Social media as gift culture: sharing circles and tribes

kulaThis 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. [Read more…]

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.

[Read more…]

Swarms and norms: refiguring the multitude

globalizationA few years ago, I published an essay in the journal Radical Philosophy titled, ‘Refiguring the multitude: from exodus to the production of norms’ (2005). It was about swarms, though I didn’t know it at the time. The publication was a coup for me. I was a struggling contract academic, vying for attention. Radical Philosophy was an ‘up there’ journal in political philosophy circles, edgy but respectable. My paper was one of the first academic responses to Multitude (2004), Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s sequel to their best-selling book, Empire (1999).

The essay was a bit of dog’s breakfast. But the crux of the argument resonates today. I have pasted some paragraphs below. If you are into Deleuze and social movements, this one is for you.

Re-reading ‘Refiguring the multitude’ for the first time in years, I am struck by how much of this material has become part of my mental DNA. I didn’t realise at the time, but ‘Refiguring the multitude’ was crucial to my intellectual development. Multitude certainly resonates with the high-tech world of 2013. Empire and Multitude are books you should have on your shelf, whatever part of the political spectrum you inhabit. They are books about globalization. Hardt and Negri are essentially right. Of course, they are wrong in important respects too.

The paragraphs from ‘Refiguring the multitude’ that I’ve pasted below are the crux of a line of thought that I started developing in 2002 or 2003. It was a response to the failure of the anti-globalization movement that got started in the 1990s. I was looking for a theoretical trajectory that would enable me to continue on the line of flight that I’d experienced at the height of this movement (1999-2001), this time reflecting on how swarms and social movements could contribute to creating something, in the first case, a new set of norms.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how I stepped from this argument to write Coalition of the Willing.

[Read more…]

You got to give to get back: Amanda Palmer, crowdfunding, and the theatre of gifts

Amanda Parker @ TED

The talk began without a word. Alt-rock icon Amanda Palmer sauntered onto stage at TED Long Beach, a flower and hat in her hands, nudging a plastic crate along the floor before her. At centre stage, she upturned the crate and positioned the hat in front of it. Stepping up on the crate, she raised her arms to shoulder height and froze.

It was Palmer’s way of introducing the topic of her talk: ‘The Art of Asking’. Prior to finding success with the punk-cabaret outfit, The Dresden Dolls, Palmer had earned a living busking as human statue, the ‘Eight Foot Bride’. She claims in her talk that this provided her with the perfect education for the music business. Becoming a human statue was certainly a great way to capture the audience’s interest. Holding the pose, Palmer held the audience’s attention. She looked left, looked right. Not a word. The TEDsters shivered with anticipation.

Palmer’s talk has generated a great deal of discussion and debate online since TED uploaded the video in February. Two things have captured people’s interest: the fact that Palmer advocates crowdfunded file-sharing as a business model for musicians and artists (she claims: “I firmly believe in music being as free as possible. Unlocked. Shared and spread. In order for artists to survive and create, their audiences need to step up and directly support them”), and the fact that she has been so phenomenally successful at doing this herself. Last year, Palmer raised $1.2 million dollars through Kickstarter to fund ‘Theatre is Evil’, the first album by her band, The Grand Theft Orchestra. In the hit and miss world of crowdfunding, this makes her a guru. No doubt there were a smattering of dark cabaret fans in the audience at TED Long Beach that night. But the majority of people in the audience were there to learn how Palmer worked her money magic.

What they got was a human statue. For a moment. There was magic in that moment – and an important lesson for crowdfunders, too. [Read more…]

Commemorative vision: how to use the past to transform the present and future

It is August 28, 1963. A crowd of 200000 people gathers in the National Mall in Washington DC. Black and white faces choke the avenues down either side of the Reflecting Pool. Their numbers stretch all the way to the Capitol Building.

Before them is the Lincoln Memorial, where Abraham Lincoln studies them from his giant chair. A man stands at a microphone, dwarfed by the statue behind him. The civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King is ready to deliver his speech.

The people have come to the US capitol by buses, trains, cars, and planes. Their hearts are full of hope, their minds full of memories of recent struggles. They have known discrimination, inequality, and injustice. Canvas the crowd and you’d hear thousands of stories of persecution, forced eviction, police brutality, murder and lynching. You’d hear the name Rosa Parks, who eight years before had refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama. You’d hear stories of boycotts, sit-ins, angry demonstrations and non-violent protests.

The crowd simmers with anger and frustration. Will this day mark a grand step forward in the struggle for civil rights? Or is it the case, as Malcolm X says, that the organizers have compromised too much by allowing white folks to participate?

The crowd has come to Washington DC fired by the momentum of the Civil Rights movement, which is not yet a decade old. They reflect on this struggle and what it has achieved as Martin Luther King steps up to the microphone.

Dr King takes a deep breath, as if drawing back the string of a bow. He has never addressed a crowd of this size, in a moment of such importance. He looks down the Mall towards the Capitol Building. Yes, he thinks – this is my time.

He tenses the string and releases it. The arrow of vision flies into the future.

‘Four score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation’.

It is an epic start. Instead of invoking the present struggle, reinforcing in the minds of those gathered the memory of the movement that they are presently engaged in, King has them remember a different struggle: the struggle by Lincoln’s Republican Party to free the American slaves. In this gesture, King invites those gathered – black and white – to reflect on a common source of empowerment: the fact that one hundred years before, the United States granted freedom and equality to all its citizens. Yet as people’s breasts swell with patriotic pride, King brings them back to earth. His next line speaks of present day reality.

‘But one hundred years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. … And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition’.

In the space of two paragraphs, King has projected for his audience a visionary sense of what it means to exist in the present. The people in the crowd have inherited the empowering promise of freedom, but today, this promise is denied them. How can they forge ahead? How can they overcome this ‘shameful condition’ – a condition that affects all of them as Americans?

Dr King speaks. The arrow of vision flies into the future, and the hearts and minds of those gathered in the Mall fly after it.

‘I have a dream’, King says – a dream that is ‘rooted in the American dream’.

‘I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

King’s speech is a brilliant example of commemorative vision. Commemorative vision involves reframing people’s perspective on, and expectations of, the present moment by taking the memory of a common source of empowerment and projecting it differently. King’s dream concerned the future of the Civil Rights movement, yet it didn’t simply tap the energy of that movement, it’s anger, resilience, its practical and symbolic achievements. King reached back one hundred years to find an important source of empowerment that everyone contributing to the movement could take pride in. The Emancipation Proclamation was a historical precedent that legitimated the struggle and that warranted an optimistic vision of its success. Seizing on this historical touchstone, King projected a bold vision of the possible future, offering an inspiring map for thought and action.

Martin Luther King transfigured the historical moment. It is not that he predicted the future. By drawing on a common memory, he projected a roadmap linking the past to the future, which would serve as a guide for those who continued the struggle, even after his death.

By refiguring elements of the past, visionary leaders make the present a place of opportunity. This is what King did in his speech at the National Mall. This is why we remember him as one of the great leaders of history.