Interchangeable Identities: The Collision of Culture, Technology, and Self
For those who came of age just before the rise and fall of Napster, the music they listened to depended greatly on the "tyranny of geography." Such tyranny, Chris Anderson suggests in The Long Tail , made it so fans had access to purchase the music that existed on the limited shelf space in stores that were within a few miles of their homes. Music listening influences like friends, family, and media remain, but with one exception. "Now," Seth Godin writes in Tribes , "the Internet eliminates geography." Looking back, what we have are those who were born digital and the epidemic of file-sharing that preceded them. An entirely different portrait of music consumption has emerged because fans are no longer limited by geography, but only by their ability to imagine and their willingness to explore the abundance of music that lives online.
Many would argue, and correctly so, that the appeal of file-sharing among college students and teenagers is because it made music free. "People often don't care as much about things they don't pay for, and as a result they don't think as much about how they consume them," Anderson says in Free , his follow-up release to The Long Tail . "Free can encourage gluttony, hoarding, thoughtless consumption, waste, guilt, and greed," he says. He continues that people begin to take stuff because it's there, not necessarily because they want it. Common rhetoric in the record industry still says every song downloaded off the file-sharing networks is a lost sale, which, as Anderson suggests, may not be the case after all.
The problem with the assumption by the record industry is that it negates the core appeal of the Internet. Beyond the information highway's shear capacity for establishing and maintaining connections, it also gives college students and teenagers the ability to experiment, explore, and reinvent their identities. "Digital Natives are certainly experimenting with multiple identities," professors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser write in Born Digital . "Sometimes, they are recreating or amplifying aspects of their real-space identities when they go online. In other instances, they are experimenting online with who they are, trying on roles and looks and relationships that they might never dare to try on in real space." It is this aspect of identity experimentation that aligns with file-sharing in the way that college students and teenagers oftentimes will download music that they may have never otherwise considered listening to or buying.
"During our teenage years, we begin to discover that there exists a world of different ideas, different cultures, different people," neurologist Daniel Levitin writes in This Is Your Brain on Music . "We experiment with the idea that we don't have to limit our life's course, our personalities, or our decisions to what we were taught by our parents, or to the way we were brought up. We also seek out different kinds of music." This is where the true appeal of file-sharing becomes clear. In the college dorms and bedrooms of middle America, you have students and teenagers who have questionable access to "good music" via traditional means. Yet, on the Internet lives an abundance of songs that is otherwise inaccessible even with the purchasing power of those teens and their parents combined.
The moment music became digital and shareable on the Internet, everything changed. You had students and teenagers who were essentially consuming and deleting music. They would download seven albums, put them on their iPod, and listen to them for a week. Then they'd delete the four that they didn't like as much and keep the three that they