On September 6, 2006, Facebook’s 12 million users were thrust into the world of frictionless sharing. Logging on, users discovered a News Feed in the place of their profile page, which is what they’d previously seen when they’d logged on. Everyone’s updates and activities had been routed into a single feed so that you could see everything that your friends were doing on Facebook and all your friends could see what you were doing as well. Prior to this, you had to visit your friends’ profile pages to check out their updates. Now everything was out in the open: posts, shares, likes, comments, updates – everything.
People hated it. Critics called the site ‘Stalkerbook’ and threatened to decamp for MySpace. But the News Feed stayed and turned out to be central to Facebook’s success. It was only after the introduction of the News Feed that Facebook took off. Twitter launched the following year with a News Feed and nothing else. Since then, it has become standard practice on social media sites to feature a feed or stream that compiles everything that people are doing in one place. The all-in feed has become central to the social media experience.
The News Feed works because it taps into the logic of gift culture. News Feed turned Facebook into a gift economy. I suspect this is precisely what Zuckerberg and co. aimed to achieve.
Giving is how chiefs, in the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, used to establish reputation and status. Chiefs would stage huge festivals that centred about them giving their tribe a massive gift of food, skins, weapons, crafts, canoes – you name it. They called them Potlatch festivals and they were central to holding tribes together. Altruism wasn’t the motivation for chiefs to throw a Potlatch. Chiefs wanted the status, reputation, and prestige they earned through their gifts. The logic of the Potlatch was: the more you give, the richer (in reputational terms) you become. Sometimes, at a meeting of tribes, chiefs would compete to out-give one another. You wanted to show that you were flush with spiritual abundance and wealth.
If you’ve seen the HBO TV series Treme, you’ll know the Mardi Gras Indian culture of New Orleans. The chiefs of these tribes spend months hand-stitching these fabulously elaborate costumes so that they can be the prettiest chief on the street come Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras Indians are another example of a competitive gift culture. In the gift culture paradigm, the chief who gives exorbitantly is the chief who wins prestige.
Facebook is a virtual Potlatch. When the News Feed routed everyone’s contributions together, it set up a space where people could compete for reputation and status through gifts. The experience becomes like a meeting of chiefs. Everyone is trying to distinguish themself through what they put in the common space, while supporting each other through shares and likes, which can also be seen as gifts. Social media gift economies give everyone the opportunity to be a chief. This is how social media hooks us. Over and above the value we get from connecting with family and friends, it’s the opportunity to accumulate reputation and social capital through gifts that keeps us coming back to social media despite complaining about the hours it consumes in our day, how it fills our heads with trivia and distracts us from important tasks.
A generation has grown up using Facebook’s News Feed. They have learned to love giving extraordinary gifts and earning reputation, social capital and prestige through giving. Millions of people around the world are playing the Potlatch reputation game right now. There is a gift culture resurgence happening online and it is reformatting the mindset of a generation.
Who would have known? The fact is, gift culture is a mystery to most people in market societies. We are blind to this culture even as we participate in it en masse. This amounts to a major blind spot in our understanding of the social era and its implications for the future. Make no mistake: social media gift cultures have major implications for the future – and they’re kicking in today. Culture doesn’t stay put – it spreads virally in all directions. What we’re seeing today, right around the world, is a gift culture migration out of the virtual realm into the actual. Social sharing is becoming mainstream. People are exploring how to recreate the same practices and experiences that they’ve been enjoying online, offline. They are taking Potlatch culture to the streets.
I call it the gift shift. The gift shift is what happens when online gift culture flows off the internet into communities, coworking spaces, FabLabs, and businesses. Gift culture has landed and it is reshaping markets, business models, and consumer behaviours. In the coming years, the gift shift will disrupt business and society in a major way – for the social good.
We see the gift shift in the share economy, where people are renting, bartering, swapping and gifting clothes, cars, tools, rooms, and all sorts of goods and services in a peer-to-peer fashion. Rachel Botsman estimates that the consumer peer to peer sharing market is worth $26 billion dollars, and it’s growing fast. We see the gift shift in the maker movement, where people are sharing practical knowledge and open source computer designs to reinvent how everyday products get made, using home model 3D printers like MakerBot. We see the gift shift in the spiralling growth of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, which enable creative projects and startups to launch quickly without getting tied up in loans and investment capital. We see the gift shift in the way that the principles of social sharing are increasingly baked into the organisational structure of new business and community projects like Hub, reflecting an awareness that ‘social’ is not a set of tools but a set of cultural norms that are fast becoming part of mainstream life.
What binds all these projects and activities together isn’t a business model. It’s a common set of values and motivations. The motivation isn’t money. Most of the people participating in the gift shift are expending time and money, not earning it. True, renters and microentrepreneurs make money in the share economy, but their earning capacity is limited. On the whole, people engage in sharing-based activities for the intrinsic value, not extrinsic rewards. People want to feel like they’re contributing to something awesome. They want to feel like they’re helping build a tribal community – a collaborative social unit bound together by shared values, passions, and interests.
Most of all, people want to distinguish themselves through their gifts. They want the opportunity to be chiefs. This means they are looking to contribute from a position of abundance and generousity. Instead of asking: ‘what can I get?’, they are asking: ‘what can I give?’ What can I give to help strengthen the communities that I care about? How can I distinguish myself through giving, so that strengthening my tribe becomes an intrinsically valuable activity?
What do you have to offer your tribes and communities? Think about your place of work, the people who work there, and the creative projects that go on in this space. What unique contributions can you make that could empower these people and activities?
Don’t stop there. Look at the world about you. We are entering an era of global transformation and change. Everyone needs to pitch into this Potlatch. What is your gift to the future?
Don’t just be a leader. Be a chief. Identify your tribes and give.
This post is an edited version of a talk delivered at the In the Room event on 16 August, 2013.