Facebook as a Potlatch

Are you familiar with the concept of a gift economy? It’s an interesting alternative to the market economy in a lot of less developed cultures. I’ll contribute something and give it to someone, and then out of obligation or generosity that person will give something back to me. The whole culture works on this framework of mutual giving. The thing that binds those communities together and makes the potlatch work is the fact that the community is small enough that people can see each other’s contributions. But once one of these societies gets past a certain point in size the system breaks down. People can no longer see everything that’s going on, and you get freeloaders. When there’s more openness, with everyone being able to express their opinion very quickly, more of the economy starts to operate like a gift economy. It puts the onus on companies and organizations to be more good, more trustworthy. It’s changing the ways that governments work. A more transparent world creates a better-governed world and a fairer world.

Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Facebook

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

25 thoughts on “Facebook as a Potlatch

  1. “out of obligation or generosity that person will give something back to me.” That’s a barter economy.

    If I am not mistaken, in a gift economy, you don’t expect anything back from the person you give to.

  2. Interesting to consider Facebook, YouTube, blogs and other internet phenomenon in which people give something out, and graze from the output of others as analogous to ceremonial gifting. Blogs in particular take enormous amounts of time (like pottery or quilting blogs with extensive information, demos, instructions, all put on the web for no direct return).

  3. Ah, Kerim, I knew I stole the idea of a short vaguely misstated snippet regarding Facebook and Anthropology from somebody.

    @Bishop. Yes, free digital labor, what we give and what we get as we produce billions of use value— welcome to my dissertation

  4. Wow, that’s quite a leap from a (poorly categorized) “gift economy” to a call to give corporations your personal data in today’s capitalist economy! Anthropology (or pseudo-anthropology) as justification and advertising for capitalist enterprises! Just what we need!

    My suggestion is that a knowledgeable anthropologist should post something (on Facebook!) exposing this for the baloney that it is. Its easy for us to make fun of such nonsense among ourselves, but it will do more good to get this out beyond anthropology.

  5. Yeah we need someone to write a post explaining why this common misperception of potlatch is wrong. One of the anthro 101 points about potlatch (in at least one of its historical forms) is that it demonstrates the way giving is an agressive, differentiating act, not an agape-filled solidarity-making one.

  6. Well, to me, the fact that Zuckerberg got the potlatch wrong is less significant than his use of gemeinschaft to further his commercial goals. Pointing out the first error is fine, but it doesn’t really address the main point.

  7. Well, to me, the fact that Zuckerberg got the potlatch wrong is less significant than his use of gemeinschaft to further his commercial goals. Pointing out the first error is fine, but it doesn’t really address the main point.

    It depends on your standpoint. Advertisers have been trying to convince us that consumption creates community for so long that some are going to find a retread of the theme pretty ho-hum, while pushing people to get the basics right when they talk about Indians might well be the definition of significance for someone from a Native American community.

  8. I guess I see Facebook as somehow more insidious than most commercial enterprises. They aren’t saying “buy this” but rather “just give us a bit more information about yourself, and providing information is a good thing.” And many or most users don’t seem to view FB as a business, but rather as some kind of neutral organization that users have some kind of influence over.

  9. IRONY WARNING! SERIOUS QUESTION

    They aren’t saying “buy this” but rather “just give us a bit more information about yourself, and providing information is a good thing.”

    And how, precisely, does this differ from doing ethnography?

  10. Well, if the information collected on FB will be used to further human knowledge (i.e., that it is a form of scientific research), and if FB is governed by some kind of generally accepted professional standards (such as the AAA code of ethics or IRB guidelines) for assuring anonymity, not exploiting or harming subjects, non-commercialization of data, etc., then perhaps FB is just an ethnographic organization.

    Now I am not an ethnographer, and perhaps a more perceptive and nuanced discussion of John’s question would be interesting and informative.

  11. Nice response.

    Anonymity? Clearly not. Facebook is all about public presentation of self (albeit publics of different scale, friends vs everyone).

    Not exploiting or harming subjects? An interesting question, this. A lawyer might ask if FB is what they law calls an “attractive nuisance,” creating a situation in which people may harm themselves or others by what they reveal.

    Non-commercialization of data? What exactly do we mean by this? What about data generated in medical research that preserves anonymity and avoids exploitation or harm.What, then, of the status of EPIC (Ethnographic Praxis in Corporations)? I am, serendipitously, signed up to attend the next EPIC conference, which will be in Tokyo August 29-Sept1.

  12. Gentlemen, I implore you to withhold judgment on how corrupt, capitalistic, or un-ethnographic FB is. The company could have walked away with 10-50 billion at any point in the last several years. It is Mark Zuckerberg’s commitment—idealistic and impossible as it is—to make the world a better place through information-identity transparency that keeps the company intact and following this path towards a half a billion global users. I’ve fallen pray to beating these giant IT companies with the whip of Marx; it is easy to critique them as stealing information for private gain. But I’ve begun to see that as entirely unanthropological. We need to first deal with constructing a raw description based on available documents, accounts, and observations of this immensely important digital media firm and its associated practices. This interview paragraph I presented to you is a remarkable window into an intelligent, concerned, and anthropological soul. All data suggests that social worth trumps corporate gain in this particular company. As an anthropologist struggling to understand this disruptive social technology such debates on whether it is ‘ethnographically’ viable or ‘potlatchity’ accurate miss the point of first struggling to see this corporation as it is in its reflexive imaginaire.

  13. As an anthropologist struggling to understand this disruptive social technology such debates on whether it is ‘ethnographically’ viable or ‘potlatchity’ accurate miss the point of first struggling to see this corporation as it is in its reflexive imaginaire.

    And this misses the point that for many Native Americans the primary struggle is killing the White Man’s Indian. That the construct may well be well-intentioned does not make it benign.

  14. “But I’ve begun to see that as entirely unanthropological. We need to first deal with constructing a raw description based on available documents, accounts, and observations of this immensely important digital media firm and its associated practices.”

    While I have no opinion on Zuckerberg as a person, and have little knowledge outside the anecdotal (all bad), I think this statement is something we should all think about and strive for. Not just with FB, but with all like entities or corporations. Too many anthropologists spend their days theorizing about assumptions, rather than gathering empirical facts.

  15. “…debates on whether it is ‘ethnographically’ viable or ‘potlatchity’ accurate miss the point of first struggling…”

    Maybe — but zeroing in on how folks might mis-read or mis-understand what ‘gift economies’ are like would nevertheless help clarify precisely in what that ‘reflexive imaginaire’ consists. Zuckerberg’s comment is animated by the gift/good, commodity/bad logic that underpins many Euro-American takes on what anthropologists sometimes call reciprocity, especially the takes of people who like to imagine themselves as having an ‘anthropological soul’. Zuckerberg’s ‘gift’ is more of a ‘present’ than a prestation. Perhaps he thinks social relations are nice things to have! (Those trapped inside the obligations that often characterize various kinds of ceremonial exchange often have a rather different take: How do I get these people off my back?) As a century or so of ethnography has taught us, gift economies can be just as agonistic and exploitative, not to mention deceptive and crafty, as can those economies governed by neoliberal or market imperatives.

    I am actually unsure about what is being discussed here, however. Are we talking about ‘transparency’ with respect to the company’s interests, concerns, motives, tactics, and so on? Are we talking about corporations ‘going public’? Or are we talking about the ‘going public’ that characterizes the ways that individuals use Facebook? Is it the corporate ‘imaginaire’ that is being discussed, or the public’s?

  16. Did you say gift economy?

    You are dead on about how the internet creates the possibility for a gift economy of unlimited size. CouchSurfing is a gift economy of hospitality that spans the world.

    I’m currently building a site to support a gift economy open to all goods and services. Its called GiftFlow.org, check it out!

    We are still in development, so it doesn’t work completely, but online gift economies are what its alll about!

    -h

  17. Hm. I just posted at my blog about some tangentially-facebook stuff.

    http://everydayimponderabilia.blogspot.com/2010/08/on-imaginary-cosmopolitanism-gifts-and.html

    in terms of gift economies online, i do think the important category of analysis is time or temporality. in the post, i point out that the valence of the ‘gift’ may be different on facebook. how much time do we invest in ‘sharing’ things online? we (often without thinking too much) post a news story or comment or a status and, if we’ve said something interesting enough to a wide enough swath of our individualized audiences, are rapidly ‘gifted’ comments, responses, or a thumbs up. in real life, time appears as or seems slower. returns take longer and are diluted (“liking” online may stand in for a whole spectrum of semi-positive or nominally negative affects) through awkward interactions, fear of confrontation, etc…

    Derrida, in Given Time, says: time destroys the gift “through keeping, restitution, reproduction, the anticipatory expectation or apprehension that grasps or comprehends in advance.” Perhaps, then, facebook exchanges threaten the impossibility of the gift. “Gifts” (as gestures on facebook, as things put out into the world on facebook) are given new life via the dissipation of intention, calculation, anticipation of return. They are gifts precisely because we don’t seem them exactly as “gifts” in the first place. Well, maybe.

    I wonder how to think about the idea of “big men,” for example, on facebook. Is a “big man” one who has many “friends?” I think this is what I liked so much about the Zuckerman TED talk I posted on my blog— the idea that “friending” is perhaps operating as “imaginary cosmopolitanism” or that increasing connectivity is a form without content. Anneliese Riles writes about “networking for the sake of networking;” this uncritical assignment of the moniker “good” to more networks, more collaboration, more information is one I think anthropology should have a lot to say about.

  18. In line with Adam’s call for raw description, I went to Facebook and examined how I’ve been using it. For the record, this informant is white, male, aged 66, moderately well off and enormously fortunate in his marriage and child.

    For me FB has renewed contacts with old acquaintances and family members, many of whom I would have, otherwise, lost contact. Speaking of gift’s, I was moved to send my Aunt Geef (my father’s youngest sister) a bouquet to celebrate her 80th birthday. I won’t be at the party my Georgia cousins are throwing, but can, at least, be there in spirit.

    FB has also given me a window with a different view of my daughter’s life, the things that she and her friends talk about and the way that they interact with each other. This is possible because the daughter allows me to be an FB friend.

    There is also a certain pleasure in passing on the details of everyday life–e.g. my recent summer cold–and receiving advice and good wishes.

    Facebook is also useful as a way of passing on political messages or political or other news that I find worthwhile, an easy way to participate in wider, albeit less intimate communities.

    On the privacy issue, my view of FB is essentially that of my view of the Internet. If you speak up in a public place, your words are out there. Discretion and tact are required as is prudence in what you reveal.

    As someone who, both as anthropologist and adman, has made a career of piecing together bits and pieces of information for various nefarious purposes, I am not obsessively paranoid about how my information is used. I can, however, understand how those who are still pursuing lives and careers might want to be more careful.

  19. Somehow I doubt that. But If I were Chris Kelty, early in what seems likely to be a highly successful career, I’d probably quit FB, too. Together, we may, I suggest, point to an interesting and researchable question, the varying significance of FB to people of different ages, life stages and generations.

  20. “As a century or so of ethnography has taught us, gift economies can be just as agonistic and exploitative, not to mention deceptive and crafty, as can those economies governed by neoliberal or market imperatives.”

    Very true. My first direct experience with this was in Japan. People get into gift giving cycles that basically become like competitions, and are all very formalized even when a spirit of competition isn’t involved. I was married in a traditional Japanese wedding and all of the people that were invited had a set amount expected from them: 100 dolls. from friends, and 500 dolls. from family and very close friends. Because of this, people usually don’t want to be invited unless they are very close. My wife then took all of the money and went out and bought a gift for everyone that came with roughly 50% of the cash gift. So 100 dolls. became a 50 dollar return gift. These cycles last during lifelong relationships and tie people together in bonds of reciprocity and obligation. I first felt like it was a suffocating system until I realized what was happening.
    I asked her about it further and she told me that when she was a flight attendant for JAL, all the ladies had spaces where they would put gifts they would buy each other on trips. People could gauge how popular others where, how generous some girls were, and most importantly who didn’t get gifts. So, the act at once solidified or repaired social bonds and obligations, and stigmatized for unwanted behavior. There are other examples, but I think that’s good. It was this experience that helped me understand Bourdieu’s concept of the “gift” years later when I studied it.

    It’s usually more about what the gift signals to others, than what the gift is materially. A gift of one’s social presence in public places or around others is also a very subtle signal to people. Few American’s outside of the military understand how important it is to a person’s reputation, trust from others, and self worth how many people choose to sit next to you at breakfast when you eat with the same people everyday for months at a time. This most likely is a very crucial aspect of evolutionary behavior.

  21. Primero que nada, la economía del don esta basada en una triple obligación, la de Dar Recibir y Devolver. Tiene dos facetas la Reciprocidad Positiva y la Otra la Reciprocidad Negativa.
    Facebook se basa en una combinación primaria entre Reciprocidad Positiva y Economía de Intercambio, en especial en los juegos estilo Farmville

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