coca-cola’s friendship machine meets the social machine

A Commercial for Friendship

It’s not really a viral video, or perhaps even an attempt at one [watch the video, it makes a difference]. Only 10,000 views in the first three days. It’s a conceptual video, and perhaps one that is aimed specifically at the kinds of people that would find this kind of thing compelling: social media citizens. It lacks the short visual “hook” that makes something viral. Instead it is a commercial, carefully crafted to persuade, to inspire. One of the largest companies in the world makes a kind of performance art piece representing its product, and produces a beautiful message cut right from the values essential to social media group making.

Mashable wrote about the video release, explaining the machine’s design:

Coca-Cola actually planted the machines in Argentina last August to celebrate International Friendship Day, but just this week uploaded the video to its YouTube channel. The machines appear to be about 12 feet tall and requires that you ask a buddy for a boost to use it. Coke rewards that bit of cooperation by dispensing two Cokes instead of one.

via Mashable’s article “Coca-Cola’s Friendship Machine Rewards Cooperation with Cokes”

This is what really fascinates me about it. Social Media values have begun to exert pressure upon corporate messaging, upon their self-branding, that pulls them towards an ethic that is different. Previously it was all about the product. Post-handshake and storefront, in the Age of Advertising this has been the case. Make an amazing product, show that, and nothing else matters. The “sell” was showing the product. And endorsements – from outright pitching to unconscious associations – were nothing more than 3rd party proofs of the quality of the product. This Coke machine does something else, a shift that is slight in focus but huge. It is no longer smiling people who are made to smile because of the product’s quality. It is rather people who are made to smile because of themselves, and the product is only an catalyst or even space for it. There have been themes of this in advertising for a long while, but never perhaps so explicitly performed. The machine is literally climbed upon bringing two people together.

The Art of It

This goes to some very admirable achievements in marketing built right into the machine itself. It is monolithic, imposing a 2001 like unreachableness, but it is also a lateral invite to people to join with each other. The great corporate logo suddenly becomes a jungle-gym, a physical puzzle game – given the right age of folks. The very size of Coca-Cola becomes playful.

I talked briefly about this with Stan Phelps on Twitter @9INCHmarketing and he pointed me to a Harvard Business Review blog post where Coca Cola spoke about a shift in marketing, surely something that this machine is part of. I quote somewhat at length for convenience, as it points us toward a philosophical shift in general: capturing expressions. Expressions are the new vital metric.

In the near term, “consumer impressions” will remain the backbone of our measurement because it is the metric universally used to compare audiences across nearly all types of media. But impressions only tell advertisers the raw size of the audience. By definition, impressions are passive. They give us no real sense of engagement, and consumer engagement with our brands is ultimately what we’re striving to achieve. Awareness is fine, but advocacy will take your business to the next level…

…So, in addition to “consumer impressions,” we are increasingly tracking “consumer expressions.” To us, an expression is any level of engagement with our brand content by a consumer or constituent. It could be a comment, a “like,” uploading a photo or video or passing content onto their networks….

[one strategy]…Develop content that is “Liquid and Linked.” Liquid content is creative work that is so compelling, authentic and culturally relevant that it can flow through any medium. Liquid content includes emotionally compelling stories that quickly become pervasive. Similarly, “linked” content is content that is linked to our brand strategies and our business objectives. No matter where consumers encounter it, linked content supports our overall strategy.

via: Harvard Business Review – blog

But there is something even more going on here beside just brilliant marketing, or a seismic shift in corporate strategy towards user loyalty. The machine – even if a ploy – captures something that is happening in the media that it is designed to thrive in. It speaks the language of community building that is binding social media communication together, and perhaps necessarily so. There is the sense in Twitter, or in Facebook that the vastness of these connections, these platforms dwarf us, and we needs the boost up from the person right next to us to make anything out of it. The Coca-Cola Friendship machine performs – even if for only the benefit of a camera and a YouTube viral try – the very mise-en-scene of social media itself, and it does it in symbolic and artist fashion.

The Gift as Essential

Not to be missed is that a gift results in any shared labor to use the machine. A second Coke is dispense. 1 becomes 2. For those that have been following our recent conversation on Gift Economy and Gift Economy logic in social media, it is no coincidence that a gift result is the outcome and focus of Coke’s social experiment. Note, Pepsi attempted to make itself the center of gift-giving in a very different, I would say less powerful way. Gift is the creation of positive debt that binds community together in a symbolism of surplus. The Coke machine becomes the locus for gift giving, creating a micro circuit that cements the brand as not only the goal, but the means and the space. That this is done for a 3rd eye, the camera, to be poured into social media platforms is really evidence of the intimacy of connection between Gift Economy thinking and social media itself. This is what is special about social media. It has created a powerful nexus of sharable affects under the distinct values of Gift Economy logic, and it is not completely clear if Coca-Cola is using social media here, or if social media is using Coca-Cola.

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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

blogging is voice gifting

social media as gift giving, potlash

The Gifts of Voice-giving

I’m working on how to present to a new client crew the “how” of blogging. All of social media involves something that in the past I’ve suspected is best described as a Gift Economy “social media is like buying beers: the gift economy in social media” – (as opposed to a strict quid pro quo equality market economy). In Gift Economies the donor achieves status by sharing her or his status, i.e. wealth. This can be money, food, knowledge, symbolic powers of any kind. And the recipient takes on a mysteriously strong, never exactly repayable, bond of obligation through the receipt of this donation.

This is how social media works, to a rather pronounced degree I believe. And there are two things that are donated. At one level the donation is one’s – or a company’s – resources to the site as a contribution (be it Twitter, or blogging, or Facebook) making those resources available to others as readers. This is the aspect that most explicitly is thought of as “sharing”. These can be anything from points of view, to inside information, to the power to entertain. But additionally, in a second turn, one donates the platform of the site itself.  That is you donate the authority of your voice, your brand name, to whomever you quote, or highlight, or forward. And as such you donate your audience as well.

And so blogging is like this. It is about establishing these two levels of donation. The first is a vertical donation to the readers, however modest the wealth is in the content, and here the truism “content is King” works. The second is a more horizontal donation in the sense that a space, an authorized space, is offered up to others who inhabit it, conferring importance to every comment and hosted piece of content derived from somewhere else. This double sense of donation is what grounds blogging. The one that is often systematically less thought about is the second one, the way in which a generated space is offered to others, encouraging them to contribute to it as well. In this respect your site lifts up and propels others through its donation, and this is reciprocated in turn, through a sense of mutual investment.

When you comment on someone else’s blog post, you donate your little bit of status to their site.

When you quote a blog post in your own content, sharing it with your readers, you do the same.

When you host comments, and interact with them, your site offers itself to a sociability, a place for something to happen.