Building community around free stuff

Anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis knows I’m a fan of Ubuntu Linux, a free operating system. While many of its users celebrate the freedom in licensing Ubuntu (as is typical of Linux distributions) comes with, a lot of folks just like the fact that it’s cost-free. Quite an online community has been built around this free product.

Yesterday, I saw a different kind of “community” building (and then disappearing) around something else free—music. My wife and I were on the way to dinner, and we saw a huge cardboard box on the side of the road next to an apartment building. We looked inside and saw hundreds of audio CDs. We looked all around it to see if there was some kind of sign. As far as we could tell, this was someone’s garbage, free for the taking. Just as we’d decided this, three men in their early 20s came around, and all five us dug around through the collection and picked what CDs we wanted, often politely ceding our initial choices to each other if we saw someone else who wanted that CD more. An older Russian woman came by and started remarking on how there were probably hundreds of dollars’ worth of CDs in there that someone amassed over years, and now it was just garbage, and how we do the same thing (accumulate and discard) with clothes sometimes. She eventually had a look inside, too.

It is kind of an interesting idea. The CD you used to wait months for and save up for, the CD you were so happy to get and listen to over and over for weeks—years later, that CD is just a toss-away for strangers to rummage through.

What impressed me most about the whole situation is how polite and friendly people were with each other, as they picked up CD after CD. Folks were making small talk and reminiscing back to their own first CD purchases as kids. Even though everyone at one point or another audibly toyed with the notion of taking the whole stash and selling it to Amoeba (a local used music store), no one actually did. We all just picked the CDs we wanted and then went on our way. It wasn’t a madhouse. It was civil.

At that moment, scrounging around for musical scraps, I felt a part of a community, even though I didn’t know these people, I didn’t know their names, I probably wouldn’t see them ever again, and if I did I probably wouldn’t recognize them (“Hey, it’s you! Remember that time we were looking through the same cardboard box of CDs back in 2009?”). It’s amazing how a “community” can form around free stuff. It can even form for only a matter of minutes and then quickly dissipate. Almost like a flash mob. But less organized.

It’s also kind of funny how people would make remarks about the CD collection’s owner. Is it a guy? Is it a girl? Why does the owner have such eclectic tastes? You try to imagine, based on a collection of CDs, what this person is like. Would you be friends with her or him? Who owns a Rick Astley album, let alone two? Berlin had more than one greatest hit?

If I ever do get rid of the rest of my CD collection, maybe instead of selling it, I’ll put it in a large cardboard box and install a hidden camera, so I can see what people say about me while they’re taking my music. It’d be an interesting experiment.

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7 Comments

  1. Could be the RIAA trying an experiment on ‘You wouldn’t steal a CD’ XD

    But, that’s kind of odd someone would dump all those CDs on the sidewalk… Maybe they already ripped the CD?

  2. Hello Ubuntucat. Its always nice reading your tutorials and blog. I have just realised while reading this post that you are a man. All this time, i don’t know why i have mistaken you for a woman. Anyways better late than never to correct misconceptions and continue your good work. ;)

    Cheers
    Iconz255

  3. i think last.fm has bar charts (based on member rating, i assume). that may parallel “best hits”, though polluted by retro POV in the case of older tracks (eg, berlin)
    “I have just realised while reading this post that you are a man. All this time, i don’t know why i have mistaken you for a woman.”
    i think the faq stuff was written by a woman (=wife?) IOW, i think there’s more than one writer on pyschocats. otherwise… YOU WRITE LIKE A METROsEXUAL< AKK_sZpthhtt
    just kidding.

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