The Gift, and the Spirit of the Word

“In the economic and legal systems that have preceded our own, one hardly ever finds a simple exchange of goods, wealth, and products in transactions concluded by individuals. First, it is not individuals but collectivities that impose obligations of exchange and contract upon each other.” Marcel Mauss, The Gift

The girl is married to the boy. He receives a gift from the girl’s parents. It belongs to him now and to his family. The families, by means of the gift, are bound, as are the girl and the boy. His family, by means of the gift, is bound by the obligation of reciprocity to hers. The gift, given to him, establishes a line of credit back to her family.

The gift anchors the line that will bind the two families, opening a conduit for exchange of foodstuffs, tools, and mutual help. The gift symbolizes a relationship of gift and debt, and of mutual obligations. It is the act through which the tribal economy maintains relationships on the basis of debts and obligations.

The gift belongs to what was called by French anthropologist Marcel Mauss a system of “total economic exchange.” It is a system in which all relationships, between men and women, between families, and among objects, belong to one single social system. it is an economy in which exchanges belong to relationships. Ceremonies and rituals of the gift serve to maintain those relationships, and to guarantee their perpetuation.

These archaic societies were bound by tradition. They looked back, not ahead. Past rites and rituals were honored and reenacted in order to preserve social order and cultural identity. And, most importantly, to determine the tribe’s relationships and social order. Objects and things were, their utility aside, a means of reproducing relationships. They were truly social objects.

In the tribal gift exchange, it is not the gift that is given but the relationship that is maintained. Giving the gift creates debt, and a debt creates obligation:

“The taonga and all goods termed strictly personal possess a hau, a spiritual power. You give me one of them, and I pass it on to a third party; he gives another to me in turn, because he is impelled to do so by the hau my present possesses. I, for my part, am obliged to give you that thing because I must return to you what is in reality the effect of the hau of your taonga.” Marcel Mauss, The Gift

Of course that was then, and this is now. We don’t have a gift economy. We have an exchange economy. Capital mediates our exchanges: things have a price, the price is paid with money, and the transaction creates no obligations among those participating. Relationships are not bound by economic exchange, but exist separately, to be maintained or negotiated around opportunities and commitments.

Our culture looks ahead, not back. It chooses to forego tradition for the opportunity and possibility of tomorrow. It is not closed, but open. It uses contracts, agreements, markets, and less formal commitments and norms to negotiate relationships.

And in the age of communication, in which mediated interactions supply enormous opportunities and possibilities for transactions and exchanges, but for relationships, too, conversation itself is becoming the new symbolic form of exchange. Our markets operate today not just on goods and their exchange, not just on discrete transactions, but on open-ended talk, conversation, and interaction.

Talk becomes our means of connecting: to the possibilities of relationships, and to opportunities for exchange. Talk that is not a closed off ritual of ceremonial traditions, but talk that sustains the radical open-ness and very future of our forward-leaning society.

In social media, our talk, too, involves gifts, exchanges, and relationships. But our gifts are an offer, not a debt. And an offer can be accepted, refused, or held open. We use gestures, statements, messages, and symbolic tokens — all elements of the medium. All media artifacts. Artifacts that capture our individual claims but which can be distributed and disseminated, recognized and acknowledged, and picked up by others.

Our conversations are rich, open, and forever new and renewing. They look ahead, not behind. They contain our appeals, to one another, to peers, friends, to communities, and yes, to the public. They can be found, searched, indexed. And of course, they connect and can be connected. And through them we connect to conversations, to things said and offered; and to each other, for a moment, for a short while, or for a long time.

Our talk is our medium of exchange. it is personal and self-expression, but it is in front of people we know and people we could know. It is an appeal, contingent as all events are in our age, on their acceptance by some other, free, and interested individual.

We talk among friends, and our talk is often friendly. Friendship is the nature of our relationships — not tribes, cults, guilds, or factions. Not ruling classes, secret societies, or even institutional elites. Friendship is our offer and friendliness our offering. It is open, and it looks ahead. Our conversations are friendly, and we are for the most part kind to one another. And in kindness we find our mutual interest; in reciprocity, our generosity and our commitment to the open, and to the future.

And in social media we organize these relationships of friendship. We find ways to sediment them into a soft social commitment, a face to wear, a software to to socialize relationships and markets around friendship. We are drawn to the ways that best suit us, the audiences that reflect us, and the communities that embrace us. It is our way, our way forward, paths intersecting and traced ephemerally along lines of trust and arcs of friendship.

The gift is open, the gift is everywhere. The gift is our talk, our interest, and our interface. It is what connects when we respond, when our response is an offer, an offer to talk. The gift and its spirit return, and are in our world.

The gift is all. The gift is trust. Our future is open. We must speak and be friends. It is the world. And we must give our world our word.

Note: This blog post belongs to a series on “status culture.” The posts examine status updates, facebook activity feeds, news feeds, twitter, microblogging, lifestreaming, and other social media applications and features belonging to conversation media. My approach will be user-centric as always, and tackle usability and social experience issues (human factors, interaction design, interface design) at the heart of social interaction design. But we will also use anthropology, sociology, psychology, communication and media theories. Perhaps even some film theory.
The converational trend in social networking sites and applications suggests that web 2.0 is rapidly developing into a social web that embraces talk (post IM, chat, and email) in front of new kinds of publics and peer groups. User generated content supplied to search engines is increasingly produced conversationally. Social media analytics tools provide PR and social media marketing with means to track and monitor conversations. Brands are interested in joining the conversation feeds, through influencers as well as their own twitter presence.
This changing landscape not only raises interesting issues for developers and applications (such as the many twitter third party apps), but for social practices emerging around them. So we will look also at design principles for conversation-based apps, cultural and social trends, marketing trends, and other examples of new forms of talk online.
These blog posts will vary in tenor, from quick reflections on experiences to more in-depth approaches to design methodology for conversational social media.

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  • Giordano Bruno

    Once I had a potlatch party where every guest could select an LP of his/her choice and take it home. It might be interesting for you to read Bataille’s _Accursed Share_, where he speaks of “reckless expenditure” as productive of rank, prestige, social standing. Bataille’s work takes Mauss and extends it in several interesting directions.

  • adrian chan

    Are you suggesting that twitter amounts to reckless expenditure? ;-)

    I don’t know Bataille well enough, but that seems spot on. Baudrillard took the notion of excess and surplus to communication in Ecstasy of Communication. The model works if communication is symbolic form. Yes.

    And as we know, prestation, status, and rank are certainly organizing principles on twitter. What is then involved in the potlatch? Attention? Sacrifice of one’s attention?

  • http://theparallaxview.com Russell

    For Bataille the potlatch was essential, a sort of splendid splurge of the surplus. As I recall it's not negative in the way that contemporary eco critiques describe consumption, it's an integral part of any exchange based society.