I’m fascinated by social media. My Gen X friends can’t understand it. Most of them are too busy struggling with families and careers to spend time glued to Facebook and Twitter. For them, social media is a time suck, at best. At worst, it’s a gross invasion of privacy. When I tell my friends that I’m teaching on social media, I get one of two reactions. Either they leer conspiratorially, as if to say: ‘Lucrative. Smart!’, or they smile sympathetically, as if say: ‘It must be tough being a philosopher, having to root around for trendy topics to keep people interested’.
Love them as I do, my Gen X friends don’t understand social media at all. They don’t understand social media, so they don’t understand what social media is doing to us in this moment in history. They don’t understand what social media is doing to us, so they don’t understand the historical importance of social media. They don’t understand the historical importance of social media, so they don’t understand why I am utterly obsessed with the medium itself.
It is time that I laid my cards on the table. I am a social philosopher. I am interested in social and cultural change. I believe that social media is the catalyst for cultural change in the world today. As such, it is probably more important than anything else you could care to mention.
Don’t put me in a box. One thing I’ve learned in my conversations on these topics is that if you start a sentence with the words ‘social media’ and ‘change’, someone else will try to finish the sentence for you. When I say that social media is changing the world, I’m not touting a cybernetic rapture. I’m not what Jaron Lanier calls a ‘digital Maoist’: a tech fetishist who believes that the Singularity is near and humanity is evolving into a hive mind of happy worker ants. Perhaps this our destiny. Perhaps in five hundred years, the last surviving humans will be plugged into the web uploading their thoughts to the digital hive. This is not what interests me. I am interested in changes that are being driven through our societies right now. These changes are cultural, rather than technological or metaphysical, in nature. Technology is enabling them. But we can’t understand these changes by thinking about things in technological terms.
We need to think about the human beings that are using the technology. We need to think about the human element. We must try to understand the values and practices that are implicit in the operation of successful social media systems. We must consider how these values and practices are changing our conception of social culture online and off.
The most successful social media systems are sharing systems. I call them ‘open social’ systems to underscore that sharing takes place in the presence of a crowd. Facebook and Twitter are currently leading the open social pack. Google+ and Pinterest are also developing the open social model in interesting ways. LinkedIn has an open social dimension, but it is basically a social network. I find it a bit retrograde, in this respect. It is a mistake to confuse open social and social networking systems, although people often do (take the title of the film, The Social Network (2011), for example). We engage in social networks to connect with friends and colleagues. While we obviously connect with friends and colleagues on Facebook, it is not the connections per se that draw us back to engage with the system again and again. Sharing in the presence of a crowd – a crowd that may be comprised of individuals with whom one has not connected and may have no interest in connecting with (the second and third degree connections established when friends or followers share, like, or comment on our posts or tweets) – has intrinsic rewards for open social users (or ‘prosumers’). These intrinsic rewards are basic to the experience of sharing online. They explain why it is that we return to social media systems despite complaining about the hours that they absorb in our day, how they fill our heads with trivia and distract us from important tasks.
We are living through a culture shift that is being catalyzed online by the success of social media. I call it the ‘gift shift’. Thanks to the success of open social systems, a whole generation is rediscovering gift culture.
Gift economies have a totally different logic to market based economies. In market society, I transact with you to satisfy my unmet needs. If I’m smart, I’ll ensure that I get the better end of the deal. My social status and sense of self-esteem hinges on my ability to work things to my advantage. In gift economies, this logic is reversed: I give to you to establish my status as someone who has abundant resources. As Charles Eisenstein observes: ‘In gift economies, the more you give, the richer you are’. The competition between gifters has a positive social effect, consolidating the bond between members of the tribe and strengthening the community.
Gift culture is driven by a social desire for prestige and status. Since the focus is on giving, rather than taking from others, self-interest in this case works to the common advantage. In his seminal study of indigenous gift economies, The Gift, the French sociologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) examined the apogee of this socio-economic logic in the potlatch ceremonies of the Tlingit and Haida tribes of the US North Pacific coast. Here, ‘the prestige of an individual is closely bound up with expenditure … The rich man who [gives] recklessly is the man who wins prestige’ (The Gift, 35). Prestige, in gift economies, is a primordial form of wealth – a wealth that is measured in terms of social standing and the promise of receiving gifts in return.
Open social systems are gift cultures. It is enlightening to think of one’s Facebook feed as giant, ongoing, potlatch ceremony. While it is easy to contribute to the ceremony, not all contributions have equal value. Dedicated users engage in virtuous competition to share genuine content – material that informs, excites, and inspires – because this is how one accumulates friends, followers, reputation and prestige. Prestige is a leading driver of engagement online. Sure, solidarity, care, and empathy figure in there too, but it’s our desire to build a presence online – and to make it a positive presence, one that people will aggregate about and engage with – that really gets us posting. This is embarrassing to admit to until we take a gift culture perspective. If you’ve harboured a guilty sense that your tweeting and posting is really all about self-promotion, try thinking of social media as a potlatch ceremony: it puts a totally different spin on things.
Yes, we share material for the sake of reputation and prestige. If it’s quality material, we’re also enriching our tribes. Ultimately, it’s the tribe that counts. Your tweets and posts should be virtuous gifts that enrich your tribe. If they are tribes worth belonging to, you’ll find quality content flowing back to you, a common sense of belonging in a virtuous spiral of gifts.
Not everyone takes this approach to social media. Facebook and Twitter are chock-a-bloc with puerile posts and mean-spirited trolling behaviours. But online communities work best when participants affirm the values and practices of gift culture. These values and practices make sharing a mutually-rewarding experience, which is why active users tend to affirm them.
When we see social media as a gift culture, a number of things fall into place. The genealogy, or family history, of Facebook, for a start. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t devise the open social model himself. There is an obvious cultural precedent for this model: hacker culture. Hacker culture is a well-established gift culture. As Eric S. Raymond has argued, hackers ‘compete for prestige by giving time, energy, and creativity away’. Through their virtuous competition, hackers create software commons – common pool resources that other hackers can contribute to or draw from to create their own projects.
Social media prosumers create content pools by sharing tweets and posts on open feeds. They may enjoy sharing, but they are not driven by a sharing impulse, any more than hackers are. To appreciate what motivates hackers and prosumers alike, we need to look beyond sharing to the values and practices that make sharing worthwhile: the values and practices of gift culture.
Zuckerberg makes no secret of his devotion to ‘the hacker way’. It is not surprising, then, that gift culture frames how he understands Facebook’s impacts on society. In The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick recounts a conversation with Zuckerberg in which the Facebook founder explicitly compares Facebook to the potlatch ritual. The following excerpt indicates the core role of gift culture in Facebook’s design and mission:
One night over dinner I asked Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook’s effects on society – especially politics, government, media, and business. He responded by talking about the potlatch. That’s a traditional celebration and feast of native peoples on the northwest coast of North America. Each celebrant contributes what food and goods they can. The highest status goes to those who give the most away.
“Are you familiar with the concept of a gift economy?’ Zuckerberg asks. “It’s an alternative to the market economy in a lot of less developed cultures. I’ll contribute something and give it to someone, and then out of obligation or generosity that person will give something back to me. The whole culture works on this framework of mutual giving. The thing that binds those communities together and makes the potlatch work is the fact that the community is small enough that people can see each other’s contributions. But once one of those societies gets past a certain point in size the system breaks down. People can no longer see everything that is going on, and you get freeloaders.”
Zuckerberg says Facebook and other forces on the Internet now create sufficient transparency for gift economies to operate at a large scale. “When there’s more openness, with everyone being able to express their opinion very quickly, more of the economy starts to operate like a gift economy. It puts the onus on companies and organizations to be more good, more trustworthy.” All this transparency and sharing and giving has implications, in his opinion, that go deep into society. “It’s really changing the way that governments work,” he says. “A more transparent world creates a better-governed world and a fairer world.” This is, for him, a core belief. (David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect, pp. 287-288)
Zuckerberg’s genius was to take the gift-based reputation system that makes hacker communities work and insert it at the heart of a new kind of sharing system – a system that enables people to share in public so that they can compete for prestige as they create a common pool of resources. The cultural roots of Facebook lie in hacker culture and the logic of the gift.
When future historians look back on the birth of social media, they’ll chart a cultural evolution that proceeded underground before bursting into the mainstream in the early 21st century. Following the path mapped out by Fred Turner in his book From Counterculture to CyberCulture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (2006), they’ll trace the development of late-modern gift culture from the 60s communes, through the 70s hardware hacker movement, to the free and open source software movement and its fundamental role in creating the internet. The rise of Facebook, Twitter, and their open social offspring in the first decade of the 21st century marks a socio-cultural paradigm shift. It marks the moment at which a set of countercultural values and practices that had previously been pushed to the fringes of society leap to the centre to occupy its heart.
This is our moment in history. Yet the gift shift has only begun.
Right now, there are over 9oo million people about the world engaging in gift cultural exchanges on Facebook alone. This is significant. It is already having a cultural impact beyond social media and the internet. We can see it happening in the burgeoning world of collaborative consumption. The pioneers of collaborative consumption are motivated by a range of social, political, economic and ecological concerns, but they share a value set and collaborative mindset that originally emerged online in the context of peer-to-peer culture and social media. Botsman and Rogers are clear on this point in What’s Mine is Yours: The Rise of Collaborative Consumption (2010).
‘Collaborative consumption started online – by posting comments and sharing files, code, photos, videos, and knowledge. Now we have reached a powerful inflection point, where we are starting to apply the same collaborative principles and sharing behaviours to other physical areas of our everyday lives’ (What’s Mine is Yours, xx)
This point is not well understood. Many tech, business, and media journalists are too focused on emerging innovations and oblivious to the cultural history of the technologies they discuss and the cultural impacts of their adoption. Sometimes a philosophical and historical perspective is required to cut through the allure of the new and scope out the past that inhabits it.
There is a story to be told about the socio-cultural history of Facebook and Twitter as catalytic engines of change. These sites are driving a gift shift that will dramatically transform the landscape of 21st century society. They unleash a disruptive power that was born in the 60s communes, grew up through the hacker groups of the late twentieth century, and was embraced by a Millennial generation enamoured by the hacker way.