The gift shift: what’s social about social media?

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, the cover art of the July 23rd issue of the New Yorker is a critical disquisition. A middle class family poses for a photo on a sunny tropical beach. Given that this is the New Yorker, we can assume that they are Americans citizens, perhaps in Hawaii or the Bahamas. Presumably they are on holiday. The point that is implied by the image is that, whoever and wherever they are, their attention is somewhere else. Instead of celebrating the moment and being together, they have their heads bent over their mobile phones, texting, tweeting, checking status updates… Who knows, perhaps they are checking the weather. Whatever they are doing, they are not engaging with one another.

The irony is palpable. To bring it into focus, let’s assume that these folks are using social media. Viewed this way, the image calls to mind a common criticism of social media. Social media, it is said, isolates us from one another even while it brings us together. In my classes on Philosophy and Social Media, I hear versions of this criticism all the time. Social media makes us slaves to our gadgets. It commits us to spending valuable time isolated from the people around us, texting, tweeting, posting, or just surfing feeds. The nub of it is that social media, in practice, is a solitary pursuit. Social media is supposed to bring us together, but in reality it sets us apart.

This criticism has merit. What worries me is how quickly people leap from this observation to the conclusion that social media isn’t social at all. It is true that there is a solitary aspect to social media. Anyone who has shared a train with a troop of early morning commuters knows that in public spaces, people use their mobiles as a means of isolating themselves from the people around them. Still, this shouldn’t lead us to question the social dimension of social media per se. On a behavioural level, tweeting, posting, sharing, commenting and liking are things that we do independently of one another. Understood on a psychological level, however, tweeting, posting, sharing, commenting and liking are not isolated activities at all. Tweeting, posting, sharing, commenting and liking are activities that we undertake in the presence of crowds. Insofar as they are informed by thought and invested with feeling, tweeting, posting, sharing, commenting and liking are intrinsically social activities.

Take another look at the picture of the family on the beach. I want you to imagine that each of these people is enjoying a unique online social experience. We might criticise them for their decision to engage with virtual crowds when they might otherwise be enjoying a special moment with their nearest and dearest. But setting aside this rebuke, think against the grain of the artist’s intentions and imagine that you are looking at four socially engaged individuals. There is no denying that this is a possibility. Why is it, then, that when we see people in the presence of one another using social media, we think first of all of the social experiences that they are missing out on having, rather than wonder what excellent experiences they are enjoying online? Why is it that when we see an image like this one, we immediately assume that we are looking at people who are not engaged in a fulfilling social pursuit? Why do we devalue online social experiences?

It is true that not all online social experiences are fulfilling. But online social experiences can be fulfilling, and so we shouldn’t dismiss them out of hand. If we do dismiss online social experiences out of hand, it is probably because we don’t understand what makes them fulfilling in the first place. Many people take completely the wrong perspective on online social experiences. They misunderstand the nature of these exchanges. It is no wonder that they take a poor view of them.

Usually when we think about social life, we think about individuals meeting with other individuals in groups. Individuals meet with others to chat, exchange information, and transact with each other in various ways. This way of understanding social life is second nature to us, to the extent that we find it difficult to think about social experiences in any other way. Social media, on this view, provides a virtual space for individuals to meet with other individuals to undertake more or less the same kinds of activities that they conduct face-to-face. But since they are not face-to-face, these experiences can only be less engaging and rewarding than their real world alternatives.

Is this how you understand social media? If the answer is ‘yes’, it’s time for a conceptual upgrade.

Social media is a gift culture. We need to see online experiences in this light in order to appreciate them. We need to see tweeting, posting, sharing, commenting and liking as gifts that we contribute to shared ‘digital commons’. And we need to think about how, through the process of giving gifts, we auto-aggregate into tribes united by common passions and interests.

We need a vocabulary of gifts and tribes to appreciate what is social about social media, and to give due credibility to our online experiences as genuine social interactions.

The way to get focus on this matter is to trace social media back to its origins in hacker culture. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is not the only social entrepreneur in Silicon Valley to profess a love for ‘the hacker way’. Hacker values and practices are baked into the design of open social systems, and expressed in the notions of openness, transparency, and ‘frictionless sharing’ used to describe them. The sharing practices that prevail in hacker communities can tell us a great deal about what is social about social media. Social sharing isn’t hacking, it is true. But the social experiences that apply in each case are analogous and the comparison is illuminating.

Software hackers are developers who code for love. Usually developers get paid large sums of money to work wizardry with code. But hackers aren’t motivated by money at all. The GNU-Linux computer operating system, the Mozilla web brower, and the Apache HTTP server are all built by volunteers who freely contribute their time and talent to these projects. What is it that motivates them to do this? First off, there is allegiance to the open source ideal. For hackers, there is an intrinsic sense of reward associated with contributing to an open source software commons – a common pool resource that is accessible to all. Secondly, hackers are motivated by a desire for reputation and community status. By contributing innovations to a common pool, hackers acquire status in the eyes of other hackers. The more they give, the more status they acquire, and the more social capital they amass that they can draw on at a later date. As Eric S. Raymond claims, hackers ‘compete for prestige by giving time, energy, and creativity away’. The desire to acquire status and prestige through the giving of gifts is a key driver of open source projects, and an intrinsic motivator for hacker participants.

Hacker culture is a gift culture. Gift cultures revolve about common pool resources that are created and maintained by communities. Participants engage socially with one another by pooling gifts into the commons. The greater and more valuable their gifts, the more prestige they amass in the eyes of their community, and the more social capital they earn that they can draw on down the track.

If you’re an avid user of Facebook or Twitter, this social logic should resonate with you. Gift culture is hard-wired into these systems. By building networks of connections, we set up common spaces of trust, communication, and sharing. By tweeting, posting, sharing, commenting on, and liking content, we contribute content to a common pool that is accessed by a community.

How does seeing social media as a gift culture change the way that we think about and understand our online social experiences? Thinking about social media as a gift culture shifts our focus away from the specific contributions we make on social media to the ‘common pool’ of resources that multiple individuals contribute to creating. Every post, every tweet, every like and share is a gift that adds something to the common pool. It may be a modest gift. It may be ignored and washed away in the seas of information that surge across our browser windows. Nonetheless, by tweeting, posting, liking, commenting and sharing we are contributing to a common pool resource.

Gift wisely if you care to dip into this pool on a regular basis. The commons suffers if we pollute it with junk. If, on the other hand, we treat the commons as a valuable resource and add only the most valuable, passionate, and intellectually-stimulating content, we help to create something wonderful. Never before in the history of our species have we had the opportunity to build these infinitely rich and diverse common spaces. Affirm this opportunity. It is yours – free of charge.

The second point to note concerns the content of our gifts. What is it that we add to the social media commons when we tweet, post, like, comment and share? In a general sense, we are exchanging information. But information is a hollow word. The term ‘information’ is used today to refer to a vast realm of things, from intimate details shared in conversation (‘too much information!’) to the coding of organic substances in the burgeoning field of biometrics. With such a wide sphere of reference, the term has become almost meaningless.

Don’t think of what you share as information. Even if what you share is information, by sharing it, you are telling the world that it is information that you affirm in some way. It is the affirmation that counts. We share what we love. Even when we share details about things we despise, they are things we love to hate. Love is the key to understanding how we contribute to social media commons. We populate the commons with expressions of love.

Share like a hacker. Do it for the love. As Clay Shirky says, the internet runs on love.

A final social insight falls out of this idea. Think about how you form new friends online. As we share what we love and rummage about on our social networks for valuable content to share, we come across people who also love the things that we love. We ‘like’ them, ‘friend’ them, or follow them so that we can continue to share with them and receive what they share. In the process, we build social networks based in common values and interests.

This is how we form tribes. Tribes are united by common values and interests – in a word, love.

What is social about social media? The answer has nothing to do with ephemeral exchanges between individuals. What’s social about social media is the way that it enables us to form tribal groupings based about the things that we love. It hinges on the way that we achieve prominence and status in our tribes by virtue of the gifts that we share with them. It comes into focus when we see that by sharing with our tribes, we contribute to a common project – that of building a valuable common pool for everyone to enjoy, a commons chock full of expressions of love.

Take another look at the picture at the top of this post. Imagine that the people in this picture are deeply engaged in the act of giving and co-creating online. They really ought to log off and build a sandcastle or take a swim. But perhaps now we can understand why they feel compelled to check in, and the kinds of social experiences that they are enjoying as well.

Don’t say ‘I tweeted’ or ‘I posted’. Say ‘I gifted’. This shift in perspective can totally transform the way that you understand social media.


  1. Thanks Tim,
    A good re-joiner but I’m sure I’m not alone in worrying that the unprecedented ability to reach across borders and beyond political boundaries might still be lost in an avalanche of shared and re-tweeted trivia. Our gifting may say a lot about ourselves and our tribe but is it going to change the real world? I believe it can and (at risk of being an online version of the book waver) I think Israel-loves-Iran is perhaps a beautiful example of what is possible?

  2. What a nice ‘feel good’ idea. Too bad there’s the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which you refer to as ‘junk’

    I think that if this idea was widely held by people it would given them an excuse to cover up their actions as being only in theirs and others interests. I certainly think that social media, whilst wonderful, should not wholly encompass people/their lives.

  3. Yukiko Yamasaki says:

    Tim, thanks much for sharing your overarching insight into social media. I think what you stated here is extremely important: “Tweeting, posting, sharing, commenting and liking are activities we undertake in the presence of crowds.” This account has a resonance in me because before embarking on connected learning on Twitter, I couldn’t imagine how the online world could support interaction that is social and participatory, and driven by the personal needs and desires of the participant. This concern has led me to a journey to participate in Twitter for the past few weeks, in trying to understand how this platform can support actively committed, self-directed forms of interaction.

    My initial discovery on Twitter was that one can pursue knowledge and expertise around something one cares deeply about, and one is still supported by tribes who share and recognize this common passion. In retrospect, however, I have come to cast doubt on this discovery because it seemed to take the presence of crowds for granted. Further exploration has clarified this point. On the one hand, Twitter is the universal dimension of the ‘public’ sphere. One participates in Twitter as a singular individual, taken out of or even opposed to one’s communal identification. And one is universal only insofar as one is radically singular in the intervening spaces of communal identities. This notion could sustain, in part, the thought that social media is not social. On the other hand, one participates in Twitter as a contingent individual in keeping up with the passion and interest of other participants. It is in this latter perspective that I appreciate another significant point you raise: “Individuals meet with others to chat, exchange information, and transact with each other in various ways.” This line reminds me of Dewey’s notion of “transaction,” which is something like dealing with multiple aspects and phases of action without any attribution to ultimate, final, or independent entities.

    I am still on the threshold of discovering Twitter. At this point, however, I am convinced that Twitter serves as a medium of exchange or transaction that is no longer (or at least, not always) a fetish, but a transparent instrument demonstrating each individual’s contribution to the digital world and beyond. I am learning twitter by twitter how to direct my passion and connect the social cause I care about to my academic and career ambitions in the presence of self-conscious, politically active, and morally aware crowds.

    Thanks once again for sharing your thought.

    • Hi Yukiko,

      These are very interesting observations. I, too, am intrigued by the question of what kind(s) of entities and identities we comprise on Twitter. Facebook is set up to enable us to reconstitute our personal identity online. For this reason, I find it limiting, almost stifling, in that I feel I am compelled by the system to act out a ‘real world’ identity that has no place or real purchase in the virtual medium. Twitter I find more satisfying, since it leaves open the question of identity. One can perform one’s familiar identity or try to articulate a persona-in-the-process-of-becoming. One can choose anonymity or one can act out a fantasy. There is much more freedom for the individual to explore creative forms of subjectivation. I think that Foucault would approve.

      Dewey’s notion of a transaction sounds appropriate here. Thanks for bringing it to my attention. I’ll have to explore it further.

      You say: ‘One participates in Twitter as a singular individual, taken out of or even opposed to one’s communal identification. And one is universal only insofar as one is radically singular in the intervening spaces of communal identities’. This is very astute. I wonder, though, if it makes sense to say that we are ‘individuals’ on Twitter. Individuality implies a wholeness – the sum total of our potentialities. Most people on Twitter, I think, focus on a small handful of potentialities (their professional concerns, their political concerns and affiliations, their unique passions) and use the part to represent the whole.

      I would suggest that we participate on Twitter as ‘dividuals’ – ‘part persons’, if you like. The interesting thing is that people seem to select that part of their person that has the greatest value and meaning for them. If a person is a set of vectors directed toward the future, Twitter enables us to single out the leading vectors and develop them in isolation from the others. This is what I call creative self-affirmation, which is the development of key aspects of one’s person.

      Thanks for your feedback, Yukiko. It is much appreciated.


  4. Yukiko Yamasaki says:

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for your thought-provoking feedback. Here’s some of my thoughts.

    With the representation of social background such as education, gender, age, relationship status, etc, Facebook can be useful, as you say, for those who are reluctant to reconstitute personal identity online in much the way they do offline. My enthusiasm for Facebook is foundering amid an almost institutionalized forum for self-publicity in a rather close, inner-looking environment. Twitter, on the contrary, has a forum for open, collective engagement with the hybrid space as its animating spirit. I suspect that depending on how and whom you hang out with, the hybrid space would be designed and shaped differently. Similarly, the animating spirit that demands intuition and creative thinking would be shaped by where you invest your energy, time and commitment. I’m interested in exploring these themes in the not so distant future.

    “There is much more freedom for the individual to explore creative forms of subjectivation (on Twitter). I think that Foucault would approve.” I agree, and so will Foucault, I believe.

    Concerning creative forms of subjectivaton:
    Acting in the digital word without a guidebook, by experimenting it, we explore creative forms of subjectivation. Personally, I think this doesn’t mean that we have no ‘guiding persona’ at all. Some experienced users who act as a catalyst, bringing people together to produce a kind of chemical reaction, are the people who play a guiding role. They help new users to develop horizontal connections. I sense that these horizontal connections have a positive potential of some kind of peer pressure. Such a potential can be another interesting topic for meditation.

    You wrote: “I would suggest that we participate on Twitter as ‘dividuals.’ That’s a really novel idea. The notion of ‘part persons” helps me to think of the role of individuals and their fabricated identities differently. From the perspective of dividuals, it could be said that a small handful of potentialities one has is the power to manage relationships with different individuals. Seen this way, this power can be equivalent to ‘social capital.’ Without forging a set of personal identity online, one can create a safety net, reclaim public life, and enhance selfhood: citizenfood. The role of dividuals confirms that social networks one builds on Twitter is a valuable asset in real life situation. The power of digital networks is in the opportunity to make bridges between school, home, community, and to make information and learning resources personalized. In a nutshell, I believe Twitter is an open society where everyone has a role to play as an entrepreneur.

    Thanks for allowing this interactive and connected learning. This is a tremendous opportunity for an independent learner.


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