Social media as gift culture: the prismatic self

Multiple-selves-in-social-mediaThis is the third post in a series on social media gift cultures. The series draws on indigenous gift cultures to examine the psychological and motivational dynamics of social sharing online. The first post in the series, The reputation game, looks at the North American Potlatch to reflect on the enticements and rewards of sharing online. Social sharing involves a reputation game. The aim of the game is to win the favour of your tribe by presenting them with exorbitant gifts.

The second post in the series, Sharing circles and tribes, considers how tribes are formed online. Tribes emerge when participants share with select users, who return the favour by sharing with them. These sharing circles are typically based in common values and interests – hence, so are tribes. I indicate the unstable nature of sharing circles and how an affirmative attitude towards gifting helps sustain them. Imbued with the ‘spirit of the gift’, the gift becomes a token of gratitude for the sharing circle and the tribe it maintains. The more that we cultivate this spirit in our online exchanges, the more robust and fulfilling they become.

This post considers the challenges of sharing across multiple systems online. Active users of social media are often engaged across multiple sites, groups, and activities in real time. Multi-tasking online can be a source of signficant consternation. While missteps (below the threshhold of the screaming faux pas) are mostly overlooked, this doesn’t reduce the anxiety that users (particularly new users) feel when tasked with sharing across multiple channels in real time. It is easy to lose track of how one is expected to behave in different contexts.

When tech journalist Paul Miller returned to the internet after a year off, he was surprised to find how stressful it was to multi-task across services. ‘I had, like, three tabs open and I just didn’t know what was going on’, Miller complains. This is a familiar experience for users of social media, who struggle to keep up with the flow of information on multiple channels.

The solution is to find your tribe. Sharing across multiple channels is easier when we share with our tribes in mind. A thriving tribe gives back more than we contribute to it. Tribes are a living reservoir of cognitive capital and an infinite human resource.


Imagine, somewhere in the pre-colonial Pacific, an archipelago of islands, each home to a different tribe. The tribes share a Potlatch gift culture, but in most other respects, they are quite distinct. The islanders to the north are fierce and warlike. When they attend a Potlatch, they expect gifts of weapons and booty – nothing else will suffice. The islanders to the south are peaceful and reflective. When they attend a Potlatch, they expect gifts of poetry and cages of birds that they release into the air. The islanders to the east are bon vivants. When they attend a Potlatch, they expect food, rare delicacies, and rice wine – the more the better. The islanders to the west are hard-working and industrious. They have less time than the others for Potlatch ceremonies, but when they do, they expect practical gifts that assist them in their daily endeavors, like axes, hoes, hammers, and nets.

Now imagine travelling from island to island in the archipeligo. At each landfall, you must engage in a bout of gift giving. Because each tribe has different expectations, you need to carry all sorts of different gifts with you: an armoury, birds in flax-weave cages, salted pork wrapped in banana leaves, and farming equipment from the subcontinent. In keeping with the spirit of gift culture, you will carefully adjust your speech and behaviour at each port of call to fit in with local custom. You will be bold and direct with the northerners; gentle and graceful with the southerners; revelrous and exuberant with the easterners; on point and punctual with the westerners. By leveraging personal gifts of tact, charm, and diplomacy, you deliver your offerings with the appropriate show of gratitude, ensuring that they are well-received by your island hosts.

We can see this as a metaphor for life online. Users of social media are like travellers in a Potlatch archipelago, simultaneously engaged across multiple sites and communities, enmeshed in multiple gift exchanges. If we are using a desktop or laptop computer, we open up multiple tabs in our browser. If we access the cloud on mobile, we run multiple apps. Either way, we plug into multiple social channels (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google [Gmail, G+], Pinterest, Tumblr, etc), and spend our day jumping back and forth between sites, crowds, and conversations.

The upshot is that we are dynamically engaged in multiple gift cultures on a daily basis. It is no wonder that new users find social media challenging. Not only do users need to come to grips with a new set of tools. They need to negotiate a proliferating set of social media gift cultures, which operate on totally different principles to the cultures they are used to. Fortunately, the ins and outs of social media gift culture are easy to appreciate. Social sharing involves a reputation game – a virtuous competition aimed at winning the favour of virtual tribes through exorbitant gifts. It may sound daunting, but it is intuitive and straightforward. See this post if you are still unclear.

The psychological challenge of engaging with multiple social channels becomes apparant over time. Sooner or later, we feel exhausted by all the activity, tired of drinking from the firehose, riding the rivers of information pouring out of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google [Gmail, G+], Pinterest, Tumblr, etc. It is not just a matter of consuming all this information. The fact is we consume only a fraction of the information out there. It is the difficulty of servicing the needs of diverse online crowds (on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google [Gmail, G+], Pinterest, Tumblr, etc).

Each social media site is like an island in a Potlatch archipelago. It is a gift culture, which means that it attracts a certain crowd. Each crowd has its own its own set of interests and expectations. These differences are subtle but decisive. We must respect them or suffer the consequences. You can’t post the same content on LinkedIn as you do on Facebook. You can try but at the risk of damaging your professional reputation.You can’t share news on Facebook the way as you can on Twitter. Believe me, I’ve tried. Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google [Gmail, G+], Pinterest, Tumblr etc comprise an archipeligo of tribes with a range of interests and expectations.

Like travellers in a Potlatch archipeligo, social media prosumers should try to match their gifts to tribes. The LinkedIn crowd expects tech content with a business focus – so give them FastCompany, Wired, and Mashable posts. The Facebook crowd expects cheerful updates from friends – give them photos from the weekend. The MySpace crowd expects celebrity gossip – give them trawlings from Tumblr and Reddit. The Twitter crowd are omnivorous news junkies – give them articles and updates from the Guardian and Reuters.

Source: Marc Ngui

Source: Marc Ngui

Figuring out the right gifts to dispense is just part of the challenge of dealing with multiple tribes. Social media prosumers also have to cope with the sense of personal dis-integration that engaging with multiple tribes creates. Engaging with the social web demands that we cultivate (what I call) a prismatic self. The key to engaging different audiences across multiple sites is to understand the self as prismatic and to express different parts of your person in different contexts.

The French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596-1650) popularised the idea of the self as a single unified identity in his book the Meditations (1656). Descartes’ famous phrase, ‘I think, therefore I am’, gave rise to a subjectivist movement in philosophy that decisively shaped the modern age. These days, a better adage would be: ‘I gift, therefore I am’. Facebook and Google would like you to see yourself as a single unified identity because they’d like to track your actions across their various data-based services on the web. The fact is, however, the moment that we go online, we are voyagers in the Potlatch archipelago, gifting different aspects of our person to different communities.

Descartes got it wrong. Then again, he never had to mark up a document on Google Drive while trading IMs with friends on Facebook and WhatsApp, checking his email. As Chris Poole argues, our identity is multi-faceted and prismatic. The prismatic self is a reality for the 1.5 billion people on the planet who engage with social networks and the Potlatch archipelago.


Read the final post in the series: Building tribes


  1. Tim, you are the verbal equivalent of Jackson Pollock. While reading your post I was transported back to college reading Virgil in Latin. The way the language mirrored the message – I remember one particular passage was about snakes and the alliteration of words and endings made it seem the snakes were slithering down the page. You were giving a gift to us all as you wrote about the gift culture. Kierkegaard has been on my mind a great deal lately as he says “as soon as you label me, you negate me.” So much in our macro is about people as nodes. The disrespect to humanity is visceral and for us empaths toxic. Perhaps it is toxic to all – but I feel it in my body and have to energetically protect myself from the tone of consumption. I am so thankful to know I am not alone in this gestalt tug of war. Your articulation of the gift culture, tracking on-line authentic and giving words to: the ” unstable nature of sharing circles and how an affirmative attitude towards gifting helps sustain them.”

    I am an Existentialist. We believe “existence” prior to “essence.” The power of the crowd to tip the scale is more powerful than we acknowledge in our culture today.

    Posts like yours help turn the needle more toward Kant and the Categorical Imperative.

    On behalf of Kant, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, and Sertl – I thank you so much for the gift.


  2. Congratulations. As always a compelling piece of writing but let’s test the central premise by asking the simple question are we exchanging gifts with intent or merely mimicking social behaviour? Or perhaps a better question. Is this behaviour a function of belonging (to the tribe) or a function of the technology, the platform or more accurately the experience of using the platform. Is this behaviour a human to human or machine:human response?

    Each of these social media platforms, channels, lists, apps, … call them what you like, is best understood as a Fractal Narrative. The behaviour, the process, the social narrative is replicated at every layer of the community. Giroud’s mimes meets Dawkins memes. We mimic the behaviour unique to each platform at the same time expressing or what you would describe as sharing our own narrative . A narrative fragment tailored to meet the behavioural requirements of each platform. A fractal. A fractal narrative expressed across 2 dimensions. The first being the platform. The second being you. The story of you. Or at least the fragments of the story you choose to share. In this context The prismatic self is merely the aggregation of these fractal narratives. Say SBS Tv’s 7 Billion stories fragmented across multiple fractal narratives.

    Some would understand these fragments of the personal fractal narrative as masks. Which is to say the prismatic self may be best understood as a collection of masks. Our activity on these platforms as little more than marking territory. Behaviouralism. Social game play. Conditioned responses. These social platforms little more than primitive social experiments. In this context the gift economy is just another facet of these experiments in machine human interaction.

    In the end though I suspect the young and the young at heart frequent these social platforms not so much to connect but to play. Simply because the machine has disrupted play. These platforms are merely playgrounds where people pretend, experiment, play games, share experiences, role play, create, mash-up, trade… They are learning experiences. Virtual spaces where people explore aspects of their personality that they once explored in the playground. They are very simply electronic sandpits. Places in the clouds where castles are built and new adventures and lives are imagined. Options are explored and meaning is constructed or maybe discovered accidentally and only fleetingly. The same goes for relationships.

    In the end we play daily with lists constructed by people we may never meet. We play daily with machines. Our interaction is with machines or at best machine augmented humans. Even our own personal prismatic self is in reality little more than an expression of our machine augmented self. The prism is limited to the UX. Not so much a gift therefore I am but I type or swipe or click or scroll or like therefore I am.

    All of which is to suggest that social media reflects the technology that allows this experience to exist. The question being of course does it augment the social condition or does it radically change the social condition. The nature of the social contract.

    The next question being of course what do the philosophies of “dead white men” teach us about the machine augmented reality of our time… but I’ll leave that discussion for another day. I have already hit too many keys today.

    • Wow, yes – absolutely! I feel as if we are talking about the same thing from different perspectives.

      With regard to the first question, I think we can (and do) act with intent but tend not to. It’s easy to game the reputation game, and we do it all the time. I love the notion of ‘playing with machines’ – thus us something I approach in my classes using Heidegger and Matrix analogies. i think the idea that we are, on some level, playing with machines, is what got me started on the reputation game idea. I am thrilled that you are making the same connections. IMO the notion of authenticity is important for social media because it establishes intent.

      Love the language of fractal selves. It gels nicely with prismatic selves. Generally, I agree with most everything you say, and love the way you say it!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: