How Does Downloading Make You Feel?

February 3, 2009

Why is it so satisfying to get a really good quality free download from the internet? There is a genuine feeling of contentment in having received something from someone who has taken the time to produce an excellent piece of work which you are perfectly welcome and actively encouraged to take. Not only that, but you are encouraged to share it with others if you feel like it. You can download it to your computer and keep it for later or put it on your MP3 player. You can copy it to your USB stick and take it to work. Its yours now and it has affected you in such a personal way that when that someone produces their next piece of work, you want it because you like it and you like the feeling. Essentially, because you recognise the feeling of being given a gift.

The popularity of any publicly distributed RSS feed, download or podcast is determined by many things but it is the fact that it is free that will determine whether someone will treat it as a “gift” and not a “reward” (for having paid for it). This is a fundamental distinction in the online culture of feed subscription, the feelings downloads generate for people and the effect that has on their desire to subscribe to things that not only have a level of value and quality for them, but are interpreted as “gifts” from other people.

Hobbies and interests or “free time projects” which make their way online in the form of free downloads for other people – things like making music, recording spoken word, writing, photography – generate pleasure for both the creator and the (online) recipient particularly because they are not commodified; they are free and they form part of a “gift economy” where people are trading in passtimes and leisure and perhaps, in some cases, in what has traditionally been defined as “art”. People are beginning to realise the non-payment need for this “art” with its propensity to just be enjoyed without subscribing to the acquisition of anything and they are enjoying the benefits of them, and the feelings they generate. It is genuinely philanthropic.

Kate Soper has developed a theory called Alternative Hedonism which, amongst other ideas, tackles the problem of how a post-consumerist society can get as much, and more, from life as we do now by addressing our needs beyond the self-satisfaction of simply buying things for ourselves with the money we earn. How we can enjoy things in life without having to always buy them. It is a “gift-culture” which serves this theory well, and in my opinion, free downloads are an extremely good example.


2 Responses to “How Does Downloading Make You Feel?”

  1. max Says:

    well, legal downloading makes me feel pretty good too. these kind of downloads feel like the intersection of the gift economy and geek culture. functionally they’re part of a system of free exchange. culturally they’re part of the geeky thing of giving. in the latter case there is a currency – respect.

    what’s interesting for me is the way that better, cheaper technology is bringing new groups into this marketplace. i ‘give’ my pictures to people on flickr under a creative commons license because a) i want to b) i appreciate the feedback c) broadband and flickr apps make it easy to do so.

    i’d always thought the whole prosumer / pro-am idea was a bit overblown – and it was, 10 years ago. but possibly it’s now going a bit more mainstream.

    whether this kind of exchange system can ever *replace* the conventional economy is another question altogether. i suspect it’s always going to be a complement, not a substitute. after all, within the domain of the ‘conventional’ economy we already give things away – samples, promos, loss-leaders – albeit with the aim of encouraging financial exchange later. what’s so interesting about the music business right now is the way different activity lines are moving into and out of the gift and conventional economies.

    the pirate’s dilemma has lots of sensible things to say about all of this, but kind of ducks the question of how you get paid. i think the giveaway line is ‘information wants to be free, customised information wants to be very expensive’ – i.e. you could steal my book and i wouldn’t mind, but if you want to apply the ideas you need to pay me A LOT OF MONEY.

    • matski Says:

      I probably didn’t make it clear that I was referring to free downloads that are also ‘legal’: websites or individuals offering free creations directly to the public, rather than what you can find on, say, Demonoid.

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