Beyond Napster: ‘Communities of Curation’ and the Potential of P2P

As the Internet drifts dangerously towards centralisation, peer-to-peer is an alternative worth exploring.

Before Spotify and YouTube became our platforms of choice for music discovery, peer-to-peer networks were the way to dig for tracks. So what happened to P2P and file sharing systems, and why is the magic of the technology so underutilised today?

In most people’s heads, peer-to-peer (P2P for short) is connected with music and movie piracy. Yet the underlying technology offers much more than that. P2P networks are a decentralised system, so as well as file sharing, it’s the perfect place for collaboration. A recent event in Berlin, called Peer to Peer Web, offered a forum to explore the lesser-known applications of P2P tech.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before we can understand the vast potential of peer-to-peer, we have to know what it is. P2P tech first became popular via Napster, an online platform for sharing and discovering music. Basically, a peer-to-peer network consists of a number of connected nodes, or peers. In the networked system of nodes, workload, bandwidth or storage can be shared between participating machines. In Napster’s case, this meant people could access folders on each other’s computers and download music from them. If more than one person owns a certain file, it gets split into packages — so the file doesn’t download from one computer, but from a bunch of different ones within the network. Napster was eventually shut down for legal reasons, but the principle of P2P lives on.

Centralised (A) vs Decentralised (B) Network, via Wikipedia

“What makes P2P so interesting is that the protocols allow for communities to grow organically,” said Cade Diehm, one of the presenters of the Peer to Peer Web event. Diehm remembers when Napster first came out. “It was an entirely new way of thinking about the Internet… The beginning of a new form of curation,” he saids. “The communities arose almost organically based on how permissive P2P was.” This brought about extremely specialised, original platforms like WhatCD, where musician could self-release their content. For Diehm those platforms are “communities of curation”,where people co-create and build something together, instead of consuming an endless stream of algorithmically selected recommendations.

“What makes P2P so interesting is that the protocols allow for communities to grow organically.”
The perks of P2P — Slide from Cade Diehm

Decentralising Knowledge

If music can be decentralised, so can knowledge. That’s the premise of Mathias Buus’ project to create a P2P version of Wikipedia. At heart, Wikipedia is already a collaborative platform — but decentralisation could make it much more efficient, with bandwidth and storage costs shared among contributors, who each contribute a tiny amount. It becomes a real community effort.

Using the Dat protocol, Wikipedia articles can become torrents just like an MP3 file. The protocol was designed to sync datasets which are constantly changing. In Buus’ platform, an article is hosted by a range of readers instead of one centralised server. This not only distributes the cost of hosting, but makes censorship much more complicated — in order to block it, you’d have to interrupt connections to every computer in the network, each of which hosts a fraction of the whole. Would P2P be the way to go for citizens in countries like Turkey, where Wikipedia got censored last summer?

If music can be decentralised, so can knowledge.

Unfortunately not, because P2P has its drawbacks. Besides reduced speed, P2P networks are prone to surveillance. The dat protocol only encrypts in transit and does not provide an extra anonymity layer. Therefore a government could still see which IPs are connecting to an article. “It’s easy to see what articles people are downloading,” says Buus. Furthermore there are no “trusted entities”, as Buus puts it. So using P2P as a tool against censorship is probably not the way to go. It is, however, one example of how creators could find new ways of distributing their content and sharing hosting costs.

Decentralised Browsing and Self-Publishing

The Dat protocol brings entirely new ways of creating online communities. With the help of Beaker, a browser that hosts files on P2P, users can curate hidden or site specific content. “On a P2P net, the browser is not just a window to a handful of platforms, but becomes a platform in itself,” said Louis Center, who introduced Beaker at the event. Instead of relying on a platform’s publishing rules, creators can share their ideas, music or art uncensored. The benefit, according to Center, is that “data siloing becomes difficult,” thus strengthening the independence and integrity of a creator’s output.

P2P can strengthen the independence and integrity of a creator’s output.

Beaker’s pages are hidden as long as their authors don’t give away their URLs. Web addresses on the P2P browser are generated by public and private key encryption. That makes the addresses unguessable, so it’s solely up to the creator to give away a link. Center doesn’t mean to suggest that the P2P internet should “go dark”, or push back entirely into “secret communities”. Instead he envisions it as a useful place for niche artists who are interested in sharing their work with hyper-specific audiences. And access can become even more specific: Center also floated the idea of an offline P2P web that can only be accessed in a specific location, like a club or gallery.

The challenge now is scaling P2P. We can start by raising awareness and teaching tech literacy, so that more people understand how to create content in the P2P world, and why it’s beneficial. Because at a time when the Internet is drifting dangerously towards centralisation, exploring alternatives like this has never been more important.