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Anthropology of P2P: “A Day in the Life…”

Much hullabaloo has been raised by the disregard of internet users towards the sanctity of copyright law. “A Day in the Life…” is concerned rather with the anthropological change in how we discover culture, and how we use it to relate to others. As individuals join communities more closely attuned to their interests than the commercial offering, their choices change, the economy of time of their daily life shifts and new problems emerge. Following a participant in one of these communities through a 24 hour cycle, the text explores these processes and their social spaces, taking a snapshot of 21st century subcultures with the occasional nod to the past.

A first version was prepared for Transmediale in Berlin earlier this year, and was then revised and abridged for a performance organised by EXGAE/Conservas and their gala event Los Oxcars in Barcelona last night.

A Day in the Life…
It’s midnight in Berlin. Not a fact of particular importance in the global 24 hour all-you-can-eat buffet that is the file-sharing world. The community is always awake, and the participants are as likely to be up at 6AM GMT+1 in Britain or Taiwan. The significance in it being midnight is simply that it allows us to measure how much activity takes place in one small file-sharing community, and to watch the daily life of the community during a 24 hour cycle.

I browse the list of files available, organised according to most recently posted: in the last 24 hours 55 new files have been uploaded, 40 older files have been bumped back up the list, having been reseeded by someone who had previously downloaded the file.. Perhaps it doesn’t sound like so many, but here there are rules: A maximum of two copies of any file are allowed, a DVD version and a compressed version. No films are allowed which have not yet been released on VHS or DVD unless it’s so long since their production that the owners have clearly decided not to bother. Mainstream cinema of the Hollywood type is discouraged and often actively eliminated, unless the work is considered to be a classic, which means that a certain amount of time must pass.. Those 55 files then, join the existing 25044 in the library. 25099 in all then. About 32,000 hours of uninterrupted viewing, or three years and seven months.

I spot a film that someone told me about on the chat channel: Peter Watkins, ‘Punishment Park’. Watkins never worked with the mainstream film system, and in 80s and 90s had a network of people to whom he sent his films and who organized screenings. The discussions after the film’s projection would be recorded and then dispatched together with the film to the next stop on the tour. Punishment Park has four sources and I begin to download, one of them is obviously swedish as my download speed is now up to 450kps, and the software tells me the movie will be complete in an hour and 15 minutes. Seeing as I’ve heard so much about this Watkins I go and see what else of his is available. There are eleven more: La Commune, a dramatization of the Parisian revolt of 1871, with all of the roles played by amateur actors who have been reading and discussing the events of those times – that sounds interesting. But there are no sources. I start the download anyway, knowing that users who have already downloaded this file have been informed that someone now wants it, and they should make it available if they have it at hand.

That reminds me. I go back to the portal and see that there are seven movies which I already have that people are looking for. delving into my archive I pull out three of them, and make them available. This takes some time, as my storage system is haphazard and the external drives look the same. My upload speed is now equal to my download – we’re in harmony. In the meantime someone has also re-seeded La Commune, here it comes…

One of my friends is a Godard maniac and this spurs me to watch more of his movies. I’ve downloaded a short, “A letter to Freddy Buache”, but it has no subtitles.  My mate went to school in Paris and speaks French like a native speaker. I go to the forum, to the subtitle workshop. There I find a .srt file that has been created by another user, they have attached a warning about a name that they couldn’t quite make out, ‘Bubitch?’, but it’s been corrected by another poster ‘Lubitsch’. Ah that makes more sense.

Punishment Park is ready. I watch it and am impressed. I return to the page dedicated to this film in the community – there’s the data about the film, screen shots of the film to indicate its quality, a review taken from some magazine, and an extract from an essay on ‘Sense of Cinema’. There is also the name of the uploader who provided it in the first place. Maybe they have uploaded some other interesting things… Solanas “La Hora de Los Hornos”! Wow, I’ve been looking for that, the foundational film of the Third Cinema, whose reels were smuggled out of the country to be edited in Italy, then smuggled back in to be screened clandestinely under Argentina’s dictatorship, not that of the 30,000 desaparecidos but that which preceded it from 67-73. Interesting, I’ll have that. But who is thus uploader? I click on the user history to see the comments they have made about other people’s contributions. There are eight attached to one film alone because there’s an argument. Our uploader knows a filmmaker whose film has been ripped after only being released on DVD, making it was a struggle and he should have had some tome to recoup his expenses. Some pirate.

My mind wanders back to Solanas. His group Cine di Liberacion had a competitor at the time in Argentina, Cine di Base, created by a director called Raymundo Gleyzer. He lived in NY sometimes but when the coup occurred in March 1976 he decided to return, to actively oppose the new regime. He was the first director to be kidnapped and murdered, just two months later. After his death Jorge Denti and other members of Cine de la Base continued their work in Peru, making a film called “Las AAA Son los Tres Armas”. It’s not in the library, although some of Gleyzer’s work is. I go to the requests page and add the name of the film, attaching a note explaining that I’m interested in any version, regardless of quality; it’s a low-budget documentary whose importance lies in its content as a historical document, rather than the detail of its images. Logging-in ten days later I find a new message from the system.

Your request for Las AAA son las tres armas has been filled, please remember to
thank the original poster, you can download your file here.

I message the uploader, thanking them and leave another complimentary message on the page dedicated to the file. They respond and explain that they found a VHS version in their university library in Santiago, and apologise for the quality: the tape was old and they don’t have a lot of experience making these type of transfers.

Spare a thought for the 360 films that have never been downloaded at all – a particularly modern form of tragedy. Someone has actually taken the time to generate a torrent file, enter the relevant information, extract screenshots and append additional information, and yet there are no takers. Like announcing a party and nobody comes. Here is the smell of death. There is only one thing between this work and the the tomb: the person who uploaded it. They alone cares about this cultural foundling.

It’s just another day, but there three new movies sitting on my desktop, joining the thousands already downloaded. My only problem with movies today is over-supply and lack of time. Lots of people talk about it. There is a thread on the forum about this.

October 29, 2008 - Posted by | /, copyright, p2p, social cooperation


  1. […] Toner, intellectual property and communications researcher, has followed the life of a German filesharer for 24 hours, asking the question: how does it change the individual and […]

    Pingback by P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » The anthropology of P2P filesharers | November 1, 2008 | Reply

  2. […] Toner, intellectual property and communications researcher, has followed the life of a German filesharer for 24 hours, asking the question: how does it change the individual and […]

    Pingback by Blogroll » The anthropology of P2P filesharers | November 1, 2008 | Reply

  3. This is truly excellent. It makes me hungry for a much more in-depth ethnography of peer to peer. Someone should definitely write one.

    Comment by Benjamin Mako Hill | November 3, 2008 | Reply

  4. Hi Alan, trying to get in touch. I have a burning question. can you get in touch? sorry but I’ve no extant email.

    Comment by John Buckley | November 10, 2008 | Reply

  5. […] the help of Alan Toner one of the filmmakers behind Steal this Film. We will be reading some of his work (and this ethnographic look at the life of a p2p file sharer provides a refreshing look at what it […]

    Pingback by Interprete » Steal this Film | November 12, 2008 | Reply

  6. howya toner! howsit going? apart from shithole middle eastern pseudo-democracies … i’m planning a stint in marseille, which seems like a good place to dig into a bit of bob quinn-ean research, have you come across any copies of atlantean floating around the ether? & where are you these days? had great gas today at the film-makers co-op with pip (chodorov, know him? who was interviewing MM Serra on the goings on back in the days … will be here for the next while anyways, seeya for a jar maybe if you’re ovah heyah – cheers! moira

    Comment by moira | January 8, 2009 | Reply

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