Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Gift Glut (18 May 2010)

Rob Walker's most recent Consumed column is about the digital gift economy: "Surely it’s the case that never before have so many creators offered so much to so many for $0. A result, in effect, is a gift glut." The surfeit of free cultural product and the free labor that produces it has proved economically disruptive, as anyone who works in consumer magazines can tell you. It seems to promise a gift economy of sorts in which a greater proportion of socially necessary labor will be done voluntarily and not under the direction of bosses. The fruits of the labor could be exchanged through distribution channels largely moderated online, without mediation by middlemen and other extortionists. There would be less alienation and exploitation, since people would be worked when they wanted, more often doing what they wanted to do.

But one of the problems with that utopian vision is that we want to have our work specifically recognized and appreciated more when we are giving it away than when it is extracted from us. Even in a gift economy, all the freely offered, unpriced material gets valued, not by a dollar amount but by the measure of attention it receives. "There is also a great deal of creative expression out there," Walker notes, "that ... qualifies as an unwanted gift: the unlinked-to blog post, the unliked Facebook page, the unfavorited Flickr photo, the unwatched YouTube video, the unretweeted link and all the other expressions that are ignored or overlooked or simply not rewarded with positive feedback." These unwanted gifts are easy enough for consumers to filter out, but the producers have lost something more than their time and effort -- there is negative utility in being ignored and implicitly rejected.

Markets are good at making sure that labor, even if it is forced and joyless, is not simply wasted. That is to say, getting paid supplies a kind of depersonalized recognition for our effort. Whereas giving an unwanted gift is a personal failure, a rebuke to one's identity that is potentially worse than the depredations of wage slavery.

Gifts are supposed to transcend market relations and establish instead a personal relation through the exchange process. The gift is ideally elevated beyond judgment and becomes a qualitative expression of a reciprocal relation. It's the thought that counts, as the cliche has it. But the online aspect of the nascent gift economy undermines that: Walker points out that "the newer and more accessible economy of sharing means that practically everything is subject to some kind of rating or ranking, all the time."

In The Gift anthropologist Marcel Mauss gave some examples of gift-giving potlatches that culminate in the sheer destruction of value in obligatory ritualized sacrifices: "Sometimes there is no question of receiving return; one destroys simply in order to give the appearance that one has no desire to receive anything back."

I wonder if something like that happens in social media, where the possibility of reciprocation is destroyed by a surfeit of competitive sharing. Because of the ubiquitous ranking possibilities, gift-giving online can escalate into the destructive orgy of the competitive potlatch, in which participants try to outgive everyone else into submission in order to secure a particular identity. On social media, the potlatch takes the form of outtweeting and outsharing the field, overloading the network with fragments of oneself as to seek a ranking. The result is that gifts proffered through social media stop seeming like gifts at all. They become referendums on our identity as we are configuring it in that particular instant. The gifts no longer seem reciprocal; they seem narcissistic. Even though we don't do it for money, we are still back to producing content, not giving.

But the network is now also supposed to be the space in which non-competitive gifts are to be exchanged. The potlatch preening -- the produced content -- threatens to crowd out those kinds of gifts. So the gifts don't get recognized and appreciated in the spirit in which they are given, which may lead to a desperate offering of more of them -- at which point they become content. This creates a self-reinforcing destructive spiral. In other words, if everyone is oversharing, everyone has to overshare to try to be heard, but in such an environment no one has the time to listen. Paradoxically, sharing destroys gifts.

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