Sharing, Gifting, and the Moral Evolution of the Social Web

People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does. — Michel Foucault

What do we do on the social web? When I say ‘social web’, I am thinking firstly of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, though collaborative projects (like Wikipedia), blogs and microblogs, content communities (like TripAdvisor), virtual game worlds, and news sites and magazines with comment feeds and share functionality count as well.

Essentially, there are three things that we do on the social web: we consume content, we share content, and we gift content. These three activities correspond to three phases in the evolution of the social web.

The first generation web (Web 1.0) was designed for content consumption. Users built static web pages using GeoCities or AOL Hometown on which they posted content to build online profiles and promote their businesses.

The second generation web (Web 2.0) was designed for sharing content. Sharing is a distributive concept. I have some data— I share it with you. If you share your data with me, we have a win-win situation.

Sharing is as old as the internet — although it is not the only way that people have thought about life online. Facebook made ‘sharing’ the lingua franca of the social age, in 2006, when it launched the share button. Facebook’s mission is ‘to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected’. By branding ‘sharing’ as a master concept and behavior, Facebook made sharing central to the mindset and architecture of the social web.

These days, when we think about life online, it’s all about ‘sharing’. This has created the perception that sharing is all the social web is good for. I think this is a grand mistake. The concept of sharing blinds us to the moral potential of the social web, gifting.

The discourse of ‘sharing’ focuses our attention on the mechanics of distribution. It says nothing about the moral intentions and psychological rewards that make social sharing satisfying and define thriving online communities. It tells us nothing about what makes activities online rewarding and engaging for people. It says nothing more about the web than what we’ve essentially always known about the internet — that it is a damn fine platform for moving data around.

Sharing is cool, but it’s not the potential of the web. The potential of the web as a connective tissue for human beings is gifting — that is, sharing for impact.

Gifting is mindful sharing. Often we share content online without thinking too much about it. We might think: ‘I enjoyed that, so I’ll put it out there for others to enjoy’. But sharing doesn’t entail that we think carefully about who might enjoy this content and how it might benefit them. Gifting, by contrast, entails sharing with the conscious intent of positively impacting a specific community, feeding it, furthering its ambitions, nourishing it with goodness.

Gifting has always been a crucial element of online culture. Gifting was the salient cultural feature identified by social web pioneer Howard Rheingold in his reflections on the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), published as The Virtual Community (1993). The concept of gifting is also central to Eric S. Raymond’s analysis of open source culture in The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999). Raymond’s forceful and convincing account of hacker gift culture in this book has been overshadowed by his notorious ‘wingnut tendencies in the wake of 9/11’. While Linux today is mostly coded by well-paid engineers, Raymond’s ‘reputation game’ analysis goes a long way toward explaining the vitality of the open source movement, in which hackers compete to make impactful contributions that benefit their communities.

Gifting requires a transparent environment in which everyone can see what everyone else is contributing. In transparent communities bound together by common interests and concerns, a dynamic play of gifts tends to emerge organically. When people feel invested in a community, they get an intrinsic sense of pleasure from being noticed for their mindful contributions to the community. Hackers call this ‘egoboo’. Egoboo is the hit of pleasure that we experience when we are recognized for our volunteer contributions.

It feels good to do good. But gifting has more tangible rewards than egoboo. Gifting can have social and reputational rewards as well. StackOverflow, a question-answer site for programmers, is a great example of this. StackOverflow’s members post technical questions on the site for the community to answer. A user voting system ranks the best answers, enabling the most knowledgeable and experienced programmers to earn reputation points and develop community status. The reputation scores that users develop on StackOverflow can be used to score programming work. In 2011, StackOverflow launched a careers section to enable programmers to use their reputation scores to promote themselves to potential employers.

To say that the top ranked contributors on StackOverflow ‘share’ their knowledge with the community is true but trivial. StackOverflow is a platform for gifting. The art of composing a good answer on StackOverflow is to reflect carefully on the question before posting a response. Is this a question that matters? Will answering it well benefit a large number of people? What does this person really need to know? How can I draw on my specific expertise to solve this person’s problem and create value for the whole community?

These questions reflect a gifting mindset. Gifting is motivated by the desire to earn ‘reputation capital’ — community reputation and esteem. This reputation capital doesn’t need to be codified in points. Most gift-based reputation systems are informal, in the sense that reputation is registered in the ‘likes’, comments, and re-shares of community members. Facebook ought to be the ideal space for this kind of activity. By making everything that is posted visible to a crowd, Facebook creates an environment in which people can share for impact and earn reputation capital in return. I see this as the moral potential of Facebook. But Facebook undercuts its potential by framing exchanges as acts of sharing. This creates an impoverished view of exchanges. It encourages people to post content indiscriminately, with little or no thought to the tribes that they belong to and how their posts contribute to them and benefit them.

Medium does a better job of promoting gifting behaviors. It achieves this by gathering users into communities defined by common interests and concerns. By tagging a few topics, readers can key into unfolding debates and receive a regular feed of posts on issues that concern them. The upside for bloggers is that they can write material intended for a specific audience and get it in front of people who are interested in this content. Connecting readers and bloggers, the system works to create transparent communities of interest.

This promotes a mindful approach to creating valuable content. Instead of simply firing ideas into the ether, the best contributors to Medium post content that is specifically intended to benefit their communities of interest. These contributors are also readers, and aware of topical conversations and debates on the site. They post content with a view to progressing these conversations and debates. They are sharing for impact and enjoying reputational rewards. It is not surprising that many bloggers are shifting to Medium to participate in the informal reputation economy on the site.

The moral evolution of the social web doesn’t require a rebuild. It would be wonderful to see more gift-based communities like StackOverflow online. Everyone who cares about quality engagement online hopes that the path of technological innovation will promote mindful sharing and gift-based reputation systems. But the infrastructure of the social web enables these acts and exchanges already. What we need is cultural innovation. We need a philosophical evolution in the way that we think about sharing online in order to focus ourselves on creating valuable content and flourishing environments.

This is a task that we all can contribute to. We have these incredible platforms for social sharing. It is time to ask: what do we want to achieve with them? Is the future of the social web to be an endless cycle of trivial posts and ‘me too’ shares? Or do we want to evolve the culture of social sharing beyond sharing toward co-creative gifting, where people feel invested in building communities gift by gift, proactively advancing a common mission or cause?

One thing is clear: we cannot capture this activity using the language of sharing. We need the discourse of gifting and gift economics to appreciate the moral potential of the social web and create online communities based in trust, reputation, collaboration, and creativity.