What is it that we exchange when we interact online? Part of my research into the notion of the branded cyborg explores the question of what we circulate in the networks that constitute digital sociality. Different platforms and communities within social media privilege different types of interactions, but two dominant  conceptualizations seem to emerge regularly. One is represented by Marcel Mauss‘ gift economy, the other by Bourdieu’s notions of capital, particularly social capital.

The concept of the gift economy resonates in the history of early web communities like CommuniTree (Stone, The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age, 1995) and in the rise of Linux and the Open Source Movement. Mauss (The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, 1922/1990, p. 31) argued that gifts are never actually free, but objects of reciprocal exchange, and that “objects are never completely separated from the men [sic] who exchange them.” In a gift economy, then, objects cannot be fully transferred from one owner to another as they can in a commodity economy. Gregory’s (Gifts and commodities, 1982) work on Mauss suggests that the affiliation of the identity of the giver with the object is what compels reciprocation: gifts are inalienable, thus the act of giving creates debt that must be repaid and instantiates an ongoing relationship between individuals.  Gift exchange leads to a social bond and to mutual interdependence.

If you comment on my blog post, then, or retweet it or link to it, have you given something inalienable of yourself? Engaging in the quoting or sharing is a visible act: both connection and some sense of obligation to reciprocate may be fostered. My own experience as a blogger is that this sort of implicitly reciprocal exchange was prevalent for some time, peaking in 2007 or 2008, and can still be found in many internet communities based on shared experience, such as IVF (in vitro fertilization) and parenting boards.

Does commodification preclude sharing and interdependence? Contemporary social media is permeated by the neoliberal discourse of monetization, leverage, and brand, in which individuals are encouraged to view themselves through a “Me, Inc.” lens. In places where this ethos dominates, the concept of social capital becomes particular useful as a means to represent exchange.

Social capital functions as a network-sanctioned credential of goodwill enacted, maintained and reinforced in ongoing exchanges. Advantages conferred by social capital and one’s position in a social network can be converted to economic capital or to other advantage. Bourdieu did caution that social capital was less “liquid” than economic capital and thus more difficult to convert, but I question whether this holds true within social media. Platforms began introducing targeted ads to users as early as 2006 (Safko, The Social Media Bible, 2010).  Even individual bloggers could run ads, often generating only a few dollars monthly, but contributing to the development of a normative business discourse within many social media environments.  In 2008, at the influential BlogHer convention in SanFrancisco, bloggers were exhorted by BlogHer’s Executive Vice President Gina Garrubbo to “take the money!” that companies were eager to pay for ad space (Pagenhart, “Hi, I’m Polly, your Blogher conference programming cruise director!”, 2011).

The metrics of a cyborg subject’s identity – which represent both social capital and symbolic capital, or status within a given community – are also now demonstrably convertible to economic capital opportunities such as freelance writing, speaking gigs, and sponsorships. The rush of corporations to try to attract members to their Facebook fan pages suggests that conventional business has bet that social capital has a payoff.

My own premise is that for most cyborg subjects, digital sociality involves the exchange of both inalienable gifts and social capital, either with or without intent to commodify. My interest is in tracing which online practices privilege capital exchange and which privilege gift, and how people navigate the frequent blending of obligation and commodification. What about you? How do you see what you share in the digital sphere?

Bonnie Stewart is an educator, writer, and Ph.D student exploring social media subjectivities at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.