This article discusses the relevance, for scholars working on social studies of network media, of “caring about the plumbing” (to paraphrase Bricklin, 2001), i.e., addressing elements of application architecture and design as an integral part of their subject of study. In particular, by discussing peer-to-peer (P2P) systems as a technical networking model and a dynamic of social interaction that are inextricably intertwined, the article introduces how the perspective outlined above is particularly useful to adopt when studying a promising area of innovation: that of “alternative” or “legitimate” (Verma, 2004) applications of P2P networks to search engines, social networks, video streaming and other Internet-based services. The article seeks to show how the Internet's current trajectories of innovation increasingly suggest that particular forms of architectural distribution and decentralization (or their lack), impact specific procedures, practices and uses. Architectures should be understood an “alternative way of influencing economic systems” (van Schewick, 2010), indeed, the very fabric of user behavior and interaction. Most notably, the P2P “alternative” to Internet-based services shows how the status of every Internet user as a consumer, a sharer, a producer and possibly a manager of digital content is informed by, and shapes in return, the technical structure and organization of the services (s)he has access to: their mandatory passage points, places of storage and trade, required intersections. In conclusion, this article is a call to study the technical architecture of networking applications as a “relational property” (Star & Ruhleder, 1996), and integral part of human organization. It suggests that such an approach provides an added value to the study of those communities, groups and practices that, by leveraging socio-technical dynamics of distribution, decentralization, collaboration and peer production, are currently questioning more traditional or institutionalized models of content creation, search and sharing.
Peer-to-peer, architecture, innovation, Internet-based services, distribution