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.

[Read more…]

‘I want to practice things like patience’: Paul Miller’s year of exile from the internet

web-paul-millerPaul Miller is back online. Senior editor for the tech website The Verge, Miller took a year off the internet between 2012 and 2013 to see how it would impact his experience. As we might expect, Miller reports that being offline in 21st century society is rather inconvenient. No email. Miller had to deliver his submissions to The Verge by flashdrive. No social media. Miller was out of the loop on all sorts of things. He couldn’t check Facebook to see what his friends were up to. Neither could he jump on Google to browse the open web. No YouTube. No Netflix. Life offline, Miller discovered, can be extremely boring. He admits: ‘I did have a lot of free time, but a lot of it was loneliness and boredom in ways that I hadn’t really experienced before’.

Being disconnected was also empowering in a way. Miller wasn’t subject to constant interruptions and requests, and so he was at liberty to decide what to do with his day. He could get things done. He started working on the book that he envisaged coming out of the experiment. He was able to engage with lengthy reading projects, and spend quality time with himself and others. Unfortunately, the initial burst of productivity only lasted so long. Miller disconnected from the internet in the hope of re-engaging creative touchstones and overcoming blocks to his productivity. In the end, he discovered that his productively problems ‘didn’t have a lot to do with the Internet’. The same problems ‘manifested differently on and offline’.

Positive insights that Miller gleaned from his experiment include the importance of having good habits and the value of mindfulness and presence in life. ‘I want to practice things like patience’, Miller claims in an interview with CNN. ‘Just being present with people and not having so much noise in my head’. Miller found that without a connection to the internet, it was easier for him to be present in the moment. Yet, presence is something we have to work at. In the context of smartphones, laptops, and wearable computers, it is more important than ever that we practice the virtue of disconnecting our minds from the internet so that we can genuinely connect with a real person before us. Miller pledges: ‘Now that I’m back on the Internet I really want to be the shining example of what it’s like to actually pay attention to somebody and put away your devices’.

There is a lesson here for us all. Sometimes we need to disconnect from our devices in order to discover what real connection is about.

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…]

Be human: Heidegger and online authenticity

Bay-Holiday-Display-Blue-WomenThis is the second post in a series on online authenticity. The first post, Beyond ‘brand you’: reflections on social authenticity, points out a challenge for anyone who seeks to brand themselves on social media. It is easy to fall into the trap of defining oneself through shares and retweets. This sets up a shiny wall of themes and memes surrounding your brand, but it can make it impossible for friends and followers to access the real you. To define an authentic presence on social media, you need to tap into the unique person that you are offline. An authentic presence requires that you creatively represent the best version of who you are.

What do you have to give to the world? Take the best version of who you are and give it to the crowd. I call this: creative self-affirmation. Creative self-affirmation is authentic self-expression.

US management guru Tom Peters has an uncompromising view of creative self-affirmation. The key to self-branding online, Peters claims, is to become ‘extraordinarily/noticeably good at something of use/significance’ in the real world and brand that. This is easy enough for a management guru to do – but what about the rest of us? This post dips into the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to define a reflective approach to personal authenticity online that is both easier and more natural than the path Peters suggests.

Authenticity shouldn’t be a chore. Being authentic is simply being human.

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What does it mean to be you – the real you – online? Is it possible or desirable to express your real thoughts and feelings if you are developing a commercial image, or brand? Many people argue that, when it comes to online branding, commercial imperatives trump authenticity every time. The watchword of social media PR is caution: stay on message, avoid equivocal turns of phrase, keep the brand strategy in mind at all times. The upshot is that branded social media content often lacks a human voice. Like manikins in a store front window, branded content strikes a pose that reminds us of authenticity, but is incapable of offering up the real thing.

What about self-branding online? If cultivating a personal brand is subject to the same market imperatives as corporate PR, we should expect social media to be full of plastic people robotically spouting on point messaging. Some commentators argue that this is the way that things are headed. Geoff Livingstone, for instance, argues that ‘[t]he commercialization of the social web has reduced most communications to simply corporate or marketing initiatives’. Perhaps genuine authenticity is an outmoded virtue, as quaint as chivalry and just as absurd.

I don’t buy it. Every brand benefits from a human touch, no matter what product it’s selling. My thesis is that the best branded content online speaks of human values and experiences. It speaks of a human world, or set of worlds, and it makes us want to inhabit them.

[Read more…]

Beyond ‘brand you’: reflections on social authenticity

Twitter   tom_peters   Brand you  is a big  duh   ...When I read this, I laughed. It rings true. I retweeted it because I wanted to put my stamp of approval on the idea. One thing that I love about about Twitter (and other forms of social media) is that you can affirm your own values and intuitions by affirming someone else’s. This is a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. It enables us to speak in other voices and say things that we agree with but might not have the courage, art, or nous to say for ourselves. It also enables us to speak without thinking too much, which is the bad thing. It is easy to get caught up in the process of RTing and sharing and wind up ‘passing the word along’ and not saying very much.

Tom’s tweet got me thinking about personal authenticity online. It is not easy being authentic on social media. If the philosophers are right, it not easy being authentic anywhere.

The tweet resonated with me for a bunch of reasons. I am currently working into a book some of the material that I’ve posted recently on this blog, namely the posts on Foucault and the ones on social media as gift culture. In the course of this work, I’ve come to see that the perspective on online identity-formation (or ‘creative self-affirmation‘) that I developed in these posts is too cursory and glib. It needs specification, at least. Creative self-affirmation is not spin. It is not the kind of shallow self-branding that Peters (who knows more about branding than most) is aiming to contest. What I call creative self-affirmation is a matter of affirming your unique, personal value. Peters is right: the key to self-branding online is to become ‘extraordinarily/noticeably good at something of use/significance’ in the real world – to become something and brand that. All the online self-affirmation in the world – through tweeting, posting, pinning, +1ing, following, liking, favoriting, and sharing – won’t make you worthy of branding unless you are someone of worth. So be the best version of who you are. We all have our superpowers – what are yours? [Read more…]

Five books that shaped my thinking

My thoughts are shaped more by life than books. The world is a book that we read implicitly. If the problems of the world do not engage us and inspire a response, a book will do nothing for us.

The following books have played an important role in guiding my work in the past decade. I have read many good books in this time, but these five stand out. The common factor is that they inspired me to break with ideas that I had become comfortable with and seek out new lines of inquiry. As Thoreau said: ‘A truly good book teaches me better than to read it. I must soon lay it down, and commence living on its hint. What I began by reading, I must finish by acting’.

1. Empire by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri (Harvard University Press, 2001)

I read Empire in 2001, in the final year of my doctoral research. I was writing on the relationship between Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, two of the most important European thinkers of the 20th century (some years later I published a book on this topic, Foucault’s Heidegger). Meanwhile, I was following the progress of the anti-globalization protests that erupted about the world after the Battle in Seattle in November 1999, participating where I could. Empire provided me with a theoretical perspective on these events that shaped my research output between 2002 and 2008 and fed directly into the script for Coalition of the Willing.

Hardt and Negri’s argument in Empire is that neo-liberal economic globalization should not be understood as a kind of imperialism (where a hegemonic power invades other countries to capture their resources), but a new form of empire that tolerates no external limit and seeks to incorporate all life within its order. This empire employs the internet to organize the global multitude into a productive force; yet as it does so, it enables the multitude to form swarm-like pockets of resistance that coalesce across borders to challenge the status quo. Hardt and Negri propose that the multitude will eventually realize its collective power and establish a new political order based in the productivity of the commons. [Read more…]

The family history of Facebook: how social media will change the world


I’m fascinated by social media. My Gen X friends can’t understand it. Most of them are too busy struggling with families and careers to spend time glued to Facebook and Twitter. For them, social media is a time suck, at best, at worst a gross invasion of privacy. When I tell my friends that I’m teaching on social media, I get one of two reactions. Either they leer conspiratorially, as if to say: ‘Lucrative. Smart!’, or they smile sympathetically, as if say: ‘It must be tough being a philosopher, having to root around for trendy topics to keep people interested’.

Love them as I do, my Gen X friends don’t understand social media at all. They don’t understand social media, so they don’t understand what social media is doing to us in this moment in history. They don’t understand what social media is doing to us, so they don’t understand the historical importance of social media. They don’t understand the historical importance of social media, so they don’t understand why I am obsessed with the medium itself.

It is time that I laid my cards on the table. I am a social philosopher. I am interested in social and cultural change. I believe that social media is the catalyst for cultural change in the world today. As such, it is probably more important than anything else you could care to mention. [Read more…]

The gift shift: what’s social about social media?

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, the cover art of the July 23rd issue of the New Yorker is a critical disquisition. A middle class family poses for a photo on a sunny tropical beach. Given that this is the New Yorker, we can assume that they are Americans citizens, perhaps in Hawaii or the Bahamas. Presumably they are on holiday. The point that is implied by the image is that, whoever and wherever they are, their attention is somewhere else. Instead of celebrating the moment and being together, they have their heads bent over their mobile phones, texting, tweeting, checking status updates… Who knows, perhaps they are checking the weather. Whatever they are doing, they are not engaging with one another.

The irony is palpable. To bring it into focus, let’s assume that these folks are using social media. Viewed this way, the image calls to mind a common criticism of social media. Social media, it is said, isolates us from one another even while it brings us together. In my classes on Philosophy and Social Media, I hear versions of this criticism all the time. Social media makes us slaves to our gadgets. It commits us to spending valuable time isolated from the people around us, texting, tweeting, posting, or just surfing feeds. The nub of it is that social media, in practice, is a solitary pursuit. Social media is supposed to bring us together, but in reality it sets us apart. [Read more…]