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…]

Swarm Wall Street: why an anti-political movement is the most important political force on the planet

This was originally posted on the Coalition blog on 10 October, 2011.


Why are people occupying Wall Street? The US political elite and mainstream media don’t know what to make of it. ‘Anti-capitalist and unAmerican’, says Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, echoing the sentiments of the conservative left and political right. The mainstream commentariat, when it dares to peer closer, paints an unflattering picture of disaffected, disorganized youth, milling about Liberty Square without a shower or a set of policy demands to level at the administration.

Meanwhile the occupation grows day by day.

If camp in Manhattan makes the doyens of the status quo feel nervous, the explosion of Occupy Together events across the US last weekend will have sent anxiety levels through the roof. There were ‘Occupy’ camps in 70 cities across the nation last weekend. More events are planned for the coming days and weeks in the US and other countries.

Political leaders must be wondering what is going on. (‘Who are these kids? Would they vote for me?’) To be fair, it is difficult to say exactly what the the protesters want. They have no single message or identity. They represent, they say, the 99% who are excluded by the standing political and economic system. They say that the top 1% of the US population owns 40% of the wealth. The way the movement has accelerated seems to follow the pattern set in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world earlier this year: a contingent of dissidents occupy public space; footage of their mistreatment by police is spread via Facebook and Twitter; this consolidates the sense of injustice and inequality that inspired their actions in the first place.

Last week, the movement crossed a threshold. A localized set of swarm events evolved into a distributed swarm network. [Read more…]

Philosophy, freedom, and Malamud’s Fixer

‘If I have any philosophy’, said Yakov Bok, ‘it is that life could be better than it is’. Yakov (the maligned hero of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Fixer (1966)) was a poor handyman, or ‘fixer’, who lived in a small Jewish village in pre-revolutionary Russia. When his wife left him for a stranger, he decided he was ready for change. Yakov packed up his tools and set out for Kiev to start anew. He threw his religious items into a river on the way to the city. He abandoned his name and the final evidence of his origin just as quickly when offered a job by a wealthy anti-Semite in a part of town restricted to Jews.

But the past has a way of catching up with us. One day a boy was found murdered and drained of blood in a cave near Yakov’s factory. When, in the course of their investigations, the authorities discovered that Yakov was a Jew, they accused him of ritual murder. Anti-Semites to a man, the authorities tried everything they could to frame the fixer for the crime. The fact that Yakov had rejected Judaism and identified as a freethinker counted for nothing.

Yakov was thrown into solitary confinement while charges were prepared against him. The transformations that he’d made on the way to Kiev now seemed entirely cosmetic. Like a child, he had assumed he could lose his shadow just by looking the other way. The truth, Yakov now realized, was that he was shackled to his identity just as surely as he was locked in this filthy cell.

For weeks and months Yakov languished in the cell without charge. The shadow of the past became huge and malignant, filling the space of his life and world. Yakov’s father-in-law called on him to repent, to fall to his knees in prayer. But Yakov despaired of God and used the time to think.

This is how he discovered philosophy. [Read more…]

Socrates as entrepreneur: philosophy as a tool of war


But why are we talking about Socrates? If you are reading this blog, you are probably interested in practical wisdom to help you deal with contemporary crises and challenges. What could possibly be relevant in the story of a philosopher who died 2400 years ago? Isn’t this perpetuating the bad habit of looking to the teachings of long-dead white men for answers in a young, multi-ethnic, post-feminist world? Worse, it seems to be celebrating that hoary old intellectual chestnut, ‘reason’ – and reason has earned itself a bad reputation in recent years, deservedly so. The twentieth century saw reason applied to abominable ends: the rational extermination of millions of people in death camps; the establishment of the technocratic state, which claimed the right to socially engineer its populace in the name of rational gain; the ascendency of neo-liberal economic management, which posits every individual as a rational, value-maximizing agent (and too bad for you if you don’t fit the paradigm); the invention of the atomic bomb, turning war into Mutually Assured Destruction and international relations into game theory.

Why should we think about Socrates in the middle of cleaning up the mess that has been made by his descendants? Sure, Socrates is interesting – as a relic. But here in the second decade of the twenty first century, we have more important things to do than reflect on things that happened in the long-distant past.

I hear these kinds of views from people all the time. I agree with the criticisms to a large extent. Still, I think that, in this particular case, there is good reason for us to delve into the story of a dead white philosopher. The story of Socrates has immense value today, especially for those people concerned to address the challenges of the present and our transition into a sustainable future. [Read more…]

Commoning is making common

How do we make a commons?

One answer is: through law. King Henry III granted commoners rights to use the English forests in the Charter of the Forests. When people have a common right to use some good, and a law that defends this right, we have a commons. As historian Peter Linebaugh argues, there is a cultural process presupposed in this – a process by which a group of people agree that such and such a set of goods and resources should be held in common, and act together in a way that preserves the commons. Affirming the plenitude of their shared stock, and inspired by the goodwill that they receive from others and feel eager to return, they contest the limits of public and private ownership and demand a law that secures their common rights to sustain themselves, to live with dignity, and to assemble with their peers. [Read more…]

How many is a multitude? seventeenth century reflections on the social contract

Early modern philosophers used the term ‘multitude’ to describe the unruly masses, a populace that needed to be governed by the monarchy or state, or some combination of the two. In an England wracked by civil war and religious strife, Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), a conservative philosopher, decided that the problem with the multitude was its disunity, the fact that it was divided against itself. For Hobbes and a continuing tradition of political philosophers, the question is how to transform the multitude into a cohesive political unit. In Hobbes’ vision of the social contract, the multitude becomes a unified people. [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.

Grassroots democracy: a political and philosophical analysis

Canadian political philosopher James Tully distinguishes two forms of democratic activity: ‘restrictive’ and ‘extensive’ democracy (‘Democracy and Globalisation: A Defeasible Sketch’ (2001)). ‘Restrictive democracy’ refers to ‘the mature and predominant practices of government and democracy typical of representative democratic nation-states’ (Tully, 2001, 38). ‘Extensive democracy’ refers to non- or differently representative practices of collective resistance that, according to Tully, ‘cannot be understood adequately in terms of the theories and traditions of representative government’ (Tully, 2001, 39). Modern political philosophy, in its focus on reasons, norms and abstract principles, mostly overlooks extensive democracy, which takes place ‘beneath the threshold of the formal features of law and democracy’ (Tully, 2001, 53). This enables philosophers to preserve a clear distinction between political and social philosophy, yet at the expense of obscuring the social processes at the basis of the political as such. [Read more…]