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Alpha60: Mapping Media

image: alpha60 visualization of file sharing of 16 torrents of The Walking Dead season 7, episode 3 (7 days cumulative, data collection began on air date 6 November 2016).

Last year, BCNM was proud to support four amazing projects in our first faculty research seed grant awards, adjudicated by our alumni. Read about how Abigail De Kosnik and her team have leveraged this funding to build a new digital humanities tool that maps torrents.

Unauthorized peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, which the media industries call “piracy,” has become a prevalent mode of distribution for television content. The pirate news blog TorrentFreak periodically publishes stories claiming that the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones is the most downloaded television show in the world (Van der Sar 2016a); TorrentFreak also occasionally posts lists ranking countries by their “piracy rates” (Van der Sar 2016b). To date, such informal reports constitute the only means by which the quantity, timing, and geography of Internet media piracy become somewhat visible. For the most part, the size, scale, temporal behavior, and localities of unofficial download culture remain hidden, even to members of that culture.

In Fall 2016, with a $10,000 BCNM Faculty Seed Grant, Abigail De Kosnik (Associate Professor at UC Berkeley in the Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies), together with her spouse, software engineer and data artist Benjamin De Kosnik, and UC Berkeley undergraduate Jingyi Li (Computer Science major), developed a tool for tracking and visualizing BitTorrent traffic, which they called “alpha60” (after the central computer in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1965 dystopian sci-fi film Alphaville). In November 2016, alpha60 tracked 16 torrent files (of varying resolutions, from MP4 to 1080p) of an episode of the AMC horror series The Walking Dead (season 7, episode 3), and generated graphs showing how much seeding and downloading of these files took place in the seven-day period following the episode’s broadcast; and produced maps showing all of the locations in the world that shared these files (Figure 1).

De Kosnik’s goal for the alpha60 tool is to make perceptible the global distribution of pirated television files. alpha60 illustrates what Jenkins, Ford, and Green (2013) call the “spreadability” of current popular television series originating in the U.S. alpha60’s visualizations make clear that pirates successfully spread television files around the world in very short spans of time, ignoring all national boundaries and defeating the international syndication agreements that insist on different release dates for television programs in different countries. alpha60 reveals the shape of a “pirate archipelago,” a collection of numerous physical sites that engage in illicit media file sharing, and displays how rapidly the archipelago shares new television content.

The team hopes that they can eventually establish alpha60 tool as a type of ratings system for media piracy that will be valuable to media scholars. They will be presenting a paper on alpha60 at “Distribution Matters,” an ICA Preconference that will take place in San Diego in May 2017. At that meeting, they will discuss alpha60’s potential with a group of informed scholars who can potentially evaluate the tool’s affordances and provide feedback on what additional functionalities and visualization formats they would most like to see designed.

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