pennies, and more luxury items – gift economy spaces

The Mystery Powers of the Extra Penny Dish

I’m sure that the Penny Dish is something that deserves a rather long post in the discussion of everyday Gift Economy marketing situations, but some off of the top of the head thoughts are going to have to do. While I’ve been ruminating on Gifteco lately, on the back burner most of the time, the Penny Dish has been tugging gently on me. There is something about this dish that really speaks to several aspects about Gifteco Logic in marketing that I am interested in. I’ll run through a few in no particular order.

  • It is an example of Gift Economy that occurs in explicit market contexts – in fact involves the essential symbol of that context, currency.
  • Surely the spread of this dish and loyalty to it is an enormous surprise – Gifteco spaces are capable of unexpected results.
  • I have probably never actually taken a penny, though I contribute to these dishes regularly – their explicitly stated function does not necessarily equate to what they “mean”.
  • They proliferated in a coin which already was devalued in terms of use. Putting quarters or even dimes in there feels wrong – spaces of giving have parameters (Lisa Thorell @Lisat2 pointed this out to me.)
  • The penny donations seem to exist in specific contrast to – even in terms of position – the register actions they sit beside. They negate the exactitude that just occurred.  Think about the difference in emotion if the clerk rang up the price $0.03 over, and the 3 pennies you might drop in the dish.

I feel that the temptation when thinking about giving and marketing is to concentrate on the “gift” idea, which could involve thinking “Well, just what could I give? A discount? Something free? A smile? What will inspire this other way of thinking and doing from my customers? I don’t believe that this is necessarily the most productive thought. What is it that compels me to drop my extra pennies in that dish? What is the Gift that I am reciprocating? I believe it is the gift of the space itself…the dish. The presence of pennies in the dish also is a factor of course, evidence that this is a custom that others have invested in, and the sense that we are joining an endless chain of such donations. But it seems more that it is about how the retailer has opened up an alternate space, a place where something can happen that is in excess of the precise price/commodity exchange that just occurred.

Important to this penny drop off is the symbolism of excess, the way that customer who very well might have thought about the price of some item with calculation, is now invited to symbolically and ritually act with surplus. And in doing this they indicate – I believe – that the relationship between themselves and the shop is more than just as purchase occasion. A real and mental surplus is created out of literally nothing: to be poetic about it, the empty space of the dish opens up the nil space of the exact equivalence of price and commodity exchanged.

It seems important that this penny dish remains pure. Charities attempt extra change deposits, but these are not the same spaces. What seems significant is that a penny can be given OR taken. What this indicates to my eye is that “nobody” gets these pennies. They are – in a primitive sense – donated to the spirit of the transaction itself, an alter to the Unnamed God of mutuality.

What is compelling to me is that in digital realms spaces are capable of being made with very little capital or elbow-grease. In 5 minutes a wp blog is up. The challenge in social media marketing, I believe, is that of the penny jar. It is to carve out the reciprocally coded donation spaces that inspire that symbolism of personal and community excess. And how these donation zones are designed seems to be something of an art. How proximate are they to be to commerce? Once we realize that people have a desire and even a need to indicate their own surplus, to symbolize their own a + b ≠ b + a how do we harvest that: not for profit, but for the creation of the meaningfulness of profit.

For this to happen, the consumer and proprietor come together. I have surplus – I toss in pennies because I have “extra” – and I join you who also has surplus – you have just made a profit on our exchange. We are of a kind together. This very same thing occurs in creative contexts, or problem solving contexts. Members in contribution feel buoyed by the surplus of others (or the group) when they themselves have been given the space in which to have displayed their own surplus: we are of a kind together. The reason we don’t have to be exact about things is because we both, we all are surplus folks…again, the beer buying metaphor.

The penny dish does not take into account the often significant factor of status change, and agonistic giving. But it is a beginning, something that reminds us that the biggest donation a business can make might be the space for donations.

Reading a Little gifteco Lit

Thanks to Stan Phelps (@9INCHmarketing) who has pointed the way towards additional writers/speakers who have brought Gift Economy thinking to social media and marketing questions, I’ve begun reading law professor Yochai Blencker’s Wealth of Networks, a near tomb on information economy, and the present forces that bear upon democratic and creative processes of wealth. It does not explicitly leverage Gift Economy logic – thus far – but it certainly sets a broad intellectual table upon which many Gift Economy questions can be answered. Ran across this nice introductory paragraph on the generalized and quite common presence of Gift Economy logic: the necessary fuzziness of accounting.

Across many cultures, generosity is understood as imposing a debt of obligation; but none of the precise amount of value given, the precise nature of the debt to be repaid, or the date of repayment need necessarily be specified.Actions enter into a cloud of goodwill or membership, out of which each agent can understand him- or herself as being entitled to a certain flow of dependencies or benefits in exchange for continued cooperative behavior.This may be an ongoing relationship between two people, a small group like a family or group of friends, and up to a general level of generosity among strangers that makes for a decent society. The point is that social exchange does not require defining, for example, “I will lend you my car and help you move these five boxes on Monday, and in exchange you will feed my fish next July,” in the same way that the following would: “I will move five boxes on Tuesday for $100, six boxes for $120.” This does not mean that social systems are cost free—far from it. They require tremendous investment, acculturation, and maintenance. This is true in this case every bit as much as it is true for markets or states. Once functional, however, social exchanges require less information crispness at the margin.

– The Networked Information Economy p11o


4 thoughts on “pennies, and more luxury items – gift economy spaces

  1. Hi Kevin- I was hoping you would write more on the Gift Economy! Great stuff. Penny dishes are interesting: I think the give-take currency here is not the actual penny, but time. We see these in convenience stores and gas stations (where the transaction is a relatively low ASP) and where well – time is money: Meaning a convenience store is promising you a fast and convenient exchange experience and therefore it is in the interest of both parties (station owner and customer) to respect time. It makes total economic sense to me that the penny dish evolved specifically in this saving-you-time type of store. For the clerk and the customer- the penny saves time in fumbling for change and/or counting it out. Second, the store’s existing penny is convenient for the customer not wanting to break into their dollar bills (lightweight) and, as well, third, gives them just that penny or two extra purchasing power if they are a bit short on money. Fourth, perhaps most importantly (remember this is a time-sensitive convenience store, or gas station where people are on the move) any customers in the line behind you are processed faster due to the presence of this little penny dish. Some national convenience chain has probably done the 1000-store math here that a few pennies in the dish speed up and allow more transactions per day. Aka the use of 5 pennies may add up to $1000 more in daily transaction revenue per store. Until your post – i never thought about the subtlety of this mechanism — appears like a gift or donation area – but definitely in the store owner’s interest!

    I do agree with you we do see penny dishes in the online social world: blog comments! (And even though I’ve already used up my penny…to complete the thought…)One is encouraged to put a penny thought in there and – well- move along- for the next commenter. And like a penny dish – the comments can really enrich both a blog post’s value (aka the blogger-storeowners cachet) as well as potentially boost the public perception of an incisive commenter (aka penny-giving customer)’s . Too much commentary by one commenter – as we’ve discussed before — well, that’s like taking the whole penny dish worth of pennies. And on that note- let me grab these excessive pennies I’ve stolen and let someone else in line! 😉

    • Lisa,

      Very interesting, and it may be that my experience of penny dishes is different than yours – in terms of context. I live in a pretty sleepy town (where every little store/deli/restaurant has one). There are moments where it may be a time saving device – perhaps a lunch rush – but at least out here seldom is that occasion is something I encounter. This is also where I believe the stated purpose of the dish – maybe convenience, or speed of transaction – is surpassed by a symbolic excess, a making of the amount something inexact (which by definition is essential in Gift Economies).

      I am sure that many people actually do take pennies and use them to round out amounts, avoid breaking bills, etc. I honestly have never thought to do so, and would even feel guilty doing (how odd?). I would always pay with a bill, and dump the extra pennies into the dish. And when I do so I experience an strange sort of relief, not all to dissimilar to being able to feel freer when throwing down a larger than expected tip at a restaurant (another Gift Economy like tradition). But in this case the “tip” is forward, to another customer, or to the mutuality itself.

      Two things I realize when reading your excellent comment. The first is that it is incredible how pervasive these penny dishes have become. They were never around when I was younger. The second is that indeed there must be a multitude of uses and even symbolic meanings behind them, varying not only with their contexts, but even from person to person. That is the remarkable thing about them from my pov. They are merely an empty space, created with perhaps the purposes you name, but in them resides great flexibility.

      And yes, blog comments indeed are a kind of penny dish, a place to throw toss in your surplus (good will, facility of brain, pov) and donate it to the benefit of something larger. The exchange.

      Glad to have your thoughts.


  2. Another amazing post on the gift economy, Kevin.

    As the least of all coins, the penny is still the ‘first’ unit of currency. I think it is treasured, in a way, because of the space it occupies as first unit. Perhaps, as it has devalued, it has become more valuable as a symbol of our modern economic system…

    I would feel bad dropping the few pennies I receive after a transaction in to the donation bin for the SPCA, Child Find, or some other charity. But I like the idea that someone will be able to use my ‘donation’ to the penny dish, even if they never know who made it. So I agree with you that both symbolism and ritual (something I ‘get’ for donating, even if it’s not direct obligation on the part of the recipient) probably play a part in this relatively new phenomenon.

    One of the things that has always fascinated me about inanimate objects is the journey they make among the living. They survive us and exist in a multitude of situations. (So excited about the possibilities of living objects that are embedded with code so that I can ‘experience’ its ‘lifespan’ from a computer terminal). Maybe this has something to do with that as well.

    Not sure about the excess theory. I will say that I am aware the proprietor knows I’m donating, but for me, at least, it’s secondary to knowing it might be useful and getting a good feeling about that as a result.

    In Canada, every once in awhile the Mint sends out a trial balloon story about eliminating the penny. But I think people are rather attached to them for reasons we may not fully appreciate until they’re gone. I know I’d miss my penny jar!

    • Bev,

      Thanks for your thoughts on this. I really in particular love how you isolated that essential symbolic value of the penny. Yes, devalued, but also a core representation of currency itself. Great point, and something that was hovering in my mind while writing the whole time.

      As to your fascination with inanimate objects, it is interesting that you say this. I’ve been re-reading Mauss – the anthrop/sociologist who brought forth most of the first of Gift Economy thinking, and this concentration on the object is a big part of his analysis. This actually goes away from what I find most interesting in Gift Economy (I chose to think more about spaces, and how they are constructed), but he makes a huge thing about the object itself. He feels that the “person” is – in so called primitive societies – literally entwined with the object. That is the reason why gifts need to be repaid, he felt. A piece of the person has been passed, and needs to be returned.

      I’m not exactly sure that I follow you in terms of “living objects that are embedded in code” but that sounds incredible. Do you mean that IRL objects are translated to code, and therefore we can experience their “lifetimes”? Or are you meaning that the code itself is an object, and that we interact with that.

      What I mean about the importance of excess, or the symbolism of surplus, is that in Gift Economy there is a deliberate negation of exact exchange. That means there is no fixed price on what a gift is worth, or the exact measure of how it is to be repaid. From the pov of market economy,this fuzziness constitutes a kind of surplus (and a deficit). What I mean by the penny given being the symbolism of a surplus, it is that in dropping them into the cup we indicate that we are not exact penny counters, we don’t “need” them so to speak. Our wealth (not necessarily monetary) exceeds the transaction, and we are free to donate this to another, or to the process itself. With the pennies we have JUST transacted in a very precise way: this commodity is worth exactly “x” in this context. To take the excess (the change) and put it in a public fund indicates – at least to my eyes – the inadequacy of such exact exchanges. Beneath the transaction of the purchase are bonds that are sewn out of another value system, the logic of Gift Economy. At least that is where I am heading on this.

      Great thoughts, looking forward to more! (I posted again yesterday on neighborly gifts, if you want to take a look).



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