This is the second post in a series on social media gift cultures. I am interested in how indigenous gift cultures can help us understand the psychological and motivational dynamics of online social sharing. The first post in the series, Social media as gift culture: the reputation game, used the Potlatch ceremony of native North Americans to reflect on the enticements and rewards of sharing online. Social sharing, I argued, involves a reputation game – a ‘virtuous competition’ premised on the free exchange of gifts. As in the Potlatch, social media prosumers seek to create value for their followers through ‘gifts’ in the form of posts, tweets, pins, shares, comments, vouches, etc. The more value they create, the more reputation they earn and the more support they stand to gain from their communities.
In sharing content online, we are playing a reputation game. The object of the game is not to beat other players but to challenge them to greater expressions of generosity. It is a battle of abundant spirits that contributes to the common good.
This post shifts geographical focus from North America to the Western Pacific. I want to look at the Kula ring of the Kiriwina Islands to reflect on the nature and origins of social media tribes. Your tribes are comprised of people with whom you commonly chat and share online. Sometimes they are based in offline friendships, but not always. Shared values and interests are ultimately all that are required to hold a tribe together. If you are wondering who among your followers count as members of your tribe, make a list of the people who commonly like, favourite, share or RT the things you put online. Make another list of the people whose content you like, favourite, share and RT. Look for names that appear on both lists. These are the members of your tribe.
The unstable economy
Tribes emerge in a spiralling pattern as three or more individuals cluster about a topic of common concern or interest. For the circle to become a virtuous spiral that feeds off its internal dynamic, it is necessary that there be an uneven number of participants. Three will do. By way of example, when I published the first post in this series, I shared it with David Amerland, who shares my interest in social media gift cultures. David, in turn, shared it with Mark Traphagen, who has published a fine article on sharing circles that I happened to have read while writing my post. I thanked David and enjoyed a brief exchange with Mark, promising to cc him on future posts in the series. Later that week, I received a cheerful hello from him, reiterating his desire to stay in touch. Mark’s enthusiasm inspired me and made me feel that I ought to do something special for him (such as mentioning his work in my next post, for instance). At the same time, it left me feeling doubly grateful to David for making the connection.
Now that I have written these words, I feel certain that David, Mark, and I will stay in touch and continue sharing content that interests us. We are part of the same tribe. It is not just shared interests that bind us together. We have formed an unstable economy between the three of us – a gift economy that resists closure and invites contribution. As Mark observes in his article, the structural imbalance created by three-way sharing is a positive phenomenon. It presents a challenge, perpetually reiterated, that tests participants’ commitment to the sharing circle.
A sharing circle is always on the brink of collapse. It needs a constant flow of gifts to sustain it.
Dyadic sharing relationships are easily resolved. When one person shares something with someone else, the other simply needs to return the gesture in order to balance things out. Reciprocity is achieved. The cycle is complete and moral equilibrium is restored. When three people share in a group, however, the play of exchanges tends to be unbalanced, since it is hard to establish mutual reciprocity. Imagine that I give something to you and you return the favour by giving something back to me. If there is a third party in our circle, this exchange unbalances things, placing the third party in the position of the one who is yet to contribute – who must contribute in order to maintain an equal status in the economy of gifts. When they add their gift, balance is restored. Until the moment, that is, that one or other of us presents yet another gift, either to a specific person or the group. This throws the economy out of balance again. And so the cycle continues.
Mark compares the unbalanced economy of the sharing circle to the falling-stepping motion of a runner. ‘A human preparing to run actually leans forward, intentionally (though not consciously) throwing off his balance, which is corrected by putting the first foot forward–as step’. Similarly, a three-way (or odd-number) sharing circle constantly teeters on the brink of collapse on account of the moral disequilibrium that is created by the participants. A flow of gifts is the only thing that keeps it going. The gift is like the forward step the runner takes that catches their fall and perpetuates their forward motion. As Mark writes: ‘The lean is the loss of equilibrium; the step is the “gift” that restores it’. Just as a runner will fall flat on her face without the fore-step there to catch her, a gift economy requires a proactive spirit of generosity to stay in motion. Ultimately, it is the spirit of gifting that keeps the sharing circle alive.
The classic example of a sharing circle is the Kula ring of the Kiriwina (previously Trobriand) islands, off the north-west coast of Papua New Guinea. To substantiate these reflections, I’d like to consider the Kula ring, cognizant of the fact that Mark has already done so in his post; aware that I am building on his insights and hopefully adding to the common power of our tribe.
The Kula ring
Between 1914 and 1918, as imperial war raged about the planet, the Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski conducted fieldwork on the Trobriand islands, a spiralling archipelago of coral atolls in the Solomon Sea. Malinowski famously abandoned the colonial settlements on the islands to ‘go native’, living with the islanders and observing their customs. The results of Malinowski’s studies, published in Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), transformed the way that Western researchers thought about native cultures and gave birth to the discipline of modern anthropology.
Malinowski was intrigued why tribal leaders would travel about the archipelago exchanging gifts with one another. Some of the islands in the archipelago were separated by hundreds of kilometres of unpredictable waters. Chiefs would risk life and limb rowing from island to island to exchange apparently worthless trinkets – shell necklaces and armbands – which they treated as precious goods. Over time, Malinowski teased a surprising truth from his hosts. The entire Trobriand archipelago was linked in a ceremonial gift exchange, which the islanders called the Kula ring. The Kula ring was the heart and soul of the native culture.
It was a privilege and sign of political authority to participate in the Kula ring. High status participants would often have dozens of partners that they commonly exchanged gifts with. The protocol was to exchange red shell-disc necklaces to the islands to the north and white shell armbands to the islands to the south. If you received either of these gifts, you were obliged to pass them on to a chief or notable on a neighbouring island. The gifts were delivered with great pomp and ceremony, despite the trivial nature of the items themselves. The process would continue until the necklaces and armbands had completed a full revolution of the archipelago, the necklaces circulating in a clockwise direction and the armbands circulating the opposite way.
Malinowski was puzzled why the trinkets exchanged in the Kula ring were treated with such reverence by the islanders. If tribal leaders wanted to impress one another, why didn’t they construct more elaborate gifts, or give more of these items? In the north American Potlatch, volume of gifts was important. Volume was a sign of power, wealth, and generosity, all of which were reflected in the prestige that the giver earned for their gifts. In the Kula ring, however, volume of gifts wasn’t important. Giving was the important thing. Clearly, Malinowski reflected, there was a symbolic dimension to the Kula ring that held the process together. So what was it?
The answer came to light in the course of a debate with Marcel Mauss, who responded to Malinowski’s work in his essay On the Gift in 1925. Mauss argued that each Kula gift was a ‘total prestation’ of the culture of the Trobriand archipeligo. Each item had its own complex history of journeys and passages from one recipient to the other. To pass on one of these items was to affirm this history, and by extrapolation, the traditional culture of gift exchange. Mauss drew on the Maori word hau, which means ‘spirit of the gift’, to explain the reverence with which the Kula gifts were treated. The gift is not just a gift: it a spiritual token of the culture of exchange. Continuing the exchange is a spiritual act that affirms the unity of the culture. As in the Potlatch, it is a celebration of tribal solidarity. The spirit of the gift is the spirit of the tribe.
We have much to learn from indigenous gift cultures. The more that online sharing becomes a core part of work and sociality in our high-tech, postmodern, societies, the more it becomes evident that traditional Western values and philosophical perspectives are inadequate to our situation. From ancient Athens, through early modern Europe, to the expansionist frenzy of the Industrial age, the Western imagination has been preoccupied with the individual, his rights and possessions. With the rise of the social web, this mindset and frame of reference is coming undone. As we look into the future and survey the incredible challenges that we face as societies and a species, it is clear that we need a rapid evolution in social consciousness, at least insofar to enable us to collaborate together in order to present a worthy response to these challenges. For this, we will require a new form of ethics, by which I mean both ‘morality’ and ‘conception of the good life’. We urgently need to evolve beyond the closed, possessive, mindset of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to embrace the open, generous, mindset of gift societies. Fortunately, the sharing culture that is evolving online is driving this ethics through the heart of our societies just as we need it.
Read the third post in this series: The prismatic self.