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Scenes of Transmission: Youth Culture, MP3 File Sharing, and Transferable Strategies of Cultural Practice

1The significance of computer mediated communication in relation to the transmission and circulation of discourse is not restricted to the ways in which this relatively recent form of communication enables self-identifying and relatively homogeneous groups to articulate, diffuse and circulate meaning. While the Internet has certainly provided a vital medium for such activities, there is another aspect of transmission that is also significant: the transmission of codes and practices between previously unrelated cultural formations through processes of convergence that occur via their engagement in online media. Of interest here are the ways in which the codes and practices constituting various cultural formations may find their way into other such formations through online practices. Online venues which facilitate the formation of virtual communities act as scenes for the interweaving of participants’ varied interests and, in so doing, bring disparate cultural practices together in new and potentially transformative manners. Viewed from this perspective, online communication not only provides a platform for discursive acts, but constitutes a venue wherein the practical usage of the medium offers up new, and transferable, tactics of communication and cultural practice.

2One of the most obvious examples of this phenomenon of “convergent transmission” is the now famous case of Napster. Beyond the well-discussed implications for, and ongoing adaptive transformation of, the music industry lies a peculiar moment of convergence wherein Internet Relay Chat (IRC) groups provided a scene for the transmission of cultural codes, values, and practices between a hacking subculture built around online communication and a broader youth culture that was beginning to embrace digital media as a means to enjoy music. The lines of transmission between these two groups were therefore borne by practices related to music, gift economies, computer networking and digital media.

3The community constituted by the early Napster (as well as other music sharing sites and networks) and the IRC-based discussions that informed their development were more than simply the sum of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and online communication. I would argue that when taken together, Napster and IRC constituted an online scene for the sharing and dissemination of the hacking subculture’s beliefs and practices through the filter of “music-obsessed” youth culture. To understand Napster as a scene is to define it in relation to practices related to both popular and alternative modes for the production and consumption of cultural artifacts. Lee and Peterson (192-194) note that online scenes exhibit many similarities with the geographically-based scenes analyzed by Hebdige: a fair degree of demographic cohesiveness (typically defined such things as age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class), shared cultural codes and worldviews, and a spectrum of participation ranging from the frequent and enduring relationships of a core constituency to the occasional participation of more peripheral members.

4As a combined P2P/IRC network, Napster is a means to circulate content rather than being, itself, some form content. Napster’s online circulation of cultural artefacts within and among various communities thus makes it a point of articulation between hacking subcultures and a broader youth culture. This articulation involves both the circulation of music files among participants, and the circulation of knowledge related to the technical modalities for engaging in file sharing. With regard to Napster, and perhaps subcultures in general, it is the formation of participatory communities rather than any particular cultural artefact that is paramount:

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the possibilities that the Internet offers young people for cultural participation now extend far beyond the types of symbolic transformation of products and resources … . Rather, such products and resources can themselves become both the object and product of collective creativity (Bennett 172).

6Shawn Fanning’s testimony to the judiciary committee investigating Napster notes at the outset that his reason for undertaking the development of the P2P network that would eventually become Napster was not driven by any intentional form of hacking, but was prompted by a friend’s simple desire to solve reliability issues associated with transmitting digital music files via the Internet:

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The Napster system that I designed combined a real time system for finding MP3s with chat rooms and instant messaging (functionally similar to IRC). The Chat rooms and instant messaging are integral to creating the community experience; I imagined that they would be used similarly to how people use IRC – as a means for people to learn from each other and develop ongoing relationships (Fanning).

8The notion of community is not only applicable to those who chose to share music over Napster, but to the development of Napster itself. As Andrews notes, Fanning participated in a number of IRC channels devoted to programming (primarily #winprog for the development of Napster) as well as to channels like #mpeg3 which discussed social and technical issues related to MP3s as well as advice on where and how to get them. Spitz and Hunter focus on the role of community in the development of Napster and point out that:

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the technology emerged gradually from interactions between and within social groups with different degrees of inclusion in multiple overlapping frames, as opposed to there being a single theoretical breakthrough. ... Based on their involvement in other spaces, such as online communities, Fanning and company’s immediate goals were much more personal and utilitarian—to provide a tool to help themselves and other enthusiasts find and access music on the Internet (171-172).

10Developed with the aid of numerous long-time and occasional participants to both #winprog and #mpeg3, Napster’s technical component was the product of (at least) two scenes constituted via IRC-based online communities. The first, #winprog, consisted of a subculture of “hardcore” Windows programmers (and hackers) freely sharing ideas, advice, expertise, and computer code in an environment of mutual assistance. While the participants on #mpeg3 represented a much wider community, #mpeg3 also demonstrates the qualities of a scene inasmuch as it constituted a virtual community based not only on shared interests in a variety of musical genres, but of sharing media content in the form of MP3s and related software.

11One obvious commonality among these two scenes is that they both rely upon informal gift economies as a means by which to transmit cultural codes via the circulation of material objects. With Napster, the gift economy that emerges in relation to he “hacker ethic” of sharing both code and expertise (Levy; Himanen; Wark) here combines with the more generalized and abstract gift economies constituted by the tendency within youth culture to engage in the sharing of media products related to particular lifestyles and subcultures. The development of Napster therefore provided a mechanism by which these two gift economies could come together to form a single overlapping scene combining computing and youth cultures. It should be noted, however, that while Napster was (and still is) typically branded as a youth-based phenomenon, its constituency actually encompassed a broader age demographic wherein membership tended to correlate more closely with “online tenure” than age (Spitz & Hunter 173). Nonetheless, the simultaneously rancorous and laudatory discourse surrounding Napster framed it as a phenomenon indicating the emergence of an IT-savvy youth culture.

12What occurred with Napster was therefore a situation wherein two scenes came together—one based on hacking, the other on MP3s. Their shared propensity toward informal gift economies allowed them to converge upon notions of P2P networking and IRC-based communities, and this produced a new set of cultural practices centred upon the fusion of file transfers and popular music. The activity of music sharing and the creation of networks to carry it out have, needless to say, proved to have a transformative effect on the circulation of these cultural products. The co-mingling of cultural practices between these two online scenes seems so obvious today that it often seems that it was inevitable. It must be remembered, however, that hacking and music did not seem to be so closely related in 1998. The development of Napster is thus a testament of sorts to the potential for computer mediated communication to effect convergent transformations via the transmission of tactical and communal practices among seemingly unrelated arenas of culture.