social media is like buying beers: the gift economy in social media

The myth is Real: why it’s not cage fighting, its a conversation

My thoughts coming out of a conversation with Geoff Livingston in the comments of his call for social media business aggression ( Kick Your Competitor’s Ass ) have been really about how user expectations in social media – whether or not they are a myth or not – are REAL in their effect and so condition or limit what is productive in those environments. One way to put that is “the myth of the social media conversation is Real”. The touchy-feely of social media interactions is the language and value system that makes it all go, and even if your are looking to dominate your competitor, you have to at the very least strategically position yourself as such among those values. I say this as a husband to an amateur Muay Thai fighter with no aversion to the throwdown. And this goes all the way up to the heavy hitters like Facebook and Google who also have to struggle with the value systems and expectations that establish & promote their media.

The second half of my thoughts of here came out of reading Liz Strauss’s Influence: What Achieves the Results You Need? where she reflects back upon a time when her son was 5 years old. She uses a story of her son to illustrate six fundamental ways of interacting with others to get favorable results, most of them ways that surpass the roadblocks of antagonism and confrontation. Liz’s post make me think of gift giving, and the ways in which gift giving (as an attitude and an act) underwrites many of the more significant social forms in our culture, some of which may seem to be antithetical to it. So here also I want to expand a bit on the thoughts I first gave at Liz’s in comments.

Social Media and the Gift Economy

What stands out as I consider both Geoff Livingston’s Kick the Ass of your Competitor and Liz Strauss’s Find a Way to Persuade, Convince and Convert is that Social Media largely operates in a way that is distinctly different than the economies that are attempting to plug themselves systematically into it. This is not a judgment of either, only that differences need to be acknowledged so that cross-cultural, cross-discourse interactions become the most effective and not littered with endless mis-communications & failed expectations. When in one culture or discourse – discourse is just a shorthand for a way of talking about, valuing and doing things – you have to be aware when you are passing into another, when the rules and aims of the game change. To shift metaphors slightly, like a land mammal that doesn’t swim well you better know that you are stepping into waist high water. And if you can evolve to become amphibious, it might be worth while to do so when water becomes a fundamental part of your environment. This is where I suggest understanding Gift Economies can help.

Anthropologically speaking, Gift Economies are very specific things. The wikipedia entry gives us perhaps the best quick reference:

In the social sciences, a gift economy (or gift culture) is a society where valuable goods and services are regularly given without any explicit agreement for immediate or future rewards (i.e. no formal quid pro quo exists). Ideally, simultaneous or recurring giving serves to circulate and redistribute valuables within the community. The organization of a gift economy stands in contrast to a barter economy or a market economy. Informal custom governs exchanges, rather than an explicit exchange of goods or services for money or some other commodity.

One can see pretty quickly that Social Media operates primarily as a gift economy, or is a gift economy skewed environment. The exchanges that occur on Facebook or Twitter or blogs have no explicit rules or measures for equivalence, and even when business forays deep into these territories they have to respect the gift economy Law of the Land. Gift giving customs of particular cultures has been heavily studied by anthropology and sociologists, and it is not for here to present a Social Media ethnography (every micro environment has their customs). In fact to attempt such would run up against the fact that social media is a highly evolving realm of exchange expectations that once you’ve got the rules of thumb down you just have to experiment in (I have in mind how recently Tweetdeck’s tweet lengthening advantages seem to have run up against some unwritten Twitter customs, one of which is to be as brief as possible: a user/tech/custom tension). Rather, I want just present some essential aspects about gift giving economies that may shed light upon Social Media itself, and perhaps how it relates to business strategy and practices.

Beer Buying and Gifting: “I’ve got the next round”

You don’t have to go to Papua New Guinea or Sierra Tarahumara of North Western Mexico to encounter rare instances of Gift Economies. No, you can just go to your local bar. It’s pretty amazing when something exotic becomes so mundane and right there in your face. Buying beers for friends is a prime example of gift economy and how it is different than market economies. In beer buying there is a very important unspoken feature and that is you never want it to be exactly EVEN. It is NOT the case that you want to add up all the money your friend has spent buying you beers, calculate that total and then match it. In fact, if you ever did such a thing it would actually signal the end of the beer buying relationship. We are even now, now what? Even though there is a sense of matching, you never want to be matched exactly, the deficit and surplus between you is the thing that binds you and keeps you interacting and exchanging. The = is a hollow point never to be achieved. It is quite unlike the: “What is the price for this…here it is…thank you good-bye” (gee, I got a good deal in that exchange). The aim is not “winning” through exactitude, its perpetuation. I take this example of Beer Buying from Anthropologist David Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams . David is an new-version Anarchist, but don’t let that put you off. His insightful anthropological observations on Gift Economies have for me been paramount for understanding Social Media itself, its powers and practice expectations, and as I contend, for deciphering the potential confusions that arise when market economy subcultures (primarily corporate culture and its imitators) attempt to take advantage of Social Media forms.

So where does Gift meet pure Profit?

To return to the general question of corporate competitor ass-kicking, or the more general approaches of conviction and persuasion, the reason why ass-kicking or even persuasion are not primarily at home in social media is that social media is like buying rounds, it’s about giving things of value away under the proviso that the things you are giving away are actually of less value than the relationship itself that is generated and perpetuated by the giving. That is why there is such amazing knowledge to found for free  (hard to find through all the other free advice tossed out there). That is why question answering sites like Quora or Trulia (for Real Estate) have a chance to thrive, because the value is the value behind the exchange. Information, knowledge, experiences become a commodity of trust, not a commodity to be bid on. In social media we don’t ever want to pay the exact price, evening the = sign.

This does not mean that the Gift Economy of social media and the Market Economy of business are incompatible, not in the least. In fact many if not most of our business exchanges are grounded in Gift-based relationships whose “gift” nature we simply are unconscious of and just assume. Beer buying practices (from customer to customer or bartender to customer) actually root and drive Beer selling practices. You just have to know when you are doing one and not the other. If you develop a keen eye for the gift-giving environment, and think about all the things that gift-giving in those environments signal – 1) a surplus others want to attach themselves to, 2) a magnanimous respect for the relationship beyond all else, 3) a debt structure that is “positive” – then one can translate the business intents that come from a competition market culture. Competition and “winning” in Gift Economies is actually (some argue) a competition of who can give the most, and achieve the most respect.

In the wider sense, it deserves to be noted that this is not simply a case of two different ways of doing business that are cut off from each other. They will, and are, affecting each other. Corporate culture in America and Europe which is well-founded on Individualized market competition indeed is strongly cross-pollinating it’s values into Social Media culture, that much is evident. Big companies struggle against Social Media gift values as they seek to monetize traffic and uses, and one of the ways that business can do this is by promoting its values in the new environments. The Social Media professionals who proselytize the medium, and make their living on its health, are perfect hybrid amphibians between the two. But the effect goes the other way. As real persons in real companies are forced to becomes more “social”, and represent themselves and their companies within gift economies, the gift economy values that frame that interaction also have started to change corporate culture itself. Its not just the feel good myths of companies like Apple, Facebook or Google, its the genuine “conversations” and opportunities that become engaged in social media environments. The powers of those living customs, habits and myths.

There is also another aspect of gift giving that I find interesting. Anthropologist David Graeber notes that Gift economies ( “primitive” economies different than monetary economies) are those that produce ties that bind, lasting relationships that assume their own perpetuation. The equivalent exchange of x for y at fair market price can actually act as the sign of the “end” of the relationship, rather than its foundation, it puts a defined limit on what can or will be exchanged. The “gift” opens up what is possible through its very asymmetry. Even though we are definitely a monetary culture, there are also very strong “gift economy” relationships within it, rooting it, and to a strong degree these are expressed in Social Media.Sorry for the long comment but you got me thinking. 



8 thoughts on “social media is like buying beers: the gift economy in social media

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention social media is like beer buying: the gift economy in social media « Social Media Notes --

  2. There is a great post by Doc Searls from the 2006ish about the Generous Web, which is the concept you are talking about. I do think conversations are different than marketing, and seeking to dominate your market. Conversations are about core communities, not the fellow or woman you compete with… You are less likely to have real conversations with them.

    • Thanks Geoff,

      I will look into Doc Searls & the Generous Web because I’d like to write a little more about this. I appreciate your thoughts.

      The interesting thing about Gift Economies is that they can be just as competitive and status driven as Market Economies, perhaps even more so. I do see the difference you are making between competitors and conversation communities, but part of what I’m trying to bring out is how generosity in those conversation communities can be a form of competition, how in Social Media seemingly already-staid ideas such as “relationship building” and “connecting” are all about producing donations that produce status (dare I say Klout), through respect for the exchange itself through its asymmetry. And, there must be cross over between “competitors” in commerce and competitors in conversation.

      Another way to put this may be, your donations in Social Media IS a form of marketing too, and even though they are marketing (market competition) they must respect the mode of exchange that is particular to social media (a different sort of competition value system) in my mind something governed by a Gift Economy logic.

      p.s. love your avatar

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