The online creativity potlatch

Posted by Rob Walker on May 18, 2010
Posted Under: "Social" studies

Further thoughts on the gift glut from Rob Horning:

In The Gift anthropologist Marcel Mauss gave some examples of gift-giving potlatches that culminate in the sheer destruction of value in obligatory ritualized sacrifices: “Sometimes there is no question of receiving return; one destroys simply in order to give the appearance that one has no desire to receive anything back.”

I wonder if something like that happens in social media, where the possibility of reciprocation is destroyed by a surfeit of competitive sharing. Because of the ubiquitous ranking possibilities, gift-giving online can escalate into the destructive orgy of the competitive potlatch, in which participants try to outgive everyone else into submission in order to secure a particular identity. On social media, the potlatch takes the form of outtweeting and outsharing the field, overloading the network with fragments of oneself as seek a ranking. The result is that gifts proffered through social media stop seeming like gifts at all. They become referendums on our identity as we are configuring it in that particular instant. The gifts no longer seem reciprocal; they seem narcissistic. Even though we don’t do it for money, we are still back to producing content, not giving.

But the network is now also supposed to be the space in which non-competitive gifts are to be exchanged. The potlatch preening—the produced content—threatens to crowd out those kinds of gifts. So the gifts don’t get recognized and appreciated in the spirit in which they are given, which may lead to a desperate offering of more of them—at which point they become content. This creaties self-reinforcing destructive spiral. In other words, if everyone is oversharing, everyone has to overshare to try to be heard, but in such an environment no one has the time to listen. Paradoxically, sharing destroys gifts.

Horning, by the way, has previously made great points — see here and here — about how online sharing can be considered a form of immaterial labor that benefits the various entities that aggregate our online gifts/creativity/content/data, and monetize it in various ways.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

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