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.
Frances Bell — April 1, 2011
Very interesting Bonnie. Reciprocity can be quite complex and not necessarily dyadic or in a given timeframe. As well as tit for tat, community members may be quite happy to give (time or knowledge) to a member of the community without an expectation that the same member will reciprocate but that the community will reciprocate at some stage in the future.
I am also interested in the manufacturing of gift-giving opportunities by commerce whether that be 19th century card manufacturers bigging up Valentines Day or Facebook 'giving' us a free service and opportunities to share with friends. I wonder what the Facebook equivalent of this might be http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antivalentinism.
You ask how people navigate the frequent blending of obligation and commodification - bearing in mind an example I have witnessed recently, I would answer - sometimes with great difficulty.
Clint Lalonde — April 1, 2011
This article resonates with me on a couple of different levels. First, as a long time Daddy blogger who went through the heady days of monetization 4-5 years ago, I've lived some of what you describe - how social capital in blogging networks can be leveraged into "real" capital (ie money). I had a couple posts that got amplified and pretty soon my ad revenue was bringing in a modest amount of money. But I noticed that this changed the way I wrote. I no longer was writing as a way to share and connect with other parents - I was now writing for Adsense, for eyeballs and clicks. It changed the dynamic, and it changed the community I had built up over a few years. I didn't like it, and earlier this year I dumped the ad's and reclaimed my Daddy blog space.
Second point is about reciprocity, which I have been thinking about during the course of my thesis research on personal learning networks, and how this reciprocal agreement we as participants in the network have is not with specific individuals, but rather a reciprocal agreement we have with the network itself. I can think of times where I have written blog posts with "the network" being the intended audience (ie solving an esoteric problem I might have with a lesser know software package that doesn't have a robust community). In essence, I've written a post for Google to find on behalf of some poor bloke in the future who is working on the same problem I have already found a solution for.
My expectations on where I can get help from has changed since becoming part of the network to where I no longer expect that specific people can help me find answers, but rather I have a sense of expectation that my network - as an entity - has the answer. When I post a question on Twitter, I don't have an expectation that a certain person will have the answer, but I do have an expectation that "the network" will have the answer. Because I have this expectation of my network, I feel a social obligation to contribute what I know to that network, be it in a blog post, tweet, whatever. I contribute because I benefit, and I benefit because I contribute. So, in this sense I see my interactions in the network as a kind of gift economy.
Bon — April 1, 2011
great points, Frances & Clint...thanks for the input. you're definitely right that reciprocity is far more than dyadic (i didn't mean to imply it was limited to that) but i like the way you both framed it, as a gift to the network, of sorts. as in the example of parenting boards, or Clint's of professional sharing, i do think there's an element Mauss would recognize in the exchanges i'm privileged to be a part of.
but a great deal of social capital too...sometimes in the same interactions. it's interesting stuff. thus far a side investigation for my dissertation work but one i'm increasingly sure i need to know more about.
and Frances, the capital events manufactured as gift exchange? yep, old as the hills. sometimes wise to look a gift horse in the mouth. ;)
Wendy Farmer — April 2, 2011
I would echo Frances' comment about the exchange not being tit-for-tat. For me there is definitely the sense of contributing to the community as a whole and the reciprocity being more widely distributed. Also with a paying-it-forward flavor.
I have noticed with myself a limit to the willingness to gift if there is no direct reciprocity over time. Direct reciprocity is definitely the 'best stroke'. I.e.: if i comment on a blog or retweet two or three times and receive no reciprocity (either simple thanks or other interaction) i am much less likely to continue to engage.
I definitely have the sense of exchange of life energy. If that qualifies as commodification? I am often motivated to share or gift by the desire to receive interaction in exchange. That exchange could be advancing thinking/learning opportunity, collaboration, deepened relationship, sense of inclusion, sense of contribution, recognition.
I have been contributing to 'digital sociality' since 2005. I have, up to this point not sought to directly monetize any of that activity. It has produced indirect benefits in terms of generating collaborations and contracts that have grown out of the online relationships forged.
nathanjurgenson — April 5, 2011
great post, bonnie! question, perhaps to tackle at the conference: do you think there is a danger in viewing social interaction so exclusively as an economics? not necessarily economies of money, but still econometric give-exchange value/capital thinking might be limiting in some ways. what does it miss? why do we choose this line of thought over others? what are those other non-economic ways of analyzing self-presentation/communication on social media? not a formulated critique, but just the start of an idea...
bliss — April 6, 2011
very interesting! I suggest an italian book "Il dono al tempo di internet" "The gift in Internet era" by Marco Aime and Anna Cossetta, Einaudi, Torino, 2010. I hope it will soon translate in English. Here you can find the Maussian Theory applied to Internet. So useful!
Bon — April 6, 2011
Bliss...i'll look forward to that book being translated! my Italian is pretty...erm...minimalissimo. ;)
Nathan, i definitely do want to take up the issues with the notion of brand and economic discourse permeating social media: i'm in education, so particularly in this field the word is problematic, as all things with corporate origins code "neoliberal push to turn schools into pseudo-efficiency machines, ignoring the vast inequity the system already perpetrates." ahem. i think i'll do some riffing at the conference.
and Frances, i too have had that experience of indirect benefits in spite of overt (in my case) decision not to monetize. it's interesting, this brave new world.
thanks for all the input!
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