Rant: P2P Is More than Cheap Bandwidth

2007 has been the year of the P2P CDNs. Akamai bought Red Swoosh, BitTorrent started to showcase their DNA streaming solution, and Pando inked a deal with NBC to P2P-power the distribution of shows like Law & Order through the network’s NBC Direct download service. Combining traditional CDNs with P2P makes a lot of sense from a business perspective, but unfortunately it doesn’t make the platforms themselves any better.

In other words: Just because something uses P2P technology doesn’t mean it won’t suck. Platforms that suck won’t find any users, and platforms without a solid user base can’t leverage the potentials of P2P. Call it Joost’s Law if you will. So how do you stop things from sucking? By acknowledging that P2P is about more than just saving a few bucks.

Granted, combining P2P with CDNs seems like a great idea on paper. Use the upload capacity of your customers for content distribution, and you’ll get higher scalability and lower costs in return. But why would users want to help a company distribute its movies? Why would they install one specific client or browser plug-in if there are dozen others out there that promise pretty much the same thing? And why wouldn’t people just continue to get their content from sites like The Pirate Bay?

Platforms like Joost and the BitTorrent download store have taken the first steps in the right direction. Free, ad-supported content offered through a convenient streaming solution that doesn’t make you wait for hours before you can watch your downloaded movie of TV show — that’s a start to compete with the pirates. But piracy isn’t just about free content, and competing with it doesn’t just mean that you need to lower your own price point through advertising and bandwidth-saving P2P technology.

One often overlooked reason torrent sites are so immensely popular is that they offer their users a sense of community. People love to comment on the content they are downloading, they love to chit-chat in forums and comment sections, and they’re more that willing to contribute with bandwidth and exclusive uploads if they feel at home on a site.

Take the music site Oink for example, which was one of the biggest P2P stories of 2007. The music industry succeeded in shutting down Oink in October, and the press releases of the industry made it sound like Oink was a haven for pre-release piracy that operated under a shield of an exclusive, invite-only membership system.

That’s certainly one way to look at it, but the truth is that keeping sites like Oink private isn’t really more that a gesture when it comes to shielding them from anti-piracy organizations. In fact, invite-only torrent communities get infiltrated all the time. But the whole process of invite-only initiations fosters a sense of community that you can’t find on any commercial download site.

Even public sites like The Pirate Bay, with millions of users that don’t even bother to register for a user name, tend to have strong communities with multiple layers that are held together by a few dedicated uploaders, a bigger circle of people who comment, and finally all those users who willingly contribute their own bandwidth to keep things going, becoming implicit participants every time they download anything.

Capturing this sense of community is the key to making P2P CDNs work. Engage your users, and they’ll be more than happy to support your platform. But getting there means that you have to give up on the notion that P2P is just a technology, and embrace the social aspects of file-sharing.

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