Social media as gift culture: the reputation game

first-people1This is the first in a series of posts exploring the gift cultural dimensions of online social sharing. It builds on The Gift Shift and The Family History of Facebook, in which I introduced the idea of social media as a gift culture. It also represents a critical response to the position I developed in the Foucault and social media series, in which I used Foucault’s idea of the Panopticon to explore the psychological effects of sharing in the presence of a crowd. The ‘virtual Panopticon’ idea is not wrong but it is incomplete. What it leaves out is the virtuous competition that takes place between participants in the open social space – a competition based in the free exchange of gifts.

It comes down to how we relate to our followers. If we feel alienated from them, or intimated by them, sharing in public can be difficult. We are uncomfortably aware that our content is tagged with an existential marker: ‘I like it – it reflects my values and interests’. Like prisoners in a Panopticon, we can’t help feeling that we are judged on the basis of our posts and shares, and it is hard to shake the sense that we need to prove ourselves in some way. If, on the other hand, we feel supported and empowered by our followers, sharing in public is a different experience. We feel like valued participants in a multi-player game. We feel able to make valid contributions to the mix – to add content that may be passed around and enjoyed, that enriches the social experience. The fact that the content of our posts and shares reflects personally on us becomes a positive thing. We want to be known for the things that we share. We affirm our right to step forth and lead the conversation. It is by leading that we develop a positive reputation.

Don’t think of your followers as judges. Think of them as your tribe. Yes, they implicitly judge your contributions. Yet, for the most part, they value your gifts. Think of yourself as a tribal chief, competing for status in a virtual Potlatch. The crowd is there to witness your gifts, not to judge and condemn them. Your goal is to enrich your tribe with whatever gifts you have to offer.

Play the reputation game. Celebrate the virtual Potlatch and give.


The Potlatch is a gift-giving ceremony practised by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada. The word itself comes from the Chinook language, meaning ‘to give away’ or ‘a gift’. In the traditional Potlatch, a chief or leader would gather their tribe or clan together and present them with a massive gift of food, blankets, furs, weapons, canoes, and crafts. The gifts were presented at the end of an elaborate festival involving speeches, songs, and spirit dances that could sometimes last for days. The native people also bartered and exchanged goods, but the Potlatch had nothing to do with a market economy. It was all about social and cultural capital. In the Potlatch, the greater the gift, the more social capital it produced.

The European settlers who drifted west in the nineteenth century didn’t understand the Potlatch at all. European missionaries thought it was a waste of time and resources and an impediment to the ‘civilization’ of the native people. It was banned by the US and Canadian governments in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, contributing to the decimation of the tribes up and down the Pacific coast. The Potlatch continues today in a diminished form – less a celebration of abundance, more an affirmation of heritage. Cash and appliances have replaced pelts and dried clams as gifts of choice. But the logic of the ceremony resonates. In the transparent environments of social media, the Potlatch has a particular resonance. The Potlatch is an ideal model for understanding the gift cultural basis of online social sharing.

The Potlatch works to circulate goods and resources within a community. But the point is not just to share things around. The Potlatch enables the wealthiest and most powerful members of a tribe to establish status and prestige in the eyes of their community. This is why chiefs would give so exorbitantly – for the sake of the reputation and prestige that came with it. As Marcel Mauss observed, in the Potlatch, ‘[t]he man who [gives] recklessly is the man who wins prestige’. Prestige was the primary motivation for hosting a Potlatch. Sometimes, if a leader had fallen low, they would host a Potlatch to recover their lost prestige. Other times, at a gathering of clans, multiple leaders would compete for prestige, each seeking to give away the greatest and most remarkable gifts so to cast the others in their shadow. Sometimes this could lead to ruin. Sometimes ruin was intended. The Potlatch could be used as a tool of war, compelling a rival to beggar or shame themselves by engaging in an exchange that they could not possibly hope to compete in.

Gifting for the sake of prestige seems self-serving. But, since gifting in a Potlatch is always directed towards a tribe or community, the act of gifting has a social benefit, strengthening kinship bonds and ensuring the welfare of the community. As the anthropologist David Graeber points out, in a gift culture, ‘there is no contradiction between what we would call self-interest … and concern for others; the whole point of the traditional gift is that it furthers both at the same time’. Gift giving is simultaneously an act of personal and communal affirmation. It celebrates the abundant gifts that are bestowed by nature and the noble spirit that would share these rewards with a community.

Try looking at your Facebook or Twitter feed as a virtual Potlatch. It brings the spirit of social sharing into focus. With a gift culture perspective, it is clear what is empowering about sharing and why people get hooked on it. It is not just that people like to share. Sharing is gifting. It elevates and promotes the giver while enriching the tribal community. In posting and tweeting, we are playing a reputation game that hinges on the question: ‘Who can give the greatest gifts?’ This is not a zero sum game. Strictly speaking, there is no winning it. Success lies in the way that you play it. The more value you can create for the greatest number of people, the higher you’ll be ranked as a player. So set aside the ‘winner takes all’ mentality of competitive sports. The kind of competition involved in a reputation game is a virtuous competition, not a vicious one. The object is not to beat the other players but to challenge them to ever greater expressions of generosity. It is a battle of abundant spirits that contributes to the common good – a celebration of sociality as such.

We are now in a position to return to the idea of social media as a virtual Panopticon. The Potlatch model casts the virtual Panopticon in a positive light. Open social environments are Panopticonic insofar as everything that we share in these environments is visible to a crowd. This transparency makes us feel anxious. Like prisoners in a Panopticon, we try to second guess the expectations of the crowd and play to them.

The way to overcome the anxiety of judgement is to learn to love your tribe. Your tribe is not a panel of judges, itching to take you down. Your tribe is a witness, whose role is to acknowledge and affirm your gifts. Transparency is vital to the Potlatch gift-exchange. An anonymous gift simply doesn’t make sense in this context. It is only because the tribe can witness the gift that the giver can earn prestige for it. If the gift warrants it, it will be spoken of for years to come, ensuring a legacy for the chief and a lasting sense of solidarity for the tribe.

The witness transforms the gift, investing it with a sacred value. We might imagine a future generation of social media prosumers celebrating sharing in equally reverent tones.


Read the second post in this series: Sharing circles and tribes


  1. Reblogged this on maha's place and commented:
    Good read

  2. Reblogged this on FentCiutat.

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