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Building Social Capital by Bittorrenting Family Guy

The next session at ANZCA 2009 starts with Lelia Green, presenting on the practices of a small affinity group (a LAN clan) of year 11-12 students in suburban Perth. None of these young men could quantify what amount of time they spent online each day; they used the Net extensively during their non-school time, at any rate. The study focussed especially on the use of Bittorrent, which was invented in 2002 and has been especially used for sharing movie and television content. Bittorrent use becomes more effective the more users are sharing the same file, of course, and there were some 4 million users online at any one point by 2006. By February 2009, some 160 million users had downloaded Bittorrent softwares.

The study focusses especially on bittorrenting the Family Guy TV series, a controversial animation show which has been cancelled and revived multiple times due to debates over its contents (revival happened usually following strong follow-on DVD sales). Family Guy was seen by the group as somewhat subversive content which they felt they had discovered and which belonged to them - it was part of their identity construction, in other words, and acted as a social glue between them.

Additionally, the strong lag between screening of episodes in the US and in Australia also increased the interest in bittorrenting the content, and those group members who closely tracked the availability of new episodes gained social capital from it (as well as from being able to decipher in-jokes in these episodes). The group members also spoke about the concept of 'e-penis' - having a larger collection of such content than others.

The group exhibited interesting ownership concepts: they wouldn't buy content from iTunes because of the copyright protection mechanisms, and instead saw downloading, sharing and collection as an expression of respect towards the content creators. They also rationalised that free-to-air broadcast meant that filesharing was unproblematic (which ignores the advertising model of television, of course).

They also felt that they should be afforded respect as distributors of the content - in a sense, they saw themselves as alpha consumers and intellectual property co-shareholders. This is a common view of filesharers - those sharing the ABC's series Summer Heights High express similar views. Sharing dialogue and quotes from the series is also part of this shareholdership, and leads to new social connections for them.

There is evidence here for a paradigm shift (though not on a legal level, of course). And notably, such heavy filesharing does not undermine subsequent DVD sales - this is also something experienced by the ABC in its sales of Summer Heights High.

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