Brain Bytes #5: Facebook as a Gift Economy

I don’t write many Facebook updates anymore.

That is, of course, an exaggeration. I write plenty of updates, because I’m a millennial and I thrive on constant reassurance and social recognition. But, nonetheless, personal updates comprise an increasingly small proportion of my Facebook interactions, and my feed is now dominated by ‘shares’.

What I’m thinking today is that sharing links, videos, and images on Facebook, especially by private individuals and often through the repurposing of material from commercial sources, functions as an example of what Karen Hellekson has discussed as the gift economy of fandom (2009). Of course, this becomes interesting in fandom because fandom relies predominantly on virtual products and virtual, symbolic, non-tangible, non-economic gifts in any case. In fact, Hellekson quotes Christina Z Ranon’s discussion of fan culture’s self-definition as a non-economic enterprise, due in part to fears around copyright infringement and litigation (Hellekson 2009, p. 114).

Facebook is not exclusively a fan space, though there is certainly a lot of fan activity that goes on within Facebook. However, this notion of gifting, the virtual nature of gifts within a digital space, and gifting as a social (rather than economic) activity all function in Facebook in ways that most of us probably don’t notice day-to-day.

Basically, it all comes down to the idea that sharing or linking some other material, which involves taking an existing post and repurposing it, is a form of gifting. In anthropology, Marcel Mauss discusses the gift as an exchange based around social value, as distinct from trade exchanges which are economically motivated (1990). In other words, when we give a gift, we are actually giving a particular social cue, and our responses to gifts are generally based around their social role rather than the actual practical or economic value of the gift object itself. On Facebook, the link is the gift.

When I share a link that a friend has posted, it’s got a dual social function: on the one hand, it’s an overt expression of interest in the thing being represented and a desire to utilise that thing to strengthen social interactions with my friends list. This is a social ‘call’ that is seeking a response, mostly in an untargeted, bait-on-a-hook kind of way; in this case, I’m less focussed on getting a response from a particular friend than on seeing who reacts and responds, unless of course I have tagged a particular person/s or have posted directly to someone’s wall. This shows the link functioning as a gift, in Maussian terms–it is valueless except when viewed as a form of currency within a social economy. I have expended nothing, except for a small amount of time, to ‘give’ this link to my friends list, but the gift allows for social interaction through gratitude and reciprocation. Ideally, I get something back once I have given this gift.

Sharing a link seems to imply that I value the link itself, the information or event or image that I can now give to other friends. Most people will see links to popular content in their newsfeed from multiple sources, which would seem to diminish the value of a particular link in purely practical terms–after all, I only need that link once in order to follow it. But in social terms (and this is a social media platform, after all), sharing should instead be read as giving value to the link-as-gift. More than just a unidirectional push of information, my link-sharing is an acceptance and acknowledgement of a gift received from a specific person. If I share something that has already been posted by one of my friends, the act of sharing indicates ‘I appreciate the gift that you have passed on to me, and this is my means of expressing gratitude’.

Sharing a link is simultaneously saying ‘thank you’ for a gift and passing that gift on to others, and, in its function as response, it demonstrates my gratitude for that gift by undertaking an action that is equivalent to the original action taken by the giver–it took my friend a certain amount of time, effort, and mouseclicks to share this thing, and I will do the same. In this way, it fulfills a social function and demonstrates my respect and regard for the person, far more than it might relate to my interest in the content of the link itself. And I personally find that my behaviour as a receiver of a gift is far more significant, with regards to socialisation, than my behaviour as gift-giver.

When I pass on a link to my Facebook friends, it is in the hope that they will find some value in it–but it is also an explicit acknowledgement of the shared value of that gift as a connection between myself and the giver. I am perpetuating the gift economy and demonstrating that I value the link’s social worth over its inherent value or content. I guess what I’m saying in the end is, resharing a link is less about the link itself, and more about the socialisation that is enabled by it. Which I think I already knew, and didn’t know I knew.

 

Hellekson, Karen (2009), ‘A Fannish Field of Value: Online Fan Gift Culture’ in Cinema Journal, vol. 48, no. 4, pp. 113-118.

Mauss, Marcel (1990), The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. WD Halls, New York, Norton.

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One thought on “Brain Bytes #5: Facebook as a Gift Economy

  1. Well said! I would have to agree with you—it’s not about the clickable letters that form the link, but about the fact that you chose to upload/share it in the first place.

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