The rise of peer-to-peer communication in the U.S


Tomoaki Watanabe
Graduate Student and Associate Instructor
Department of Telecommunications
Indiana University at
Bloomington, USA


It is often argued that cyberspace heralds an advent of new society and it cannot be governed by an existing norms or styles of governance. The development of technologies, cultures, and social behaviors are reported heavily in the media, and are sometimes consciously staged. This is a case study of one such development, occurred in the U.S., and reported as somewhat revolutionary by some. Aim of this paper is to report a growth of the so-called peer-to-peer (p-to-p, hereafter) communication in the U.S., and related social troubles. The paper provides an interpretive framework for the discussion of online ethics and governance. The inventiveness of p-to-p communication is best characterized by the absence of hierarchy and central point of control. As suggested by the term, it occurs among agents of equal positions. Unlike mass media, where producer and audience is rather sharply divided, p-to-p communication is seemingly highly interactive and there is no divide between producers and audience. The question is, therefore, whether this marks the end of hierarchical mass society and the advent of network society.

First, a number of key applications and services are reviewed as the instances of p-to-p communication. They include online auction (eBay), instant messenger (ICQ, AOL, Yahoo), chat rooms, and file-exchange software/ systems (Napster, Gnutella, Scource). After a brief introduction of their histories, an analysis of their features is provided. Some defining characteristics, such as conversational structure of information flow and flexible connections are abstracted.

Second, the characteristics of p-to-p communication are compared with broad conceptual models of social organization: network, community, association, and hierarchy. It is suggested that the inventiveness of the p-to-p communication can be well-captured by the concept of network. It is especially distinctive when compared to services of video streaming, e-commerce by large corporations, and online news media. Some postmodern normative propositions (such as ‘death of author’ and the end of meta-narrative) that often accompany the discourse of networks society are confirmed to be suitable to capture this situation to a certain degree. At the same time, however, it is pointed out that the existing cases does not present an independent, serious realization of the network society. Instead, a number of critical aspects are dependent on resources of mass society, and thereby subject to their influence. These aspects include centralized points of control, such as proprietary standard and server, and centralized production, such as commercial music pieces. It is suggested that while network society can be well-understood by conversational form of communication, the existing structure of p-to-p communication is close to the dependency of network society on mass society. The structure of dependency is characterized as that of networked information recipients and hierarchical producers.

Third, crimes and other troubles related to the p-to-p communication are reviewed and shown that many are characteristic to the network social organization that do not have centralized structure but complex connections. The reviewed troubles include problematic entries for auctioning, false stork-market information distributed in chat rooms, file exchanges of pirated music and movies, and open-access issues associated with auction service and instant messenger services. A number of suggested/ implemented solutions are reviewed. They include a control at the bottleneck, content surveillance, moral-based self-policing/ protection, and damage-based penalties. It is pointed out that because of decentralized power structure, source of troubles are not the flaws of a large system, but local or individual actions. Victims could be either large corporations or individuals. While large organizations may have resource to identify the source of large scale trouble and thereby protect themselves and recover the damage, small groups and individuals would not. When damages are small, particularly, there may be no incentive to recover the damage.

As a conclusion, it is argued that while the rise of p-to-p communication suggests that cyberspace is becoming less hierarchical, there are still elements of hierarchy in the cases reviewed. Adaptation of new norm (that of network society or postmodernism) and abandonment of traditional norm suggested by some are too radical to be feasible and moral. The key to the less problematic transition to the network society, if desirable, is in the area of information production. Future areas of research is suggested.