four principles of gift – getting down to basics

The number 1 rule for understanding Gifts:    Gifts are not repayable.

This is not to say that there is no obligation to repay, or return when receiving a gift. Rather, quite the opposite. There is a strong, and to some degree mysterious power in the gift that puts you in debt, and it is the nature of this debt that is key to understanding how aside from market economy, there is a completely other economy that makes the world go round: Gift Economy.

The main reason for this post is to clarify and build upon yesterday’s post where I proposed a graph of four fundamental terms of the Gift. This is improvisational thinking, so it’s a think-along. The Gift vector image I re-post at the top here. The aim is to define these terms a bit, explain why I chose them, and perhaps get into how such a diagram can help us design better social media and marketing exchange.

This may get a little abstract, so reel me in and ask questions.

Just What is a Gift

First I’m going to start with defining the terms. Each gift situation has I believe 4 components. Sometimes one or more of these will be quite minor, but optimally, or ideally there are these four:

incalculability –  This is the rule that gifts cannot be fully or exactly repaid. The emphasis is on the barring of exactness. If you give me a nice book for my birthday, the only way I can nullify this gift as a gift would be to offer you the exact price of the book back. Even if I refuse the book I cannot nullify the gift of it. Your gift would still be on my social ledger, so to speak. This impossibility of exact reciprocity is what characterizes Gift Economy from the Market Economy.  Market Economy’s exact payment exchanges actually threaten to end relationships – once the ledger is even, all is done. As anthropologist David Graeber likes to point out, if Gift Economy cultures exact exchanges are only something someone does with enemies. Gift Economy relationships bind together and perpetuate themselves through the uneven passing of social debt. The unpayability. As I hope to talk about at another time, this unpayability takes on many forms, with different kinds of thresholds, and the nature of its “incalculable” can help us figure out what kind of gift it is.

the rite – I’m going to say that all gift-giving in some way embodies a rite, which is to say that it embodies some invested human action with specific rules or expectations, the repetition of which adds value to the act. The rite, or ritual, or custom of the act means that when repeated certain values of the group are reaffirmed or re-inscribed. When you give me a book on my birthday, part of the value of this gift is not just what you mean to me, or what I mean to you. The value also comes from the affirmation of the act of birthday gift giving. And because of this, there are likely many social mores on how to give a birthday gift (and how to accept one) which govern the transaction. So, when we ask ourselves what kind of gift something is, we need to ask: how much of the value of this gift lies within the invocation of rite or custom? For some gift scenarios this vector might be fairly non-apparent  – maybe competing in an opensource contest – for others substantially so, like shaking someone’s hand. This is one of the dimensions of a gift.

status change – This is a very significant, and perhaps difficult to measure dimension of the gift. All gift giving by degree has bearing on the identity of the giver – even if only as a factor in self-image. It also has bearing upon the identity of the receiver (and additionally others in the group, and the group itself). These questions of identity are perhaps most easily thought of in terms of status change. When a gift is given: What is happening to the status of the giver, and to the receiver or witnesses? And how much does this status change factor into the value of the gift? This factor of status change is most evident in “agonistic giving” found in “primitive” or archaic Gift Economy cultures where members compete and even exhaust themselves over who can give the bigger donation. But one doesn’t have to travel to exotic locations or times. Agonistic giving drives many gift scenarios, some of them as close as the nearest pub or as transnational as the SETI@home supercomputer project (Benkler).

There is some complexity here though. One might see how status change can be related to incalculability, the unrepayable nature of gifts. Your gift of a book on my birthday both cements us as friends, but also puts me a bit in the hole. I am, paradoxically, both raised up (honored) and put in your debt. You are both diminished – humbling yourself as gift-giver – but raised up as being the one with surplus enough and power enough to give, placing me in your debt. It is this double bind of status changes that secures our bond in that example. Of course it is more than this bond. If we are part of a group, the status of the group is changed. And if others in the group witness the gifting, their status can be affected as well: “Gee, I wish I brought something for his birthday”; or, “I love that my husband, my family, got such a nice book!”  In any case, if one wants to know better just what kind of gift something is, look to the changes in status that come from it, and how much status change is involved in the value of the gift itself.

historical record – The last vector I can identify is the idea that in some way or form the gift has been recorded. There is a value to gift giving that comes from the fact that the donation has been marked down, a sense of permanence. There are of course gradations. It can move from just something that you and I will remember between us to something inscribed in the annals of history, or perhaps even the Mind of God. Or, it can be the way that your gift becomes a functional part of a solution. If you designed a software program, or a carburetor, the “historical record” or permanence may consist in knowing that your contribution is going to be functioning over and over again in all variations of the larger product. There is an aspect in which this is similar to “the rite” – because socially rites or customs can be seen as machines of a kind, records of permanence – but I count these as different vectors. The value that comes historical record indeed can create rites or customs (e.g., it is customary for whomever who dies in war to have their name inscribed on this wall), but looking to HOW something is recorded, and the degree to which that recording influences value produces different observations than asking what pre-existing rite or custom is being reinforced.

Getting Down to the Real World

Okay, that is a lot of words, but I think it is worthwhile to try to flesh out these concepts. Next though is to start bringing these terms alive and making them applicable. The first analysis is pretty bold and simple. If you have a gift giving situation – blog comments, Twitter RTs, customer reviews, opensource solutions, Digital Tribe building, Freemium offers, customer bonuses, etc, etc. to be common about it – and you want to strengthen or enrich them, look to each of these four vectors and ask youself: How much value of the gift is found on this vector, and is there anyway for us to increase it?

  • Is there a way for us to record more fully the fact of the donation? Can we give the giver a deeper sense of permanence? The mark that it matters.
  • Can we improve the sense of status change, or produce agonistic giving to forward the process? Can we indicate status change distinctly among a group?
  • How repayable is this gift, and is there a way to make it feel even less repayable, or generate more cycles of back and forth positive debt and gift exchange. What are the standards of repayment, and can we deepen these or invent new ones?
  • Does this gift scenario in anyway draw it’s value on custom or rite? If not, can we establish one or tap into pre-existing customary forms? If so, is there a way we can amplify this sense of repeatable value, to make it more a part of process when suitable?

Those are just a few preliminary questions that arise. I’m going to have to stop here, but hopefully soon we can cover how to graph out actual examples on this diagram, and start diagnosing specific Gift Economy situations. The hope is to come up with a diagnostic that keeps our eye upon the important factors that are happening, with an aim to making the exchange more meaning and therefore more lasting. A number of these aspects are somewhat invisible because they are just assumed, and become part of the social fabric. We want bring them out into the bold.

Follow our just starting Twitter conversation on Gift Economy at the hashtag #gifteco


lessons from native americans and others

I don’t really have time to blog post, but am moved to think by and recommend the talk  What Digital Tribes can Learn from Native Americans. Super discussion focused in part on drawing from what some might feel are “real” tribe examples in order to inform what digital tribes are. Among the speakers Allison Aldridge-Saur (@aldsaur) pulls out several aspects such as ritual, leadership and name-giving, things she has gleaned from her own experience of being a member of a Native American Indian tribe.

As I listened I felt that the concepts/universals of “ritual” and “leadership” were missing an essential piece of the puzzle, and that is the logic of Gift Economy structures which may help negotiate issues of hierarchy or community building. Here is a modified version of the tweet I sent as a note, but then decided to pull back and expand to this blog post – this is how blogs work right now for me, places where an idea can breathe.

@aldsaur Still listening to your wshop on Tribes. a note: I think what fleshes out your focus on ritual is that ritual allows us to relocate the places/occasions of repeat reciprocity. Leaders are only those capable of regularly displaying the surplus (gift giving) that drives the ideal example of non-exact repayment, the “gifting” binds the community in positive unpayable debt.#DgtlTribe #usguys

What do I mean by this? Let us assume as a hypothetical starting point that much of what binds tribes in the abstract – whether they be anthropologically recognized native tribes or analogically digital tribes – is a Gift Economy logic, creating a space for gift contesting and status building in the production of a community. If it is the case that many tribal structures are governed by Gift Economy logic (GEL) the two aspects of ritual and leadership become for me a little more clear. Ritual is a way of encoding and compassing occasions of gift exchange reciprocity. This is the “friendly” and unequal donation of valued items (info, yes) which help establish status via the display of surplus, the very unequal exchange that binds the community together through unpayable obligation, positive debt. Ritual allows members to repeat and locate this fundamental continuous act, and thereby re-instantiate the community and their place in it over and over, even down to the level of the gesture – Allison mentions the example of offering #coffee to other #usguys hashtag members on Twitter, a worthy real-world digital illustration.

Where leaders come in – and I part with Allison somewhat in this area I think, especially when thinking about the importance of sovereign-ness, but I’m not sure – these are people who have achieved (or inherited) the status of Gift Givers that more or less regularly symbolize the surplus and donation that secures the bonds of unequal exchange. Leaders indicate ideal action. But the degree of this indication, and the need for a cadre or singularity of such an example (individual or even group name sovereignty) in my mind does not have to be so localized. In the digital realm, what is new is the transient nature of forms in a communication of value, the way that people carry with them between media, between tribes, the history of those micro communities, marrying their future to even newer and different tribes. The hyper-tribe experience.

Strongly recommend the talk. Just put it on in the background like the radio playing, and let the ideas trickle in. Also recommend, as I have to Allison, David Graeber’s book on a theory of value informed by Gift Economy cultures.

Check out Allison’s blog too.