If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Three): The Gift Economy and Commodity Culture

This is part three of an eight part series. The report was written by Henry Jenkins, Xiaochang Li, Ana Domb Krauskopf With Joshua Green. Our research was funded by the members of the Convergence Culture Consortium, including GSDM Advertising, MTV Networks, and Turner Broadcasting. The Gift Economy and Commodity Culture

Spreadability and the Moral Economy

Consumers, both individually and collectively, exert agency in the spreadability model: they are not impregnated with media messages; they select material that matters to them from the much broader array of media content on offer. They do not simply pass along static content; they transform the content so that it better serves their own social and expressive needs. Content does not remain in fixed borders but rather it circulates in unpredicted and often unpredictible directions, not the product of top-down design but rather of a multitude of local decisions made by autonomous agents negotiating their way through diverse cultural spaces.

Consumers do not simply consume; they recommend content they like to their friends who recommend it to their friends who recommend it on down the line. They do not simply "buy" cultural goods; they "buy into" a cultural economy which respects and rewards their participation. Nothing spreads widely in the new digital economy unless it engages and serves the interests of both consumers and producers. Otherwise, the circulation gets blocked by one side or the other, either through corporations constructing road blocks (legal or technical) upon its spread or through consumers refusing to circulate content which fails to serve their interests. Nothing generates value in this new digital economy unless the transaction is seen as meaningful to all involved.

Too often, Web 2.0-era companies speak about creating communities around their products and services, rather than recognizing that they are more often courting existing communities with their own histories, agendas, hierarchies, traditions, and practices. So, rather than talking about the Saturn "community" as a "consumer tribe" (Cova, Kozinets, and Shankar, 2007), we might more productively analyze what the contemporary car company has done to capture the interests and win the loyalty of a hundred year plus history of motorist clubs. The first model implies that Saturn can set the terms for the consumers interactions with the brand. The second suggests the motorist culture created its own values and aspirations which Saturn has to address if it's car is to gain a central place in its social life.

The same is true of fandoms: we tend to discuss them in very limiting terms, often in relation to a single text as in "Trekkers" or "Potterheads," when in fact, fans tend to move nomadically from text to text in the course of their involvement within fan culture. They may be drawn into fandom by a given text but quickly their conversation broadens to include a range of other works also embraced by fellow fans and when their interest in a particular franchise ends, many will shift their fan loyalties to other programmes which satisfy similar needs and interests. As a rule, we are misled when we focus on what media does to people rather than trying to understand what people are doing with media and why. We start from the premise that consumers only help facilitate the circulation of media content when it is personally and socially meaningful to them, when it enables them to express some aspect of their own self-perception or enables valued transactions that strengthen their social ties with others.

Courting communities is tricky. Forcing communities to talk about a certain product is almost impossible. These obstacles were swiftly dealt with in the construction of the site "Being Girl" which belongs to the Tampax and Always brands. As Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff comment on their new book Groundswell:

Beingirl.com is not a community site about tampons. (Who would want to visit that?) It's about everything that young girls deal with. The site is very lightly branded and it's loaded with information about music, make-up, relationships and spaces for the girls to talk amongst themselves and with experts. Procter & Gamble had launched different versions of the sites in other parts of the world and also a Latina-geared version section of the US site called "Solo de Chikas: hot topic, cool musik and your place to speak out.

Tampax are courting a more specific community that is underrepresented in traditional marketing endeavors, undoubtedly hoping that this interest will entice the participants to become loyal Tampax/Always consumers. At the very least, though, P&G has opened a fluid communication channel with an elusive demographic. Bernoff and Li suspect that the site's success is due in part to the fact that P&G "solved the customers' problems instead of its own", the costumers were willing to share. Add subtle brand messages and free samples and P&G was able to become part of the dialogue from which it was previously excluded. A key takeaway here is that companies should figure out what existing communities are most likely to use their product and what they are doing with it; they should identify basic needs of that community and develop informational resources to support them.

Knowing that the community pre-exists the brand or franchises engagement with it means corporations need to legitimate their entrance into this space. In earlier white papers (Austin 2006), we have introduced the idea that participants in economic exchanges are governed by an implicit set of understandings about what is "right" and what is "legitimate" for each player to do. This is what social historian E.P. Thompson described as a "moral economy." The moral economy describes the set of social norms and mutual understandings which make it possible for two parties to do business with each other. In some cases, the moral economy holds in check the aggressive pursuit of short term self interest in favor of decisions which preserve long term social relations between participants. In a small scale economy, for example, a local dealer is unlikely to "cheat" a customer because they need to count on continued trade with this person over an extended period of time and thus need to build up their reputation within this community.

The measure of a moral economy is the degree to which participants trust each other to hold up their end of these implicit agreements. When there is a sudden and dramatic shift in the economic or technological infrastructure, as has occured with the introduction of digital media, it can create a crisis in the "moral economy," diminishing the level of trust within participating parties, and perhaps even wearing away the mechanisms which insure the legitimacy of economic exchanges. At such times, we can see all involved making bids for legitimation, that is proposing new models or frameworks through which parties may reach a new understanding of what should provide the basis for fair and meaningful interactions.

We can see, for example, notions of "file sharing" and "piracy" as two competing moral systems by which we might make sense of the circulation of media content, one put forth by consumers eager to legitimate their idea of the free exchange of content, the other put forth by the media industry eager to close off certain practices as "illegitimate" and damaging to their long term economic interests. The excessive rhetoric surrounding the circulation of music at the present time suggests just how far out of balance the moral understandings of producers and consumers have become. New technologies enable consumers to exert much greater impact on the circulation of media content than ever before but they also enable companies to police once private behavior as it takes on greater public dimensions. These shifts enable some to describe a crisis in copyright, others a crisis in fair use, and all sides to be more or less accurate in describing the tensions which have emerged.

Discussions of "viral media," or of what we are calling "spreadable" media, point to places where a new moral economy may be emerging. They allow us to map forms of audience participation which are seen as valuable to advertisers and media companies. Spreadable media represents an alternative framing of the free circulation of media content to the prevailing metaphor of "piracy."

Focusing on what we are calling here spreadability may thus offer us some tentative first steps towards renegotiating the social contract between media producers and consumers in a way which may be seen as legitimate and mutually rewarding to all involved. For this to occur, we need to understand that consumers and producers often follow different dictates, not simply because of competing economic interests, but because they have different motives, make different judgments about value, and follow different social obligations; in other words, they operate within separate and parallel economic orders. We might describe these two worlds as commodity culture and the gift economy. Certainly, most of us who have grown up in capitalist economies understand the set of expectations which shape the buying and selling of goods. Yet, we also operate in another social order which centers around the giving and accepting of gifts. One (commodity culture) places greater emphasis on economic motives, the other (gift economy) on social motives.

Something of the mismatch between these two worlds is suggested by Ian Condry (2004) in his discussion of file-sharing among music fans:

Unlike underwear or swimsuits, music falls into that category of things you are normally obligated to share with your dorm mates, family, and friends. Yet to date, people who share music files are primarily represented in media and business settings as selfish, improperly socialized people who simply want to get something -- the fruits of someone else's labor -- for free. In fact, if asked directly by a friend to share music, sharing is the only reasonable thing to do.

Within commodity culture, then, sharing music is economically damaging, whereas in the gift economy, the failure to share music is socially damaging. We are never going to resolve such conflicts until we develop a better model for thinking about the interface between the two.

Gift Giving and Reciprocity Online

In arguing that much of what goes on in cyberspace might be understood in terms of a gift economy, we are in fact making a claim which is at least as old as the web. Howard Rheingold's 1993 book The Virtual Community, for instance, mentions the gift economy as central to the relationships across the online world:

Reciprocity is a key element of any market-based culture, but the arrangement I'm describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy in which people do things for one another out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo. When that spirit exists, everybody gets a little extra something, a little sparkle, from their more practical transactions; different kinds of things become possible when this mind-set pervades. Conversely, people who have valuable things to add to the mix tend to keep their heads down and their ideas to themselves when a mercenary or hostile zeitgeist dominates an online community. In the virtual community I know best, elegantly presented knowledge is a valuable currency....Sometimes you give one person more information than you would give another person in response to the same query, simply because you recognize one of them to be more generous or funny or to-the-point or agreeable...A sociologist might say that my perceived helpfulness increased my pool of social capital. I can increase your knowledge capital and my social capital at the same time by telling you something that you need to know, and I could diminish the amount of my capital in the estimation of others by transgressing the group's social norms. The person I help might never be in a position to help me, but someone else might be.

Rheingold describes the gift economy operating in virtual worlds less in terms of a tit-for-tat exchange of value but rather as part of a larger reputation system in which one's contributions to the group are ultimately recognized and respected, even if there is no direct and explicit negotiation of worth at the time someone makes their contributions.

Richard Barbrook (1998), another early cybertheorist, argued that the gift economy trumped commodity culture in the world view of those who were the first to form online communities:

For most of its users, the Net is somewhere to work, play, love, learn and discuss with other people. Unrestricted by physical distance, they collaborate with each other without the direct mediation of money or politics. Unconcerned about copyright, they give and receive information without thought of payment. In the absence of states or markets to mediate social bonds, network communities are instead formed through the mutual obligations created by gifts of time and ideas. When they go on-line, almost everyone spends most of their time participating within the gift economy rather than engaging in market competition. Because users receive much more information than they can ever give away, there is no popular clamour for imposing the equal exchange of the marketplace on the Net. Once again, the 'end of history' for capitalism appears to be communism.

Such values were built into the infrastructure of the web which was designed to facilitate the collaboration of scientists and researchers rather than to enable the metered access expected within a commodity culture.

In the world of the web, companies were relative late-comers, even though they now represent the dominant users of digital networks. As commercial values have spread into the web, they have had to negotiate with the older web ethos: there still remains great resistance to "spam," for example, as unwelcomed advertising, whereas commercials are taken more or less for granted in traditional broadcasting. Similarly, Stewart Brand (1995), another key thinker in the early history of web culture, evokes the idea of a gift economy to explain how companies create valued relations to their customers within this new cultural context. In short, Brand argues that for any company or business to succeed online they need to join the gift economy that defines online relations. "It means often giving away content." Online success is based on the build up of good will which companies can convert into economic transactions through other channels.

Many of these same assumptions about the ways that digital communities are shaped by the norms of a gift economy surfaced much more recently in danah boyd (2007)'s discussion of Facebook's introduction of a "gifting" function. Facebook gifts operate within each person's profile. Gift-giving is completely decentralized so people can choose gifts directly from their own profile page and pay Facebook through their account. Most gifts cost $1 and every once in a while Facebook offers a gift for free. Now the system is in place, manufacturing and reproduction costs are negligible, and, even though they work under a direct payment revenue model, Facebook adds value to the users' experience by letting them be in charge of distribution.

Features such as these are what make successful social networks different from a more complete contact directory. As boyd explains, the popularity and value of gifts on Facebook come from their somewhat intangible nature:

They do not have the same type of persistence as identity-driven purchases like clothing in (World of Warcraft). I think that it is precisely this ephemeralness that will make gifts popular. There are times for gift giving (predefined by society)...People write 'happy birthday' and send glitter for holidays...These expressions are not simply altruistic kindness. By publicly performing the holiday or birthday, the individual doing the expression looks good before her peers. It also prompts reciprocity so that one's own profile is then also filled with validating comments.

Yet despite their intangibility and ephemerality, Facebook's gift-driven economy is valuable, meaningful and crucial to the participation of many members of the network. In evoking the gift economy to talk about gifts which are bought and sold via Facebook, even as they are given freely to those in our social networks, boyd is acknowledging a permeability in the relations between commodity culture and the gift economy.

This should not be surprising: most of us purchase Christmas or birthday gifts at stores rather than making them ourselves and do not necessarily fear that their origins as commodities diminishes the sentiments that are expressed through their exchange. Whatever our myths may be about "gifts of the heart" and "labors of love," most of our gifts these days are manufactured and store bought. Yet, once we have made our purchases, the gift economy takes over and so to understand how digital goods circulate within and between social networks we need to develop a more nuanced understanding of how gift economies operate.


Austin, Alec. with Henry Jenkins, Joshua Green, Ivan Askwith, and Sam Ford, (2006). Turning Pirates into Loyalists: The Moral Economy and an Alternative Response to File Sharing. Report Prepared for the Members of the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium, Cambridge.

Barbrook, Richard (1998). "The Hi-Tech Gift Economy," First Monday, Vol. 3, No. 12 (December), accessed 30 March 2007.

Bernoff, Josh and Li, Charlene. (2008) Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press

boyd, danah (2007). "Facebook's Little Gifts." Apophenia. February 13.

Brand, Stewart (1995). "High Stakes in Cyberspace," Frontline, June 15.

Condry, Ian. (2004) "Cultures of Music Piracy: An Ethnographic Comparison of the US and Japan," International Journal of Cultural Studies 7, pp.343-363

Cova, Bernard, Robert Kozinets, and Avi Shankar (2007). Consumer Tribes. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann

Rheingold, Howard (1993) The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Thompson, E.P. (1971) "The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the 18th Century." Past and Present, No. 50, pp.76-136.