the neighborly thing to do – gift economy in everyday life

The recent talk on gift exchange has me thinking about areas in my everyday life where a sense of in-exact obligation to repay a gift expresses itself. Part of the reason for thinking about everyday examples of non-market equivalences that bind is that they are organic to our culture and custom. They might give insight into deeply rooted mechanisms of status change and obligation that often pass invisible, while we just assume that everyone does things out of a motivation of  calculated profit (it is amazing how much this analytic myth conditions our eyes).

Yesterday I wrote about the “take a penny, give a penny” dishes that are near almost every small store register. Today I am taken back to an experience I had when I first moved into this house. We live up near a state park, more than an hour above nyc. It is a pretty small town up in the hills, and not the kind of property keeping I’ve ever been exposed to. We rent the house. It’s a culdesac and most of the home lawns are pretty well kept, hedges trimmed etc.

The Man Next Door: Positive Debt

My next door neighbor is a wonderful man. Salt of the earth, once raised on a farm. Now in his 70’s he is still country strong and works his property with effortless detailing and cultivation. Open-hearted, not nosy in the least, and very quiet, the very epitome of what a good neighbor is. When I first moved in I just let the hedge grow. I’m not a manicured yard kind of fellow, and I like things growing a bit wild around the house. But admittedly the Forsythia hedge grows fast and a little too strongly. That late summer Vinny, when with the electric clippers out trimming his own hedge, knocked on my door and offered to trim a little off mine. The truth was, I relieved. I didn’t have the tool, and it would look a bit nicer. Again, I’m not really a handy tool guy.

So he just trimmed it right up, careful not to get too extreme with it, and probably relieved himself of having to look at the wayward shoot and stems that had gotten a little excessive. What followed though was really a revealing adventure in Gift Economy. He trimmed it a few more times that summer, whenever he headed over to his own and the trimmer was humming. And I developed a deep sense of appreciation for his work and care. Well within me I got the sense that I wanted to repay him, not to make it even, but really to let him know how moved I was.

I asked him directly: What can I do for you? He said, “Nah, it’s nothing. Maybe a six pack of beer once in a while.”

The Good Problem of Repayment

The problem was that the value of what he was doing for me, to me personally, far exceeded what a six pack of beer was. In fact, there was a double problem. One didn’t want to “pay” him as if he was doing work for me, because this would reduce the status of what he was doing. He was not “doing work”. But also I wanted to express the significant well-spring of my heart that felt great on having such a wonderful man living next to me, making me feel at home in the neighborhood, and yet doing this appropriately to a quiet, man-of-few-words, old school man.

Well, as is my way, it didn’t go so well. There I was in the grocery store aisle trying to pick out a six pack of Coors Light (which he said he liked), and it just didn’t seem right. He had trimmed the hedge a few times already, enjoying what he was doing, shaping up the next door look. So I got him a case (or maybe it was even two?!, it has been several years now). I put it on his doorstep with a note because he seemed like a fellow who didn’t like having his privacy disturbed. And I felt I had expressed my appreciation.

Well, it turns out that this was a little much. Ha. I think he got in a little trouble with his wife for having so much beer in the house – he’s not an alcoholic afterall! – and gently suggested that a smaller amount, and making it Diet Pepsi might be better. And thank you very much for all the beer, don’t know what I’m going to do with it!

So things evolved. I bought him a couple of six packs of diet soda, but pretty soon it became apparent that the Gift of the hedging could not be repaid, in the sense that there was not real purchase of something that really was reciprocal to what he was doing. What he was doing was taking care of me and my house, out of the surplus of the things he valued and what he was very skilled at. What has become of this is perhaps the most key aspect of Gift giving. It is not just that things are exchanged in some sort of back-scratching passing of gifts back and forth – sometimes it is just like that, when it develops a ritual of appropriateness though. It is that status is changed. Relationships become defined by the gift itself, and it’s acceptance.

The Change in Status

Vinny watches over me and my house. He quietly, as an older and life-wise man, is guardian. Out of his surplus of dignity and attentiveness he sets just the right tone. He comes out when I can’t get my car out of the ice, hearing the wheels spin, and shows me a technique I would never have thought of. He greets my dog when she breaks free from the porch, and puts her back in, without saying a word. I think it would be a mistake to calculate any of this status position as the pursuit of profit analogized to money. It is deeper than that, and much richer.

What this means for businesses that want to create and curate customer/user donation – whether it merely be word of mouth (retention) as Stan Phelps @9INCHmarketing brings out, or substantive contributions to product content or design – is that the thing to watch is how status changes, and not what exact payments there are. The dis-equal, un-repayable, signification of surplus passing of gifts creates bonds that lift each the giver and the receiver (in most cases). They change the status of each. We in business need ways to create spaces and means of gift passing that sew together a space where the attachment becomes more and more meaningful, especially when considering situations where market economy logic threatens to signal the end of the relationship with every exchange.

In fact this is the key to the value of the “social” in Social Media. It is the opportunity to inspire and build the relationships that once grounded customer/company loyalties in other commerce eras. Once it was the talk at the small town storefront, then it became the salesman at the door, or the dealership. then the spokesman on the television. The Social Media channel, and the digital spaces of donation that are related to it, are specific compliments to the now more removed and quickened means of commerce today. The chance is to engage user status in a new and vital way, through donation.

Add to the Gift Economy Conversation

I’ve been putting short notes on Gift Economy and tracking conversations under the hashtag: #Gifteco. Feel free to add to it with your own thoughts.


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

nesting and social media flight

Real Time Sitting With an Eagle (click to see)

I have to confess that I am absolutely fascinated with the 24/7 eagle nest cam put up by the Raptor Resource Project in Decorah Iowa. It garnered a great deal of attention recently when the camera placed in the eagle’s nest captured the hatching of a valued egg. So much traffic it crashed the feed, I believe. But it is more than this. It is a window into the real powers of social media in a number of ways, and I’d like to use it to bring out these often overlooked aspects of what makes social media go.

The first thing to note is how it bends time and space instantly, as soon as you click on the feed (minus the now-present ad). You are transported to an eagle’s errie, where even in the middle of the night you can hear the wind blowing, and see her feathers peel back from the gusts. I watched last night, and the transportive effects were strong. It was perhaps the most “ecological” or “conservationist” experience I’ve had through media, or perhaps even in the more or less Real world. The noble animal is right there with you. Her catch will arrive in the nest. Her feeding. Her fussing with the young. And all the interminable minutes that Herzog would love are there, unedited.

This is what I want to focus on. Social media is NOT about sharing the trivial. It is about recognizing that there is no trivial. Each and every life experience/moment has the potential of being an anchor-point for sympathetic identification. What social media does is pull life out from the peaks, and display it as narrative – a narrative in which the small can surprise as much as the large can. Yes, the feed crashes when the chick is being born, but really it is the thread of moments that are captured that makes this eagle cam tranporative.

Let me move a little bit deeper into this. Social media allows an affective transfer. That is, for a moment, a glimpse, I am able to FEEL what you or it is feeling. My body approximates this state. For that moment there is a bond, and an assumption of sameness. This is actually – I would argue in a different context – the basis of all ethical behavior, and even the sense-making we make of the world, but in social media it is the core substance of what is going on. It is all happening in an “information” environment, but social media is about leaving your affective fingerprints on every piece of information exchanged. The information has to be smudged, dirtied by our transfer, so people can FEEL where it is coming from. Every Tweet, every Facebook posting, every YouTube clip has the lived buried in it.

This is where the eagle cam is so remarkable. It communicates so many of the conceptual conservation ideas that the unintentional cruelty of the zoo is more crudely designed to bring about. Animals are said to be ambassadors for their species in zoos, and so often endure an unhappy jail just so we can experience them first hand and develop not only a knowledge, but an affinity for their kinds..enough of an affinity for us to be moved to protect them. In this case, this is accomplished with two tiny remote cameras, and far more intimately. The transposition of time and space is incredibly folded, and made dense. We are mapped, affectively, right there upon the flapping, wind-blown feathers of a she eagle. And we care. A multi-million dollar zoo edifice is eclipsed.

The Lessons for Business

So what does this have to say about business and social media. The eagle cam represents the acme of this affective representation. It is the economical, brief, elegantly simple, spectacular way in which people can affectively identify across species lines with something “out there”, as well as be fully absorbed by the concepts that surround the transfer. What business has to realize is that connecting to customers and users in social media environments has always to do with this affective end. We want people to feel our Real. To combine with it, to see it as Same. And this is done by projective narrative. The information we exchange always has to be colored by our values, and our experiences. Each node of social media communication is a place for others to create an affinity point. And when exchanging with others, there are two nodes for identification: you and your interlocutor (for a watching 3rd).

So should every business have a 24/7 web cam stream? Well, not really. But WHAT a web cam stream accomplishes forms one of the limits and aims of social media broadcast and conversation. It is the transportation of – not the effacement of – what is human in us, or perhaps even beneath that. It allows customers to FEEL what is like to be in trusted relationship to your company or business. As someone brought up in today’s #usguyschat, it is more about reef building, than going viral. And establishing points of affective affinity is essential to reefs of safe commerce.

The enormous nest, over five feet wide, is perched high atop a cottonwood tree near the Decorah Fish Hatchery. The nest is 80 feet up, making the installation of camera gear all the more impressive. In the background of the shot, viewers can see cars and trucks passing on a road far below.

Two cameras are attached to the tree’s limbs a few feet above the nest, equipped with infrared nightvision and the ability to pan and zoom to capture every detail, including the bloody food that the parents bring back to the nest. story