Virtual Communities & Collaboration

Howard Rheingold

Rheingold is 67 years old writer, designer, artist, teacher, critic and researcher who helped to build the computer communications, as we know nowadays. He is very well known because of his career writing about the relationship between technology and communication. “Net Smart: How to Thrive Online,” “Smart Mobs,” and “The Virtual Community” are just some of his most famous published work.

“In the past, new forms of cooperation enabled by new technologies create new forms of wealth, we may be moving into yet another economic form that is significantly different from previous ones.”
Howard Rheingold

Smart Mobs

“Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution” is one of his books published in 2002 that predicted certain behavior trends in the web, like the creation of virtual communities such the Wikipedia. Also, he defends the potential of the personal computer, as he says, “every desktop is now a printing press, a broadcasting station, a community or a marketplace.” And now people carry a small personal computer in their pockets.

Rheingold’s expertise

Besides of his academic work, Rheingold also worked to important technology institutions such as Institute of Noetic Sciences, the Xerox PARC, he was chief editor of the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog and executive editor of HotWired, he created the virtual community Brainstorms. Now he teaches about virtual communities at Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley's.


BitTorrent is a very good example of Rheingolds’ theories. It is a widespread platform of distributing data peer-to-peer (P2P) through the Internet. According to information released in January 2012, BitTorrent had 150 million active users, and a more recent research from 2013 pointed that BitTorrent was responsible by the use of 3.35% of the whole world’s bandwidth.

“BitTorrent turns every downloader into an uploader, making the system more efficient the more it is used.”
Howard Rheingold

How it works?

The download of files from a torrent platform is faster and requires less of your bandwidth because it gets the file from different sources simultaneously, therefore the user is not dependent of only one source. But, by using a torrent protocol, the person made the download becomes a host of the file automatically, and other people can have access to it. To use BitTorrent, you just have to install the program in your computer, and then search for the torrent file desired. Although the main program is free, there are some paid upgrades to people who want more security through the download operation.

Bittorrent graph

How it changed the web?

More than just a computer program, there is a BitTorrent company operating in San Francisco, CA that is engaged in creation innovation to Internet technologies.

By being a platform of free file sharing and distribution through the Internet, the BitTorrent protocol created, maybe unconsciously, a lot of Copyright problems helping the diffusion of online piracy. Because people in some countries got used to download audiovisual material like movies, complete music albums or books without paying for rights to reproduce it. This kind of illegal activity has created a difficulty to the industries related, making them have a decrease in the profits.

Besides of the problems to the companies, the BitTorrent platform also brings some issues to the users. Since there isn’t any control about what is distributed, any user will agree that a great percentage of the files are likely to contain a malware that threatens the security of your computer.

Even though the creators are well intentioned, there is no way to control the sharing of copyrighted material or malware yet.

Watch Rheingold’s TED Talk: The new power of collaboration: