. From a research viewpoint this study is important in that it will propose a model, a social mechanism, which not only shows the properties of involvement within the online file sharing domain – key for understanding this phenomenon, but also can be the basis of further confirmatory studies of Bittorrent, other peer to peer (P2P) technologies, or completely different contexts.

The organization of this paper is as follows. After the introduction we present the theoretical background of our study. We then discuss our research method and present the narrative of our case. The narrative consists of a thick description of the different steps required to use Bittorrent software and to participate in an online file sharing group activity. The narrative is followed by an analysis which articulates two social mechanisms, one describes participation in a Bittorrent file sharing activity, the other presents a macro perspective of how the file sharing community may impact the music industry. We conclude the paper by presenting a reflection on how these mechanisms address the intentions of this study.

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