commerce is necessarily social – micro post

It came up in some of the comments as I relayed a story about a pineapple street vendor my wife and I stopped buying from in Thailand: my realization that commerce is always social. There often are suppressed social components (emotional investments, norms of reciprocity, identifications, assumed shared values, etc) in purchases. Which is to say they are operating, but we are not always aware of them. In fact we usually only become aware of them when they are violated. This social dimension is why marketing and social media actually braid so well, commerce is social. The problem of course comes with business culture self-interest, a deep and lasting expectation that commerce is not social. It is asocial: that businesses are pre-disposed to not caring, and in fact being anti-community. We in social media fight between these two predispositions.

[micro posts should be a one thought kernel, easily considered, I hope.]


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

vectors of a gift – gift economy

I’m a pretty visual person, so I’m putting this up as a place holder for future thought. Yesterday I sketched out for myself my four fundamental aspects of a Gift. What we mean by gift is this: an inexactly repayable exchange whose very unending obligation perpetuates the relationship in a kind of positive debt which can pass back and forth between persons. This in a hidden way can be said to underwrite more exact market economy exchanges.

The idea diagrammed above is that if we isolate these (or some other) constitutive vectors we might be able to analyze gift-giving scenarios, and seek to strengthen their effectiveness and bonds when we build them for commerce. Whether they be crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, freemium, open-innovation, organized charity donations, blogging behaviors, social medium spaces, Digital Tribe building (such as currently being done with #usguys hashtag), product giveaways, or any of the other social marketing-like issues, we are looking for constant dimensions to keep our eye on.

These four juxtaposed terms are a placeholder. It works as a promise for me to return and explain what I mean by these terms. But also it is a chance for anyone who has been involved in the conversation on Gift Economy to think about the diagram, and come up with what it might mean to them. Right now it will remain a pictographic theory. Provisional, of course, but perhaps it gives a sense of the space I am thinking in.

Interested in your impressions. The hope is to think about Gift Economies in every way, from story telling, to anthropology, to abstract theorizing, but end up with real world observations and real world differences that can be made, in particular to the new Social Media. How to make Gift Giving and customer/user contribution more central and powerful.

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

more on brands as persons: facebook’s news feed of brands & pages

Just a brief follow-up from yesterday’s post on how brands can now act as persons, again drawing from the example of my wife’s fan page. Facebook has provided businesses all the tools to start building a person-like series of relationship building actions. As mentioned previously: liking pages, wall-posting on pages, and commenting in threads (not mentioned before: including the “@” attribution in your own post and thereby simultaneously posting to a brand or fan wall). One of these new tools is that Facebook has given your fan page its very own News Feed – found on the Home Tab – where all the recent and top posts of fan pages you have liked are conveniently found. It is like a b2b (brand to brand) mini-Facebook interface. What seems implicit is that Facebook hopes that businesses will not only start b2b relationships through likes of fan pages, but also begin time-sensitive habits of feed watching, just like a person would. Through your News Feed you can respond in kind, “liking” posts or comments, finding topic-friendly avenues for interaction, promoting affinities between not only companies, but also admins and followers of those branded pages. In this way Facebook potentially becomes significantly more like Twitter. What Facebook is thinking that fan pages will develop a “page stream” that becomes a central part of how they interact across the FB social space.

The one serious problem that Facebook fan pages struggled with was that there was no pulse, no sense of back and forth connection on many of their incarnations. Businesses took them to be broadcast pages that you pulled people into. What makes Facebook (and social media in general) dynamic is that each node, each person, was a doorway to other things happening. One sometimes like to “over hear” an interaction, and then slowly step into it. The triangle of communication – the other, third person – is fundamental. That’s how social media grows.

fluffy social media words and the OODA loop

New Loops

Matt Riding’s @techguerilla – guest blog posted over at Amber’s new site Brass Tack Thinking, talked about his struggle with fluffier of the Social Media terms that seemingly have to be used to communicate it’s message, an excerpt of the opening paragraphs:

I have an aversion to “fluff”. I don’t mean that jar of creamy marshmallow awesomeness that sometimes sits in your pantry, I mean those words that get thrown around that sound great but rarely contain much actionable value.

Social Media gets far more than its fair share of this type of language, and that’s to be expected, after all a big part of social media is about relationship building. Where relationships are concerned words like “significance”, “harmony”, “trust”, “being real” are par for the course. But when I write them (and I do) a little shiver goes down my spine and I can feel the bile rise in my throat. My body reacts as if I’m a lifelong vegan who has decided to shove these words made of cow parts down my gullet.

Are these words really ‘bad’ however? Do they really only contain feel-good rainbows formed from the glitter ashes of old hippies? I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the issue isn’t the words, or even the meaning of the words, but rather how they are applied to an objective.

from Fluffy Words Are Bad, Mmmkay? (Or Are They?) | Brass Tack Thinking.

Matt and I had a brief back and forth in the comments section, mostly me trying to get a point across regarding how businesses regard “control”, one that he likely already agreed with. My general thought was that while it might be effective to tell business that Social media is merely giving business a new method to achieve old aims, it is deeper than that and that Social Media business prescription is about excavating many of the old assumptions of the values implied in business, and thus the aims of those assumptions. A lot of this has to do with how culturally we have come to think about top-down control, and they way we esteem it.

What came to mind for me in terms of the shift in how we think about control was John Boyd’s OODA loop, a model of cognition that has had great currency in certain business strategy quarters, but has perhaps even greater application in Social Media marketing contexts. Here is the OODA loop wikipedia entry. For those who don’t know – and this post is mostly for you – John Boyd has become something of a think-guru for some, largely because he brought Japanese business models and ancient Asian military philosophy to bear upon what many would consider the most result-oriented, top-down industry in the world: the United States military, and he did so in a way that emphasized information processing and the articulation of technologies. His relative success there gives his ideas a certain impressiveness, an aura, when talking about things civilian. I’m not a Boydist by any stretch, but I do think his model extremely illuminating.

There are many aspects to John Boyd’s approach to warfare, most of them having to do with increases in feedback speed and decision making in the age of information processing. Boyd was a fighter pilot with supposedly an incredible kill-ratio, and he felt that dexterity and rate of feedback was key to winning in the theater of war. A nimble, more lightly armed fighter jet was preferable to heavy, powerfully armed fighter jets. Beneath Boyd’s recommendations of de-centralized, loosely organized, mobile units of action in communication (much of which has been adopted by the new military), is a more abstract concept of cognition itself, what he called the OODA Loop. What is interesting about this model is that it is easily extended beyond the person or animal (organism), into technological interfaces or social structures and organizations. It allows us to trace the circuits of observation and decision that make up effective action.

It is not a be all and end all concept, but rather in Social Media perhaps a helpful concept base, or model by which to illustrate how important “inter-action” is to business.

I offer here only the briefest summation of what essentially is an elemental picture of the world and selves. Above is a simplified version of the OODA loop the fuller version of which is found at the top of this post.  For those who would like to look at a more in depth presentation of the loop for business Henrik Mårtensson’s blog, Kallokain, which has an excellent overview of the main OODA principles involved as they pertain to business. I would love to discuss this model in terms of Social Media itself and all the internal dynamics it proposes, especially the cultural ones, but for now this post is mostly a cursory one of introduction for those is unfamiliar with Boyd’s loop, and perhaps a first exploration of the value of that model for Social Media business thinking.

What is helpful about John Boyd’s fighter-pilot loop is that it is continuous. All cognition, whether it be business corporate structures pursuing market share, or an amoeba scooting along towards a sugar solution, comes down to this circle of observation to act and back. One could easily call it the  Circle of Life without much exaggeration. What this means for Social Media in business should be apparent. Social Media connections are an increase in speed, breadth and if properly run, cycle between the businesses informed decisions and its living environment (customers, cultural event contexts). Boyd felt that the faster the cycle can be completed and repeated, coupled to the depth of its comprehension and review, the more intelligent and aware the agent became (and therefore more self-determining). Domination of the theater was not the domination of sheer, applied power, like big guns blasting. It as a domination of awareness and maneuverability, being able cover more ground, more quickly, with greater flexibility.

What Social Media for business implies is a whole different set of eyes, sense organs, that can be plugged into the decision cycle. Unfortunately you cannot just connect up a different mode of sensing and expect to be able to suddenly “see” with it. Many of the processes and values that may have worked well under past modes of business command and control maybe obsolete or antithetical to the fine tune of what one is perceiving in a social media context. And this is where John Boyd’s OODA loop comes in handy. It lets us know that whatever we were doing (successfully or not) has ALWAYS been composed of OODA cycles. And that the new interconnections with the commerce environment are merely changes in frequency and modes of observe, orient, decide, and act. This though can involve serious changes in the culture of how we process information, self-reflection on our assumptions about how we can control our outcomes, and the acquisition of new habits of orientation and decision making.

When we talk about the changes in our behaviors towards customers or users, the language we use that evokes a change in method or even principle, it may help to grasp at a larger more conceptual level the advantages that are offered by the new media and new technologies, as well as better position the kind of revolutions of value that we have to undergo in order to most take advantage of them.

Next: what the OODA loop means for the “social” in Social Media, what happens when your customers/users are already in social media loops such as facebook or twitter?