Somebody posted on the Social Media Club New York list a couple days ago, asking why people share. Sharing is a big component of social media and of all Web 2.0 companies, and companies are basically assuming that it’s human nature to share. From open source to Web 2.0 to the Attention Economy, our world is moving towards a model built on the foundation of sharing. The gift economy is starting to flourish, from people blogging relentlessly, to posting their videos on YouTube or their music on MySpace, to freecycling.

So this guy asked why sharing is so prevalent. It’s a critical assumption for these new businesses. Yet for decades, economists have treated people as self-interest maximizing machines – what is the advantage of sharing? People posted several interesting answers on the list, from self-expression to showing off information gathering skills to seeking and identifying like-minded people. But, as usual, I have to get my own ideas in.

The answer I posted on the list, social capital, was undoubtedly influenced by what I was discussing previously. In other words, we share things to build up our standing within our community. We may never cash out that capital, but it’s nice to be in a situation where we feel like we could. My thought experiment to demonstrate the importance of social capital to sharing was to imagine sharing with somebody you will never meet again. There’s no incentive to do so (it’s like the transactional exchange in that respect). Most of us ignore panhandlers on the street, but we would gladly lend or give money to our friends. What’s the difference? I would contend it is that we’re likely to see our friends again, thus there is social capital to be gained.

Social capital does have an element of selfishness. Our brains have evolved to keep track of social favors (as the ultimatum game suggests), and if I do favors for others, then they owe me. I can hoard that social capital and collect favors to use as leverage when needed.

I tend towards that model myself. I like helping other people out, and I hate asking for help. I think it may have something to do with the perceived power differential – the helper is more powerful/skillful/knowledgeable than the helpee. I hate admitting that somebody else knows more than me, so I tend not to ask for favors. Learning to be less arrogant would probably be a good thing, but that’s another story. On a positive note, though, that tendency means I tend to have a plethora of social capital to work with.

Another interesting aspect of social capital is that it does not have to be a direct exchange. This is the “Pay It Forward” or karma concept – that even if I don’t directly get paid back, good things will happen. For instance, I’ve always been open to my friends crashing with me; even if I don’t crash at their place in return, creating a culture of crashing means I can have crash space in lots of places around the country.

I think one of the reasons why we have evolved to keep track of things like social capital is precisely this building of a web of connective bonds. This is how community is formed. Even if A hasn’t done something specifically for B, B may know C for whom A did a favor, and be more favorably inclined towards A as a result. I think community is dependent on this sort of round-robin of social capital. If the community provides nothing to its members, then it’s not a community – it’s just a group of people. This is something I’ve struggled with in the past when failing to build communities – if the community provides no value and doesn’t solve anybody’s problems, then it will not persist. More on this in another post after I think about it some more.

Going back to more mundane examples of sharing, one great reason to share in the Web 2.0 world is for publicity. As Cory Doctorow commented after making his book available for free downloads, “my problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity”. He ended up selling more books because people had passed around the free downloads than he would have if he had been paranoid about privacy. Jonathan Coulton, a musician, makes a similar argument for giving his music away. Heck, I post on this blog partially in the hopes that people will find it and find my ideas interesting.

It’s interesting that a lot of reasons for sharing ultimately lead back to self-interest, from hoarding of social capital to greater publicity. Does self-interest really drive everything? It reminds me a bit of Mancur Olson’s book Power and Prosperity where he derives the evolution of governments from the single hypothesis of self-interest. On the flip side, the gift economy has a long history, as described in a great book called The Gift, by Lewis Hyde which studies the phenomenon from a cultural point of view.

I don’t really have a point here. I wrote most of this post a couple evenings ago, but couldn’t think of a way to tie it all together. After simmering for a couple days, I still don’t have a coherent thesis, but I’m going to post anyway. I think sharing is an interesting topic. I especially think it’s interesting in light of how it is becoming prevalent on the net via peer-to-peer networking, blogging, free downloads, etc. I also think it’s interesting in its contribution to community formation. So, yeah.

2 thoughts on “Sharing

  1. Nice thoughts; I agree with your thinking.

    One thing I’ll add is that altruism toward random strangers does happen, with lower frequency, but it’s a very different beast than doing nice things for your friends. It’s kind of unnatural.

    In my experience, “practicing random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” has its own weird emotional charge that’s hard to explain. I think part of it is that people react very strongly to unexpected/undeserved kindness (and I’m talking things above and beyond normal politeness), so the empathic hit of vicarious happiness is pretty good. And I think maybe part of it is that it gives you this really interesting sense of power over the universe and over your own human nature to do something nice with no expectation of reciprocity at all, just being nice out of spite (well, the opposite), as it were.

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