The family history of Facebook: how social media will change the world

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 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 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. I’ve learned in my conversations on these topics that if you start a sentence with the words ‘social media’ and ‘change’, someone 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 social media. I call it the gift shift. Thanks to the success of open social systems, a 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 emphasise 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)


  1. Gold. I would contest this though: “They are not driven by a sharing impulse, any more than hackers are.” (or ask you to explain further) – I don’t think we can entirely discount the sharing impulse in favour of the desire to build personal prestige. (If that is indeed what you are saying here.)

    Thank you for another great post.

    • Thanks Pascale. And thanks for pulling me up on this point, which is overstated. You are right that it’s a mistake to entirely discount the sharing impulse when seeking to understand social media engagement. The impulse exists; we could debate whether it’s natural or nurtured, but this is immaterial. It plays a role, so it has explanatory value. What I’m questioning is the extent to which the desire to share is a genuine motivational force – a force significant enough to explain the tremendous productions of hacker communities and the compulsive postings and tweets on social media . I’m not convinced that it is. Some people may be driven by a desire to share, but on the whole (as I say), I think we need to look beyond (or behind) acts of sharing towards the socio-psychological dynamics that drive these acts. Gift culture really brings things into focus in this respect.

      I’ll have a think about how to amend the point about sharing and change it soon as possible. Thanks!

  2. I need to read up on Gift Economy. Vague recollection of anthropologist friends at college talking about it……. Also seems important, somehow, that it’s not one *or* the other. The desire for prestige (definitely a factor) does not necessarily undermine the desire to share. Gut feeling they are two separate things.

    • I suspect you are right. The sharing economy is booming at the moment and it can’t all boil down to a desire for social status and prestige! I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that it does. In general, though, I am suspicious of the idea of a ‘sharing impulse’ as a powerful motivating force. No doubt human beings possess such an impulse, but it seems to be fairly weak and limited to friends and family, on the whole. Prior to the rise of the sharing economy, there wasn’t much grounds for arguing for a powerful sharing impulse. This suggest to me that there are other factors at play. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on this.

  3. Idea for a follow-up post … could be interesting to explore gender in this context. (Or rather explore this issue, and socmedia in general, in the context of gender.) If you’re up for it! ;D

    • Nice thought. It’s not the first time that I’ve been prompted to explore the role of gender in social sharing. You know, I bet there is some good research out there on this topic. I’ll dig around and see what I can find.

      • I’m certainly not suggesting “women share and men seek prestige” ;D

        It would be interesting to see what research there is. The broader context of “gender and opportunities to share” may be significant. I came to socmedia when a stuck-at-home-mum myself.

        Socmedia as the new department store (women’s public non-domestic space, C19th Paris, Sphinx In The City), etc.

  4. Hi Tim,

    Another great post. Will definitely be making a point of keeping up with your work. You are right at the coal face of thinking. I like to think I labour beside you.

    As such I feel obliged to raise an objection to your claim that “Gift economies have a totally different logic to market based economies.” I think David Graeber’s account (Debt, the first 5000 years) of how – as it was bent to serve the interests of power – the deep cultural sense of obligation (linked to ttus via giving) which drove gift economies, was transformed into the modern concept of debt.

    As such, our modern economies are continuous in important ways with traditional “gift” economies. For me this flows directly into the work of Steve Keen on debt and money (and the need for a massive debt jubilee).

    Also, while you are right to emphasize the (much neglected) cultural elements of the transformation that *is occurring*, I fear here you have missed an important technological element. In your discussion of online cultural sharing, you don;t seem to be acknowledging the unique *mathematics* involved in such activity. Here, when culture is shared it multiplies in volume rather than divides. In this it is in fact a reversion to pre-mass-production cultural sharing, described in some literature as “read-write culture”. (one totally dope example if which can be found here:

    The extent to which this can inform the economics of more tangible and finite products (like bicycles and computers and fruit and seats in a concert hall) should not be overstated. It should not be understated either, of course, as there are important ways which meat-space wealth, particularly productive wealth, does in fact become more productive when shared. Advances in 3D printing, particularly the “rep-rap” project (printers capable of producing their component parts) also point to a future model in which this kind of exponential multiplication of wealth may be possible. Here lies the true hope of co-operation out-competing competition, and a truly post-capitalist model emerging.

    The cultural shift is indeed important, but will progress only in parallel with technological (and as we have discussed elsewhere, institutional) change.

    Peace and solidiversity.


    • Great points, Austin. It’s a real privilege to receive this level of feedback. I dare say you are right with respect both to gift economics and the techno-mathematics of sharing. Thanks for pulling me up on these matters: I will follow up on them and (hopefully) raise my game!

  5. Interesting recent example of market and gift culture operating Ing one crisis. Alpine speed fyling man dan hunt who got lost down a revine. Insurance search and resue money stops after 24 hours but a Facebook campaign raises more money to eventually find him. Thanks for a good post. A real gift.

  6. Hi Tim,

    You say you are fascinated by social media. I was reluctantly so. But now I can see how social media and networking is changed the world and the importance of it to the world’s continuance.

    I was thinking of the ‘Arab Spring’ and how the social media has been part of that unfolding. Mass communications via the Internet has helped make that revolution possible. But the whole event also shows the lack of social media activity that existed in that part of the world. Social media and networking contributed to the development of the West. However, the lack of social networking stunted the development of the Arab/Muslim world. Social media and networking have been essential in the development of democracy. Now the Arab/muslim world is starting to learn that.

    To have a legitimate and vibrant democracy secularism and pluralism are essential. That has been missing in the Arab/Muslim world, mainly because of the continuance of tribalism. In the West social networking has contributed greatly to the development of secularism and pluralism. Now that is beginning to develop in the Arab/Muslim world because of the social networking that is finally taking hold there.

    • HI David,

      I think the role of imperial powers in suppressing democracy is probably more important than cultural factors. Whole region has been under the foreign thumb since 1918.

    • Hi David,

      I’ve been reading Wael Ghonim’s book on the Egyptian Revolution, and it’s really underscored my sense that social media, and Facebook in particular, was a vital force in that uprising. Ghonim was the admin of the page ‘We are Khaled Said’ which helped focus and maintain the political sentiment through later 2010 and then served as an online catalyst for the fervour that erupted through early 2011. Here is Wael on TED:

      It would be a mistake of the highest order to suggest that social media caused or even catalysed the revolution itself. I agree with Austin: 40 years of dictatorship is more than sufficient to account for why people wanted to take to the streets. At the same time, I agree with you, David: an online media in which people were able to freely contribute their thoughts, feeling, images, and perspectives proved to be an immensely powerful cultural force. It made visible the common desire for change and it enabled people who desired that change to feel the passion of a community long before the community was able to aggregate in Tahrir Square.

      History shows us that representative democracy is not a prefabricated institution like McDonalds or WalMart that you can import to a region and graft on top of existing market structures. Democracy is a cultural form and requires the appropriate cultural basis to take root in a society. Therefore I agree with you David: social media has an important role to play in those parts of the world that aspire to democracy. It is a catalyzer of ‘extensive’ democracy, which is the precondition of representative institutions.

  7. Consider this Tim

    “In my view, we are facing not just the emergence of the next age of human civilization, but also the mushrooming of the most powerful economic force ever to appear on the face of the earth. By its very nature of decentralized information and education, it invites participation, involvement, and potential benefit for essentially every locale on the planet. During 1997, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and IBM teamed together to make UNC’s curriculum and degree programs available by way of distance learning on the Internet to the far reaches of the globe. Duke University has implemented an MBA program available online, requiring only a half-dozen or so meetings during the course–each in different parts of the world.

    Top-notch education is leaving the confines of physical campus and four walls. A student in remote Zaire, given an Internet connection, can become a Duke-educated Master of Business Administration, while remaining mostly in his or her home village to the village’s benefit. The prospect of such decentralized localization of education and economic activity allows a great deal of autonomy, freedom and self-determinism in the village’s own character and identity. It need not be a risk to cultural heritage and integrity to benefit economically; the means by which such benefit will occur, how local citizens can have food, shelter, health care, and a basic sustaining human standard of existence can be determined at the local village level and then communicated at the regional, national, and global level simultaneously at virtually no cost via the Internet and a web site. It is this basic level of human sustenance, coupled with self-sustaining enterprise to provide this basic level of support, that I refer to as sustainable development — which is just another way of saying “people-centered” economic development.”

    Terry Hallman on People-Centered Economic Development 1997

  8. Thanks for this post Tim, only just discovered it. Intriguing about Zuckerberg’s awareness of ‘gift culture’ and potlach, I’d not heard that before. The phenomenon that is Facebook has roots much deeper in the human psyche than shiny digital tech.

    I thought you and other commenters would love this wonderful story about sharing online – how sparking and building an online community has created real peer-to-peer support offline. It is one of the best examples I’ve seen of social media as the embodiment of gift culture:

  9. Great article.

  10. Now I know the very reason why a social media platform like Facebook has a huge impact to the world – it uses the “gift-based reputation system”. I am certain few years down the road people will keep using Facebook a lot more than before.

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