First Monday

The Napster Music Community by Kacper Poblocki

This paper deals with "Napster Music Community," a program that between June 2000 and June 2001 connected nearly 60 million of music fans and enables them to exchange music files. The main hypothesis is that Napster is an imagined network community. The first section of the paper gives a theoretical background to the problems addressed: the notions of community and network, the concepts of imagined and network community, as well as the debate on virtual communities are discussed there. Pundits such as Ferdinand Tönnies, Emile Durkheim, Benedict Anderson, Barry Wellman, Morris Janowitz, Robert Putnam and others are consulted. The third part of this paper consist firstly of an analysis of the Napster software that aims at demonstrating the structure for the actors to interact within, and secondly addresses 12 variables that have been distinguished as descriptive of an imagined and network community. In conclusion several implications from the research are drawn.


Theory and Hypotheses
Theories in Practice - What is the Napster Music Community Like?
Discussion and Conclusion




Why care about Napster?

One of the "hottest" issues this year, and according to some one of the most important events in the development of the Internet, was the gradual establishment and legal struggle for survival of the "Napster Music Community." Founded by 19-year old American undergraduate Shawn Fanning in 1999, by mid 2001 Napster became the largest "community" (definition will follow) of music fans ever to be found. Figures differ, but the number of registered users of Napster reached almost 58 million in March 2001 (Costello, 2000). A PC Pitstop research shows that in January and February 2001 Napster software was installed on over 40% of personal computers worldwide (eStatNews, 2001). Those numbers make Napster a sociological phenomenon hard to ignore.

Moreover, Napster's peer-to-peer technology (software that connects large numbers of personal computers in a horizontal network) may revolutionalise the Internet, which has been dominated over the last decade by big business. There are even projects aiming at using the powerful Napster technology in genetic research, as well as several commercial projects, based upon unlimited file exchange (Standage, 2000). It appears that Napster has created a totally new tool for connecting people and enabling them to exchange ideas. In this respect Napster has already stirred the IT world and triggered several new projects.

It is also the first significantly large community operating solely in the cyberspace for a relatively long period of time. This is why the Napster experience can bring in very important evidence to the debate on virtual communities and the prospects of the future online communications. Can the public life flourish on the Web? Will we witness the revival of the public man thanks to the Internet? Can interface-to-interface type of contact substitute for face-to-face relations? Are we going to inhabit the cyberspace? Those and many similar questions have been commonly raised, and Napster, as shown in this paper, can give fairly reasonable answers.

Finally, researching Napster can contribute to the sociological debate over the fate of communities. It is argued in this paper that Napster is a typical example of a network community, as conceptualised by Barry Wellman (1999). Thanks to its structural clarity and unlimited accessibility, Napster is an extremely good research field for testing several theoretical assumptions with regard to the nature of contemporary communities. It can also contribute to the debate on the "fall of the public man," lack of reciprocity, free riding, strong versus weak ties and other issues. In this sense, Napster can tell us a lot about contemporary society.



Theory and Hypotheses

Community Studies - Tönnies

The Community has always been one of the central concepts in social sciences. Yet it has also been one of the most controversial ones. The work of Hillery (1995) shows best how diverse the understanding of this notion can be; already in mid fifties he proposed 94 different definitions of "community." Nevertheless, one of the first, and perhaps the most influential work dealing with community was Tönnies' Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, roughly translated as Community and Society (1957). This work describes the transition from Gemeinschaft, a densely knit, homogeneous, small in size, rural, based on emotional bonds and common customs community towards Gesellschaft, loosely tied, heterogeneous, large in size, urban, based on regulated competition and dissimilar practices society.

This dichotomy has influenced most of the writing on communities, and to a large extent has contributed to romanticising the "perfect pastoral past that never was" (Wellman, 1999; see also Brint, 2001). The research conducted by the Chicago school of urban studies, Park, Wirth and especially Redfield's (1947) folk-urban continuum, accumulated the fear of anonymous, inhuman, atomised, urban societies emerging as an inevitable side effect of the processes of individualisation, rationalisation and urbanisation. Such popular anxieties have been further projected onto the cyber communities that were, and to a large extent still are, imagined to be inhabited by aberrant nerds. As we show below, it seems that such approach is not particularly helpful in scientific inquiry (Brint, 2001).

Community Studies - Durkheim

Mechanic and Organic Solidarity

Alternative theoretical machinery had been constructed by Emile Durkheim, namely his notions of mechanic and organic solidarity (Durkheim, 1951; 1949). Durkheim's approach deals more with the change in inter-human relations in communities due to the progressing division of labour. For Durkheim, the modernisation process is to a large extent a transition from a society "cemented" by mechanic solidarity (i.e. by ties based on similarities), towards a society "cemented" by an organic solidarity (i.e. ties that bond very different individuals). Durkheim thinks modern society resembles a biological organism, where duties and functions are distributed to different organs. In other words: nowadays no one shaves himself, but everyone is shaved by a barber.

First six variables of a definition of "community"

The main advantage of Durkheim's conceptualisation over Tönnies' is that it first deals with communal relations (which will be important later in the network approach) and second it gives a set of very clear variables to describe "Gemeinschaft-like" type of communities. Brint enumerates six of them, four structural, and two cultural.

"(1) dense and demanding social ties; (2) social attachment to and involvement in institutions; (3) ritual occasions; (4) small group size; (5) perceptions of similarity with the physical characteristics, expressive style, way of life, or historical experience of others; and (6) common belief in an idea system, a moral order, an institution, or a group" [1].

Obviously, these variables do not occur in all traditional communities. Nevertheless they constitute a good starting point of our analysis, because we can use them to construct our hypotheses. Some of them also seem not to be absolutely accurate, especially in terms of a novel phenomenon such as Internet-based communities. We will rephrase some of them.

Subtypes of Communities in Brint

It is important to remember at this point that the assumption that all types of human collectives evolve from Gemeinschaft-like to Gesellschaft-like is rather simplistic. Never, or hardly ever, do human beings belonged to solely one group. What is more, it appears that one of the principle characteristics of Gesellschaft-like society is that we belong, consciously or not, to a growing number of, sometimes diametrically different, communities. Sheer pluralism of communities is the basis of the contemporary society (therefore speaking of one modern community, or labelling different phenomena with the same name, can be very misleading). For example, a prisoners' community, described by Goffman (1961) as a "total institution," is fundamentally different from an urban neighbourhood (Janowitz, 1967), national imagined community (Anderson, 1991), or a community of Macintosh users (Muniz and O'Guinn, 2001). As long as such communities have different functions and do not coincide (many of them are one-stranded) then peaceful co-existence is possible and fruitful.

Therefore using some of the aforementioned variables, as well as introducing new ones, Brint proposes to divide communities into five different types: "collective/commune, community of place, elective community, imagined community, and virtual community." According to Brint, "collective/commune," mostly resembles the mentioned "Gemeinschaft-like" communities, in that it is geographic, belief-based, and with relatively frequent interaction. Secondly, "community of place" is geographic, activity-based, and with relatively frequent interaction. Thirdly, "elective community" is chosen, either activity-based or belief-based, and concentrated in space. Fourthly, "imagined community" is chosen, belief-based, dispersed in space as well as with no face-to-face interaction. Finally, "virtual community" is chosen, activity-based, dispersed in space and with no face-to-face interaction [2].

We can thus supplement the variables list for "Gemeinschaft-type" of communities with the following ones: (7) concentrated in space, (8) geographic rather than chosen, (9) with relatively frequent interaction and (10) with significant amount of face-to-face interaction.

A Critical response - Finding the place for virtual communities

Defining the "imagined community"

Brint's choice of variables seems to be very appropriate, and useful for our analysis. Yet the distinction of types of communities, as especially with regard to "imagined communities" and "virtual communities" appears to be fairly misleading. Firstly "imagined community," defined by Brint on the basis of Anderson's Imagined Communities (1991), refers strictly to national communities created on the basis of imaging other compatriots. Having this in mind, we see that Brint's characteristic does not hold. Meeting some of the compatriots on streets for example, is extremely important in Anderson's analysis, for it grounds the imagined community in reality [3]. Therefore there is some face-to-face interaction. Moreover it seems rather unreasonable to characterise imagined communities defined in such way as "chosen" rather than "geographic," because we obviously cannot choose the nation we are born into (Gellner, 1993).

What Brint intends, it appears, is to understand "imagined community" in a sense broader than Anderson, as a community that is cemented by "imaging" other members thanks to modern mass media technology. This is what Anderson writes about such a process:

"The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing (...) creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (imaging) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that. (Contrast sugar, the use of which proceeds in an unclocked, continuous flow; it may go bad, but it does not go out of date.) The significance of this mass ceremony - Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers - is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is increasingly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life. (...) [F]iction seeps quietly and continuously into reality, creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations" [4].

Anderson admits that a similar process could be facilitated by other media, not only newspaper, and on a different scale, not necessarily national. For example a "brand community" (Muniz and O'Guinn, 2001), a "specialized, non-geographically bound community, based on structural set of social relations among admirers of a brand" (1) is an example for an imagined community, understood in a broader sense. But even then Brint's characteristic of an imagined community is not correct: the "brand community," unlike a nation, is rather "activity-based" than "belief-based."

It is not surprising that there are serious problems with distilling clear-cut variables that would depict an imagined community. Here again we run into the problem of applying a very specific term to different, broad phenomena. Critics of Anderson have noted that a nation does not consist merely of its newspapers, but also its territory, infrastructure, etc. A brand community is only partially imagined, since these are the physical products of certain brands that bring people together.

Therefore nearly any community, also "Gemeinschaft-like" communities (e.g traditional neighbourhoods with their local newspapers; see Janowitz, 1967; Hunter, 1974) are to a certain extent "imagined". But the "imaging" is only an element amongst other blocks that build up the entire community. Only a community that exists thanks to a mass medium, or even nearly "within" it, can be called an imagined community in its purest sense.

Virtual communities seem to be such "true" imagined communities, since they exist in most of the cases solely on the Internet, and the Internet is nothing else but a mass medium. It is possible for such a community to exist in a medium because the Internet (or cyberspace) is conceived to be spatial (for the reasons I described elsewhere; see Poblocki 2001). Moreover, Internet users have to "imagine" much more than newspaper readers, in order to be able to feel some kind of solidarity with other users in the same virtual community.

Therefore the variables for defining an imagined community, in the broader sense, would be as follows:

(I-1) imaging of other members only thanks to shared mass medium
(I-2) "mass ceremony" of using the medium [ceremony seems to be more appropriate word than ritual (variable 3)]


(I-3) elective rather than natural (instead of variable 8)
(I-4) activity-based rather than belief-based (instead of variable 6)
(I-5) rather dispersed in space (instead of variable 7)
(I-6) no, or little face-to-face interaction (instead of variable 10)
(I-7) relatively infrequent interaction (instead of variable 9)

The use of "rather" suggests that those variables describe the general tendency, from which there may be some exceptions. Variables I-3 through I-7 are not essential for the occurrence of an imagined community. Moreover variables 2 and 5 do not relate to imagined communities in the purest form (even though they would with regard to national imagined communities), and variables 1 and 4 can differ depending on specific case-imagined communities can be either small or large, and the type of ties between members depend on several other factors than just the sheer imaging.

Debate on the nature of virtual communities

This perhaps explains why Brint's understanding of "virtual community" seems not correct. It is misleading for several other reasons as well. As it was noticed by Wellman (1999) and Putnam (2000), articles about online communities resemble more the genre of traveller's stories, than scientific inquiry. Brint defined "virtual community" according to Rheingold's influential account of the WELL (Rheingold, 1993a; 1993b), which in turn confirms Wellman's and Putnam's observation. Authors such as Rheingold would wonder about the nature of communities in cyberspace just as social scientists during the last hundred years have not been pondering the nature of communities in the real world.

The most absurd idea perhaps is the one by Heim, who argues that the Internet mirrors the world of nature, rather than the world of culture, simply because it is "vast" and "overwhelming" [5]. There are some who think that that online communities can substitute for real ones [6], because some Internet users gradually condition themselves to define their virtual experiences as real [7].

It seems that the Internet mirrors the world of culture, and just as literature (Sheriff, 1989), is strongly interlinked with the "real" world. Even though we may meet our future partner chatting on the Internet, still we cannot marry, and especially start a family, by clicking a mouse. This is why in examining virtual communities we should employ theoretical tools similar to the ones we use in describing offline communities. Careful reading of Rheingold's Virtual Community for example shows that the community he was referring to, the WELL, was in fact a local community in one of the Silicon Valley towns, networked by computer-mediated software. This is why the WELL is more "geographic" rather than "chosen." On the other hand ethnographic accounts of "elective" virtual communities can easily be found, as described by Argyle (1996), or the Volvo users brand community that had also an active Web site (which was very important for cementing together the members; see Muniz and O'Guinn, 2001). Moreover, unlike the community described by Argyle, these are concentrated in space. What is striking is that the community described by Argyle very much resembles the traditional Gemeinschaft-like community, especially with regard to the high level of intimacy between the members. The Napster Music Community, on the contrary, is very much different in that respect. It seems to be the case that all the subtypes of communities from the offline world can find equivalents in the online world.

Finally it is also important to notice that, just as with national imagined communities, some of the virtual communities witness significant face-to-face communication (in the offline world, of course), just as the users of the telephone often meet in person (Fischer, 1992). Even the interface-to-interface encounters, as it will be shown in the case of downloading music with Napster, plays a significant role in imaging other members of the community.

Network community

What we have been dealing with in the previous section is the "shell" of communities. Now let's focus on the "entrails." We have noticed that Durkhaim's approach is more useful because it deals with communal relations. It seems that it also influenced the very popular, and also effective, conceptualisation of communities as networks. Such a "trick" allows us to conclude, and thus oppose the common opinion inspired by Tönnies' understanding of Gemeinschaft, that "[c]ommunity (...) has rarely disappeared from societies. It has been transformed" [8]. What Wellman means here is the internal structure of inter-human ties that in societies of organic solidarity resembles more a horizontal and rather equalitarian network than vertical, stratified concentric circles. Such a network approach, and more specifically analysis of egocentric networks of Internet users, seems to be very appropriate and fruitful in the analysis of the online phenomena (Wellman and Guilia, 1999). It will also be used in this paper.

The network approach of Wellman introduced a few more variables that we will be using to describe the Napster Music Community, namely:

(N-1) narrow, specialised, not broadly supportive (loosely knit) ties (instead of variable 1),
(N-2) frequently changing members (partially instead of variable 1, and 2),
(N-3) not-geographically bound (instead of variable 7),
(N-4) rather private than public,
(N-5) usually large size (instead of 4),
(N-6) little perception of similarity with the physical characteristics, expressive style, way of life, or historical experience of others (instead of variable 9) [9].

Final remarks and hypotheses

The "transmutation" of variables 1 through 10 into the I-variables and N-variables illustrate the change of the character of communities from "Gemeinschaft-type" towards some of the contemporary ones. What is very useful in combining the I-variables with N-variables is that the former describe more of the macro phenomena, the overall structure, whereas the N-variables have the egocentric individual approach, and therefore describe more of the micro phenomena. This is yet another reason for which the "marriage" of the two seems to be very appropriate.

Such a combination of an imagined and network community, so far hardly encountered in their "purest form", is possible due to the very fact that Internet seems to be to a large extent a marriage of telephone (a horizontal, individualised network) and a newspaper (medium that triggers the imaging of others).

The main hypothesis of this paper therefore is that the Napster Music Community, being a virtual community, is both an imagined community and a network community. This hypothesis will be tested by an empirical application of the I- and N- variables.



Theories in Practice - What is the Napster Music Community Like?

How does Napster work?

This section, following the rule "give me a structure and I will tell you how people would behave," describes the structure of the Napster Music Community. Napster connects unlimited number of computers in a horizontal network. In order to be a member, one has to install the Napster program on a personal computer, register a nickname, specify the folders on one's hard drive that can be shared with other users, and connect to the central server. This server, operated by Napster, registers names of music files in MP3 format that are stored in the shared folder, and puts them onto a "global list." This list can be searched by other users, so a person in possession of a specific file can be located. The server enables users to contact each other, so a transfer of files can be executed.

The interface (or layout) of Napster is very simple. The menu consists of 4 parts (see Figure 1):









Instant Message

Add user to Hot List

View User Information

Getting Started


Napster FAQ

Customer Support


My Files


Hot List




Join Chat Rooms

View Ignore List

About Napster

Shop for music at CDNOW


Logon Server

Figure 1: The Menu of Napster, v.2.0 BETA 9.6


The second column seems to be most important. It changes the major window that is displaced on the screen. At "Home" we can find more information about what Napster is currently up to. "Chat" gives an opportunity to join one of the chat rooms. "My files" opens a window with the list of files that the users shares with others. "Search" allows users to conduct a search either for a specific title, or artist, or both. We have to type in names ourselves, and the server displays in a few seconds a list of a maximum of 100 matching results. By clicking on any of them we can start downloading a given file. "Hot List" is divided into three main sub-windows: users we added to the hot list (menu: actions) who may be online or offline, and the song list of an online user we clicked on. We can add any user to a hot list we like, and the program "remembers" the names of those users, so every time we are online, we can see if our "friends" are online of offline, and we can browse their hard drives for MP3 we like. "Transfer" consists of two equally sized windows, one with the list of songs we are currently downloading from other users, and the second with the list of songs that other users are currently uploading from us. Finally "Discover" gives us links to a few unknown artists who promote themselves through Napster. This list is updated on daily basis.

One window, regardless of what users do, never changes. It is a stripe in the bottom of the screen indicating when a user in connected to the main server:

"Online (nickname): Sharing number files. Currently number users sharing number files (number gigs)."

"Gigs" means gigbytes. If a user is not connected, then in the same place we have:

"Offline (nickname)."

The number of users refers, nevertheless, to users connected to a particular server. This should be multiplied by the number of servers, that by March 2001 reached almost 200.

What Is a "Napster Personality"? Cultural and Social Capita

On the micro level, we have several thousands of users that constantly use Napster to download music files. Just like in other genres of communication [10], Napster, due to its design, creates a sort of a personality representation of other users, a profile that is the basis for other users to make a value judgment. It is virtually the only source of information on Napster users. A user profile consists of a nickname, connection type (in a hierarchical order), number of shared files, music files properties (such as size, duration and so forth) and file names. The list of files, that can be browsed by anyone, creates a sort of cultural capital of the user, in Bourdieu's understanding of this notion (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977). The larger the list, the larger the capital. Individual song titles create the cultural capital, or more specifically a sort of subcultural capital, according to the general subcultural style of the song (see Thornton, 1995) (e.g. one user may have a large jazz subcultural capital, but poor rap and punk subcultural capital and so forth). Users with the subcultural capital embodied in the songs they downloaded from other users, or converted into the MP3 format themselves, that is congruent with the hierarchies of our own taste are put into the Hot List.

The Hot List itself creates the social capital of the particular user (Flap, 1999), that is the useful and valuable links to other users who have subcultural capital we find valuable and may use in the future (for instance in a time interval a user may have foraged some more music we find interesting). Creating one's own social capital requires a lot of time, because the only way we can find users with similar tastes and collections is by looking for a specific song and then randomly browsing file lists of the users that the main server put us in contact with.

Empirical confrontation of the variables

(N-1) narrow, specialised, not broadly supportive (loosely knit) ties

The Napster Community seems to be community of "limited liability" (Janowitz, 1967), where the users both cultural and social capital comes down to simply musical interests. Only music files are shared, we can "discover" only music, over 60 chat rooms are divided according to music styles from "Alternative" to "Trance", and user seem to exchange instant messages about mostly music as well.

The question of the strength of ties in the Napster Community is a complex one. It appears in general that the Internet supports strong ties, and creates new weak ties [11]. Strong ties are defined in terms of quality and time period of the contact (see Grieco, 1987). In the case of Napster, it seems that the majority of ties are weak, because they are usually one-stranded, and the intercourse between any two community members ends once a song is downloaded. The total time of contact can be as short as few seconds (depending on bandwidth and other factors).

Nevertheless, Hot List members share their subcultural capital. They can potentially develop stronger ties, by investing time and effort in either chatting or even meeting in person. However it seems that such occurrences are fairly rare, simply because, at least at the peak of Napster's popularity, there were a great number of users sharing identical files, and thus the resources were far from being scarce. One could download the songs one wanted to anytime and from anyone, and developing stronger bonds was not really necessary, unless one felt like chatting for other reasons. I remember during the earlier times of Napster, when still the number of users was rather low, that people would ask me if I had other songs of the bands that I had in my shared list that I could convert into the MP3 format and make available on Napster. Once the Napster catalogue became so immensely rich, the number of people that were uploading files and starting a chat fell down rather obviously.

(N-5) usually large size

Napster is said to have almost 60 million registered users (Costello, 2000). This figurer may be an overestimate, because many users of Napster-like applications are "free riders" (over 70% of Gnutella users share no files; see Adar and Huberman, 2000). This means that the majority does not share files, and that they usually register a new nickname every time they log in. In fact, I observed this several times in different Internet cafes in Poland, where individuals would come with their own hard drives, plug them into public computers, and download music with a random nickname. All those nicknames, even though some of them are meaningless (e.g. "sdoffkdflasdfj") are counted as separate users. Yet, given that the number of simultaneous users ranges up to one million, the size of the community is significantly large, surely bigger than some nation-states.

(N-2) frequently changing members

The number of users that were using Napster simultaneously was never higher than 20,000 on one server. In March 2001 - the peak time of popularity of Napster - there was on average around 7,000 users on one server during the week, and up to 14,000 users on weekends. Given that by March 2001 there were nearly 200 servers, it makes up to 1.4 million users. The number of online users would rise by a few thousand during the day in the United States. The numbers are not exact, because the precise number of online users changes every second; once some users join in, others log off. This can be measured by noticing the window on the bottom of the screen with the "currently number users ..." information given by the central server. But the number given in the window changes almost every second, which meant that users would log on and off on permanent basis. We have to multiply this number by 200 (the number of servers) to get a whole picture: which means that the members were changing even more frequently than could be observed on the screen.

(I-3) elective rather than natural

Membership in the Napster Community is purely voluntary.

(I-5) rather dispersed in space and (N-3) not-geographically bound

The Internet in a sense "abolished" boundaries and borders of physical territory. Napster users are scattered all over the globe, and the geographical location of users has no significance with regard to the membership and activity within the community.

On the other hand, as I showed elsewhere (Poblocki, 2001), the national and cultural divisions from the offline world "made their way" to the online world. Up to 10 of the 60 (the exact number changed frequently) chat rooms in Napster were "national"; users discussed their national music in their own language (even though the official language of Napster was English). Also the subcultural capital of users to a large extent resembled their real-life cultural capital - Spanish, Russian, German, etc. When downloading a Polish song, I was addressed by the owner of the file in Polish, when a Spanish song - in Spanish. It seems that the borders from the real world also influenced the boundary-making of the Napster users with regard to their fellow Napster acquaintances.

Therefore even though the significance of physical territory has been marginalized, the cultural meanings that are attached to it cast their shadows on cyberspace and divide it into different cultural factions. Such cultural borders co-exist with subcultural divisions.

(I-7) relatively infrequent interaction

The frequency of interaction varies from user to user. There is certainly a "core" of users who "napster" very frequently (and also are in possession of most of the file resources, cultural capital, available on Napster), get involved in chatting and other Napster activities, such as the Napster Action Network. There seem to be a "periphery" of "free riders" who use music resources, foraging for different files. It seems that the main difference between the "core" and "periphery" users is that the former own relatively new PCs with fast and cheap Internet connections, which enables them to be successful foragers, whereas the latter access Napster from public computers.

(I-6) some face-to-face interaction

There is no face-to-face interaction during the exchange of files via Napster. There is nevertheless face-to-face interaction between members offline. Since Napster is popular on university campuses (Standage, 2000), the possibility of personal contact was very high, especially since Napster has been an issue extensively discussed in the mass media, and thus it was likely to re-occur in personal conversations.

There are moreover numerous interface-to-interface encounters, while downloading or uploading music. These should not be underestimated, since they play a similar role to meeting a compatriot on a street, as described by Anderson relative to national imagined communities.

(N-6) little perception of similarity with the physical characteristics, expressive style, way of life, or historical experience of others

Napster is extremely heterogeneous relative to the content of transmitted files. Not only music is exchanged, but also books, stories, cabaret, film dialogues - virtually anything that can be converted into a MP3. Between October 2000 and June 2001 there were about 60 different chat rooms, all divided by music taste, from "Alternative" to "Trance." Indeed Napster resembles an biological organism, where different people are in possession of very different kinds of music, that in turn construct a Napster personality (Napster is highly individualised, for there is only interaction between individuals; there are no collective actors).

(I-4) activity-based rather than belief-based

Napster is more of an activity-based than of belief-based community. Members join the community to download music, or share music with others, not because they share certain ideals. Of course there are "idealists" stirred by Napster's legal battles (participation in a semi-legal project can be attractive for those who despise the big music industry). Nevertheless the number of free riders in Napster and other kindred applications (Adar and Huberman, 2000) suggests that members sign on for very basic and focused reasons, that is to secure specific music files for free. With the success of some of the legal efforts against Napster, and the reduction in the number of files available, the number of Napster users connected to one server significantly dropped from around 7,000 in March 2001 to around 2,000 in early June 2001. In other words, less music translates directly into a small community. Even the "Napster Action Network" - officially aiming at helping Napster in its legal struggle - does not seem to be overwhelmingly popular.

(I-2) "Mass ceremony" of using the medium

Since Napster is activity-based, there are certain common ceremonies. The procedure of downloading music is uniform; everyone has to do it exactly in the same way, regardless of factors such as the content, connection speed, gender and so on. Moreover downloading every consecutive file requires the very same steps for files are downloaded one after another. The banal and mundane activities, repeated by all members, cement the community together and are equivalent to reading a newspaper (as in Anderson).

(I-1) imaging of other members thanks to shared mass medium

Thanks to participation in a "mass ceremony", as well as thanks to the very fact that every user is informed all the time about the number of other users currently online, the imaging of others is possible. The imagined others are "made real" during interface-to-interface encounters when downloading/uploading files, or when chatting.

(N-4) rather private than public

File exchange occurs on storage devices of Napster users, who mostly use Napster at home, with more users during weekends. The interesting paradox is that the content of private folders is made absolutely public, because it is available to any other user - anyone user can browse the file collection of any other user.



Discussion and Conclusion

We can therefore conclude that indeed the Napster virtual community is both an imagined and a network community. All of the variables we distinguished were confirmed in practice.

This conclusion has several implications. First it demonstrates that the chosen theories are well fitted for analysis of online communities, significantly better than some of the commonsense Internet research. Even though all the empirical data is based on the personal experience of the author - over the course of hundreds of hours "napstering" between September 2000 and June 2001 - this paper gives a fairly reasonable blueprint of what a proper investigation could be based upon.

The very fact that several theories that have been designed to explain phenomena in the "real" world are also helpful in understanding the Internet suggests that there is more continuity than revolution here. The Internet is not such an entirely novel phenomenon, as it could seem at the first glance, but rather a logical consequence of processes of rationalisation, urbanisation and individualisation. In that respect, the Internet seems to represent the Panopticon, rationally and carefully planned and "gardened", structurally clear, and highly individualised, a truly modern city. The difference between this and the real city is that Internet is composed of meanings, whereas a physical city consists of objects. Napster constitutes the Internet, or the very idea of the Internet (peer-to-peer technology) in a nutshell, and the Internet seems to be the truly modern society in a nutshell. Our modern community is to a very large extent imagined and networked, both online and offline, but it is just easier to capture this on the Internet than in "real life", due to the relative simplicity and structural clarity of applications such as Napster. Therefore I suggest that the Internet should become a more frequent field of scientific investigation, especially in the field of social sciences.

The experience of Napster community, based on reciprocity of files, suggests that the bonds between members of such a virtual community are extremely fugitive. At this very moment when I am writing these words, in June 2001, the Napster Community has nearly collapsed, thanks to the introduction of filters to reduce the transfer of copyrighted music. The rapid transformation of this community, that seemed to be very strong only few months ago, perhaps suggests that we cannot really witness the revival of the public man in cyberspace, as pundits like Putnam (2000) envision. Once there are no free music resources, then the members leave for other Napster-like applications. And they leave as easily as they came. The "core" of few thousand idealistic users cannot really compete with a crowd of "free riders."

It also seems that virtual communities need a significant amount of face-to-face intercourse in order to create strong ties. Here the Internet is no different than the telephone. Otherwise social capital can devaluate very quickly - none of my Hot List members have been online since late May 2001. There is no way I can contact them now, and I lost the time I invested in both searching for them, trying to establish a more personal relationship.

On a personal note, after spending so much time researching and using Napster, I am sure that there is nothing as enjoyable as lending or borrowing a compact disc from a real friend, spending some time together listening to its music, and then merely copying the CD's contents. Real-life social capital is certainly "much more fun" than its virtual equivalent. End of article


About the Author

Kacper Poblocki is an undergraduate at University College, Utrecht in the field of social sciences. His main interest lies in communities, nationalism and Internet studies. This is his second publication. The first, entitled "Online National Communities", where he described the formation of national borders in cyberspace, was published in the Polish Sociological Review, available at



The author would like to thank Peter M. Allen for his comments on an earlier version of this paper.



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Editorial history

Paper received 27 September 2001; accepted 16 October 2001.

Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

The Napster Music Community by Kacper Poblocki
First Monday, volume 6, number 11 (November 2001),