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.