Paul Krugman doesn’t tweet. The economist and New York Times columnist has over one million followers on Twitter, yet he claims that he doesn’t have time to engage them, and employs a tweet-bot to deliver titles from his blog. Krugman’s aversion to Twitter may have more to do with his dislike of chatter than with time constraints. Krugman, in 1998, famously predicted that ‘[t]he growth of the internet will slow drastically [as it] becomes apparent [that] most people have nothing to say to one another’. Since then, the chattering classes have swept to ubiquity. Twitter has 218 million active monthly users. Facebook, the current king of the social media world, has 850 million active users and is worth about 80 billion dollars.
Tech pundits claim that we have entered the social era, an age of constant, multi-channel, sharing. What drives this frenzy of exchange, and what sustains it, given that, as Krugman notes, most people have nothing to say to one another? One way of understanding these issues is to look at the psychological and motivational dynamics of gift exchanges. The enticements and rewards of tweeting, posting, pinning, and blogging come into relief when we think of this activity as gifting rather than sharing, as contributing to a common pool rather than simply chattering.
Anthropologists have identified numerous gift economic systems in indigenous cultures about the world. The Potlatch ceremony of the indigenous tribes of the US Pacific Northwest is an irregular example that has profoundly impacted the imagination of Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs thanks to its geographical locality and its popularity as a blueprint for the Burning Man community.
Indian chiefs would stage a Potlatch by gathering their tribe or clan together and presenting them with a huge gift of food, skins, weapons, crafts, and canoes. Rather than being motivated by altruism, chiefs sought status and reputation for their gifts. The greater the gift, the greater the reputation the chief would earn for it. Since reputation translates into social capital – the ability to leverage social networks to get things done – there was a clear motivation for chiefs to give generously.
Mark Zuckerberg is an advocate of Potlatch culture. The psychological and motivational dynamics of Facebook come into focus when we see Facebook as a virtual Potlatch. On Facebook, everyone can see what their friends are posting in the shared News Feed. Just as chiefs earn reputation through gifts, Facebook users distinguish themselves through extraordinary posts, attracting followers and accumulating social capital as a result.
Nothing forces people to gift wisely and well. Many people flood social channels with trivia and dross. But Facebook has a built-in reward system for constructive contributions. By pleasing and enabling their followers, social media prosumers are able to build online communities that bolster their sense of belonging and self-esteem while offering an endless source of reciprocated gifts. Social media gift economies give everyone the opportunity to be a chief, which is why people return to these systems despite complaining about the hours they consume in their day, how they fill their heads with trivia and distract them from important tasks.
There is a dark side to online social gifting. Gifting in the presence of a virtual crowd makes us feel anxious. On some level, we are aware that we are being judged on the basis of what we share. If Facebook is a virtual Potlatch, it is also a virtual Panopticon: a transparent space of judgment.
The Panopticon and the Potlatch are the yin and yang of social media gift economics.
The Panopticon is a prison design with a ring of cells surrounding a central guard tower. The cells have windows facing the tower, so the guards can see what the prisoners in the cells are doing at all times. Importantly, the reverse is not the case. Perhaps there are blinds on the windows of the guard tower. Perhaps there are lights shining out toward the cells, blinding the prisoners inside. The effect is that the prisoners cannot see into the guard tower, so they never know if they are being watched at any time. Assuming that prisoners are concerned to meet the guards’ expectations, they will tend to conform to these expectations on the assumption that they are being watched, thus taking responsibility for regulating their behaviour.
Comparable factors shape our behaviour on social media. Just as prisoners in a Panopticon assume that they are being watched and tailor their behaviour accordingly, users of social media proceed on the assumption that they are being watched and judged on the basis of the content they share, and select and frame content with a view to pleasing and/or impressing a certain crowd.
The ‘Panopticon effect’ shapes the identities that we craft on social media. At an extreme, it can lead us to play out an identity that we think will impress our followers, passing it off as the impromptu expression of our authentic self. MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that this can threaten the integrity of the self. Turkle claims:
On Twitter or Facebook you’re trying to express something real about who you are. … But because you’re also creating something for others’ consumption, you find yourself imagining and playing to your audience more and more. So those moments in which you’re supposed to be showing your true self become a performance. Your psychology becomes a performance (cited in Orenstein, ‘I Tweet, Therefore I Am’).
Inauthenticity is a danger on social media, but it is by no means the rule. Generally, the yin of the Panopticon effect is countervailed by the yang of the Potlatch. If we think of our followers as judges, we will anxiously try to please them. But if we see our followers as members of our social tribe, we see that they are witnesses to our gifts, and eagerly waiting to receive them.
The key to a happy life on social media is to trust and nurture your peers and communities. Gift wisely and well, and seek to enrich your followers with quality content, and they will appreciate what you share and reward you for it sharing it.
The lesson is: be a chief. Identify your tribes and give.