the “value” in a gift – social media quantification

This post grows out of the donation from Lisa Thorell @lisat2 – I have serious appreciation when people take the time and passion to think along with me, especially when they find some disagreement. I’m using her thought to explore what I am meaning. Lisa makes a great point that my seemingly less than idea term “incalculability” might be better expressed as “value”:

I wonder too if “incalculability” might better considered as “value” of the gift. For some reason, it strikes me as a truism, that yes, you are correct that a gift creates indebtedness. And what’s more interesting – the larger the value of the gift, the greater the indebtedness. So methinks it gets somewhat illuminating if the incalculable parameter is changed to “value” instead. Then its possible to plot that the higher the value of the gift, the greater the status chamge (indebtedness), smaller gift, less indebtedness/status change.

find the  full comment here

A lot of this may stem from my inability to properly frame my concept of incalculability, and why I chose such an admittedly unmanageable term. As I mentioned in a short response on Twitter, “value” can be a difficult term when discussing the differences between Gift Economy and Market Economy. The reason for this is because the term value lives a double life meaning both the exact value of an object within a market (price) and also the inexact somewhat qualitative sense of obligation/pleasure we feel in Gift Economy.

A short answer I can give is that the reason I picked “incalculability” was because all four of my vectors are meant as ways of gauging Gift value itself. In other words, status change, rite, historical record and incalculability contribute to our sense of a gift’s value. My ultimate hope with this graph is to be able to sketch out the profile of various gift scenerios, and see differences. For instance one gift’s value might come heavily from “status change” but without much sense of rite, etc, while another might be derive its sense of value from rite and historical record, and so on.

Why Incalculability?

But to explain incalculability itself is really in order here. The word is meant to stand in direct contrast to the precise calculations characteristic of value in Market Economy. It is the degree to which an obligation to repay is incalculable that can position it more firmly in Gift Economy, I have a feeling. So this works a like a vector by which we might be able to chart this. A quick example from real and digital social life:

A handshake is somewhat calculable, or perhaps a better way to say that: it’s value does not seem significantly derived from the creation of (positive) debt that is passed back and forth in various states of imbalance. There is a basic 1 to 1 sense of reciprocity and not a sense that the debt is heavy. In fact once the extended hand in received and met with similar intent the obligation has reasonably been evened. It is strong in rite, there is a change of status and almost no sense of historical record.

The #usguys (Twitter hashtag) #ringthetribalbell initiation process is much more incalculable. For those who are unfamiliar, an otherwise undefined group has a custom of greeting new members through a public calling of members together, in a digital space. If you have received the bell and this is experienced as welcome there is no actually reciprocal calculation possible. You have been welcomed by many in an unanticipated way, have experienced a substantial change of status as result, and there is no real = sign operating here.

Perhaps these are not the best examples, but they are what comes to mind. The main point is to bring out the incalculable nature of certain kinds of gifts. Why this difference is important is that it points to an essential aspect of Marcel Mauss’s original conception of the Gift and it’s imposition of obligation.

For those unfamiliar, Mauss was a early anthropologist/sociologist whose writings on The Gift frame much of the Gift Economy perspective. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Mauss’s thought on gifting is his notion of “total prestation”. He was drawing from the work of others on the Maori among others and came to see that if pushed to its logical limit the “gift” involved a complete and utter giving of a group entirely to another group in avoidance of all out war – a concept made in contrast to Hobbes’ own invention of the Ur individual contract that make up the famous Social Contract:

–  Manuel d’Ethnographie

To our ears such “primitive” clan to clan gifting sounds like something that bears little resemblance to how we socially organize ourselves, but I do want to speak about a very common form of gifting that captures the complete sense of “prestation” that we all might understand. Remember, this totality of obligation is meant to stand in contrast to the exact kinds of repayment that characterize Market Exchanges. It is for this reason that tracking the this vector away from exactitude seems like a worthy distinction to me. Another way of stating this might be: the degree to which a gift diverges from Market logic.

So what is this total prestation gift? Why, marriage of course. Don’t roll your eyes you Straussians and anti-Straussians.

Hopefully one can appreciate this example even if you don’t “believe in” marriage. The point is that marriage still culturally carries a great deal of Mauss’s ideal of total and complete gifting, one in which the debt is never absolved. There is direct reciprocal calculation of 1 to 1 but all that is involved in the giving to one another is a kind of totalization. Interestingly enough, the marriage gift also – at least in my pov – gains its value rather strongly through the other three vectors of gift giving: status change, rite and historical record.


I feel I have answered this question rather clumsily, in part because it is still developing in my mind, in part because I believe that the incalculability of gifts is something that defies words and maybe even examples. We all feel the tug of obligation in gifts. We even will avoid gifts if we don’t want to be under their debt. We can sense by custom, but almost with an extra-perception “ethical” social awareness just what the bounds of a gift obligation may be. The upper end of my analysis graph of gifting is an attempt to capture this amplitude. How much does the gift pull on you? How much is the gift subject to a calculable neutralization?

The above graphs are of course just top of my head sketches, and most certainly could have been drawn differently if real world contexts were taken into consideration. And I really should have probably used an example far less obscure than the digital custom of bell ringing in a Twitter hashtag community. But because most people who have been most intimately involved in this early discussion know this phenomena, and because the short term aim of this Gift Economy analysis is directed toward understanding the logic behind social media groups, perhaps it is not far fetched.

I hope to bring many more widely appreciated and recognized illustrative examples together to test out if these four vectors are indeed fundamental. And perhaps even more importantly, to start diagnosis existing social media groups and building others under the kinds of questions these four dimensions bring to the forefront.

Follow the conversation over at the hashtag #gifteco.

Some Twitter people of variety who have been expressing interest in this line of thought:

@dabarlow @9INCHmarketing @RicDragon @PPLopez @aldsaur @PaulBiedermann @67tallchris


3 thoughts on “the “value” in a gift – social media quantification

  1. Pingback: coca-cola’s friendship machine meets the social machine « Social Media Notes

  2. Yes, sometimes — it’s a running joke — I say to my spouse playfully, “I love you. Obviously.” By which he knows I mean: that the greatest compliment you can pay anyone, is to marry them. “I will share my entire life with you from this point forward.” It epitomizes the word “gift,” and so, I feel as though I completely understand what you mean by the word “incalculable.”

    • Dane,

      I think a funny thing happens when our ideals run up against the “real world”. They are not proven to be “myths” or fables. We realize that our ideals are real, agreed-upon pulls on us towards better things. Gift are like that. And I think marriage is like that too. My aim is to realize just what the ideals and ties are that structure online communities, and maximize them if we can. And yes, “incalculable” is part of it I think.

      Thank you for reading this post, and commenting on it. You made its thoughts come alive again for me.


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