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BCNM Seed Grants 2017: Abigail De Kosnik’s TorrentMap

This year the Berkeley Center for New Media offered four faculty research grants to seed ambitious academic projects in the field. Our alumni voted on the applications and awarded $10,000 to Abigail De Kosnik to build her innovative tool TorrentMap. Read more about the project below!

“TorrentMap: A Tool for Tracking and Mapping Media File Sharing”

Broadcast-era methods for capturing data on media consumption, such as the Nielsen rating system for television, are too selective and insufficient to measure modern digital distribution. De Kosnik plans to convene a research team to build a digital humanities (DH) tool called “TorrentMap,” to measure Internet users’ sharing of television and film content via torrent files on peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, and visualize the geographic “spread” of specific torrents over time.

More than 20% of the audience of popular television series, like HBO’s Game of Thrones, access episodes through P2P file sharing (which film studios and television networks label “piracy”) rather than through legitimate channels. To understand the sizes, locations, and temporalities of television and film audiences today, research must take into account “pirate” traffic on global digital networks, in addition to examining traditional audience metrics such as box office receipts and ratings on authorized platforms.

With TorrentMap, De Kosnik will investigate questions such as: How quickly after a television episode is broadcast in the U.S. does that episode spread, across the country and to other nations? What regions, and nations, file-share media content in the greatest volume and at the fastest rates? What proportion of Anglophone countries to non-Anglophone countries pirate English-language television?

In 2013-14, De Kosnik led a DH project called FanData, where she collaborated with Prof. Laurent El Ghaoui (EECS) and assembled a team of graduate and undergraduate students from computer science and humanities departments to develop a series of data scrapers that measured and visualized activity on several fan fiction archives, and then used humanities methods to analyze the data they collected. De Kosnik aims to organize the TorrentMap research team in a similar way – a group of graduate and undergraduate students from technology and humanities fields that will work together to create a tool that can answer humanities-based research questions.

De Kosnik plans to use the research grant to pay her team members for 12 to 18 months of collaboration. She also has a long-term goal of making both FanData and TorrentMap publicly available tools that quantitatively measure and visually represent the activity of online users in ways that new media scholars can readily understand and use.

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