This is the final post in a series on social media gift cultures. Drawing on indigenous gift cultures, I have sought to understand how social media users create reputations, communities, and identities through sharing (or ‘gifting’) with online crowds. A gift culture perspective highlights the motivations and rewards of online sharing. It foregrounds how we should go about building tribal communities online, making online sharing social.
If you haven’t followed the series to date, I recommend you start at the beginning and work your way through. Like Hegel said, the truth is in the whole.
In the last post, we considered how hard it is to maintain a reputation across multiple social media sites. Multi-tasking across sites and apps is challenging. We are inundated with information. It is hard enough to keep up with the torrent of information pouring through a single news feed. Keeping up with the traffic across multiple feeds can be a nightmare.
Information overload is only part of the problem. To manage our reputation across multiple communities, we need to tap into the torrent of information and share it in a targeted, strategic, way. Different systems attract different crowds, and each has a distinctive set of values and expectations. To key into crowds, you need to feed them appropriate gifts – content that will appeal to the specific community (or communities) you are addressing.
By filtering content and selecting choice gifts for specific crowds, we create prismatic, multi-faceted, identities. If we are playing the reputation game correctly, the identity that we create on, say, LinkedIn will be subtly different to the identity that we create on Tumblr or Facebook. There is nothing inauthentic about this, assuming that we allow that our identities are multi-faceted in the first place. The real problem is the stress and difficulty of maintaining this activity over time. The challenge of engaging with multiple flows of information and selecting choice content for multiple communities puts many people off. It is not just the time it takes to process the information on various channels. It is the pressure and anxiety involved in figuring out what information to push to different crowds in order to create a specific type of identity. On some level, most users are aware that the crowd is watching them and judging them on the basis of what they share. Their reputation is at stake and they don’t want to make a misstep and feel foolish (or worse!) as a result.
But social media shouldn’t be this hard. Engaging with multiple communities should be simple, fun, and intuitive. The key (surprise, surprise!) is to make the experience social. We need to build real relationships based in common values and interests. We need to build tribes.
Tribes and crowds and two different things. Crowds are the undifferentiated mass of users who congregate on this or that social media site. Each site draws a different crowd. Spend time on the site and you’ll get a feel for them. Usually the most popular and active users give you a good indication of what the crowd is like. However, you’ll never get up close and personal with crowds.
Tribes are different. A tribe is made up of specific individuals with whom you have established a personal connection. Tribes emerge out of sharing circles, when small groups circulate content amongst one another. As we share with one another, we take on definite identities for the people that we share with. We emerge out of indifferentiation and stand out from the crowd.
Tribes make social media simple. With a tribe on each site, the business of sharing and engaging across multiple channels becomes much, much easier. Tribes act as content curators, filtering out and sharing relevant material from the overwhelming flow. Tribes serve as targets for our acts of social sharing, putting a human face on the crowd and giving us a sense of who we are speaking to. Tribes echo our key values and interests, providing us with the sense of confirmation we need to make us feel like we are engaged in a genuine social activity.
1. Filtering: tribes as content curators
When you are engaging with multiple social media sites simultaneously, there is no way you can keep up with the flow of information. With a tribe on each site, you have a sharing circle that acts as a content filter. The tribe selects quality content from out of the flow and delivers it directly to you. Often, in sharing this content, the tribe adds value to it by framing it in a way that makes it easy to understand, or contextualise it to give it meaning.
Olga Kravets, a netnographer, offers a colourful metaphor for understanding the curation process. As Elia Morling explains, Kravets proposes that we think of our tribespeople as like dumpster divers, who ‘rummage through heaps of garbage to find useful stuff that can be re-purposed. When they are done they bring forth their scavenged gifts to their tribe’.
The unfortunately thing about this metaphor is that it seems to suggest that whatever your tribal consociates pull out of the flow, it will inevitably be rubbish. To avoid this conclusion, we should think our tribespeople as master scavengers with a special talent for spotting diamonds in the rough. If we value and esteem these tribal curators, the mere fact that they care to share their booty with us should be enough to convince us that it is worth checking out. As Morling observes, the curator imparts value, in the form of ‘status and trust’, on the story through sharing it.
Tribal curators add value to stories and content simply by virtue of sharing them. When we are diving back and forth between sites looking for valuable content to share, the first thing that we consider should be the content that our tribes have shared with us.
2. Sharing: tribes as targets
There is an art to maintaining a prismatic identity across multiple social media sites. Like every art, it requires an understanding of the audience. We should not forget that, in sharing content, we are playing a reputation game that hinges on matching gifts to crowds. A chief who gives nets and canoes to a people of the plains, or horses to a people of the sea, can hardly expect to win status and prestige as a result. Likewise, if we want to win followers and esteem, we must share the right content for the audiences that we are dealing with. We must match our gifts to crowds.
On the face of it, matching gifts to crowds is easy. The Twitter crowd likes content. The Pinterest crowd likes pics. The Facebook crowd likes personal observations. Really, it’s hard to put a foot wrong. It is hard, however, to do something excellent. No one on Pinterest is likely to object if you share pictures of cats all day long. Yet, neither is anyone likely to be blown away by these gifts. They are ordinary. Why not aim higher? Why not aim for excellence?
This is where things get tricky. An excellent gift is a gift that is just right for a certain person or audience. It is a gift that a person or audience will value deeply and want to pass on to others who share similar values, tastes, and interests. Now, you can take a scattershot approach to your gift giving and fire out many and diverse gifts in the hope that one or other of them hits a target. But a hit and miss approach doesn’t mark you out as trusty curator. If you are working across multiple sites, keen to impress and to economise on the amount of posting you do, you are better off to take a targeted approach to social sharing by lining up the members of your tribe in your sights.
Targeted sharing is easy when you have a tribe to engage with on each site. You know precisely who you are posting for. You have the satisfaction of knowing that, whatever the crowd makes of your gift, someone out there will think that it is excellent. Such an approach alleviates the anxiety we tend to feel when we share in public. Instead worrying what the crowd will make of your gift, you simply need to ask: will this be valuable to this to that member of my tribe?
This simplifies things. Without a tribe, sharing content can feel a bit like dropping a line into the ocean, unsure of what will bite. With a tribe, you are feeding fish and you know precisely where they live. Throw them a tastly morsel and watch them swarm.
3. Gifting: tribes as witnesses to gifts
Gifting is not a self-interested activity. It may look that way, especially when we focus on how individuals earn reputation and prestige for the gifts that they dispense. But reputation and prestige are inherently social phenomena. In order for them to mean anything at all, you need a tribe for whom they mean something. Without a tribe that honors the gift, reputation is ephemeral and prestige is merely a moment’s vanity. In the end, the most important thing you can achieve through your gifts is to build a lasting, flourishing, tribe.
Many users of social media – particularly new users – don’t understand this. They approach social sharing as if it were a single-player video game, curious to see how many likes and retweets they can score. Before long, the process starts to lose its meaning. Without a sense of social engagement, sharing feels like pumping content into the ether. Some people like things and pass them on – but who are these people anyway? It all feels like a waste of time.
More often than not, these kinds of users give up on social media. ‘Tried it – didn’t like it’. ‘Didn’t understand it’ is closer to the truth.
With a tribe, social sharing takes on its properly social aspect. We have a sense of gifting to compatriots and friends across various channels. The more that we put out there, the more that we recieve in return. But the real reward of social sharing is the sense of solidarity that we create through our acts of generousity. We are creating consensus. We are contributing to valuable conversations, building on a common sense of value. We are amplifying spheres of resonance. We are moving towards powerful shared understandings. We are building tribes.
In the process, we build aspects of our person or self. The self is defined in relation to others. We may nurture and cling to an aspect of identity – a passion, talent, interest, or desire – but until some other person recognises this quality in us, it remains intangible and submerged, lacking the social confirmation that would mark it as a real part of our identity. Something wonderful about social media is that it enables us to cultivate these hidden facets of our person. We do this by expressing our passions, talents, interests, or desires through the gifts we deliver to online tribes.
Social media can be psychologically fragmenting. Working across multiple channels forces us to fracture our identity and present different parts of our person to different crowds. The secret to maintaining your personal integrity online is to find a tribe in each channel and to build it through a reciprochal exchange of gifts. When you are engaging with tribes across multiple channels, you are dealing with people who reflect your passions, talents, interests, or desires, and who hold up a mirror to whatever aspect of your identity you care to share in that particular context.
Your tribes witness your gifts. By standing witness, they give you the confidence you need to express your true self in its various fractal incarnations. Tribal communities are catalysts of self-realization. When we are sharing with tribes, we can legitimately say: ‘I gift – therefore I am’.