Revisiting the Concept of "Sharing": An Interview with Nicholas John (Part Three)





How might we think about the social mandate to share in today’s culture in relation to ongoing concerns about the loss of or disrespect for notions of privacy? What relationship do you see between sharing and privacy?


Online sharing would certainly seem to present quite a challenge to privacy: the more we share, the more Facebook et al. know about us. So on the face of it, sharing and privacy stand in opposition to one another. However, there are interesting parallels between them which lead me to see them not necessarily as subsisting in a zero-sum game but rather as giving different expression to a kind of self that took shape during the 20th century.

If I may oversimplify somewhat, the modern right to privacy, as formulated by Warren and Brandeis at the end of the 19th century, emerged in response to modern technologies of representation and reproduction, specifically, the use of photographs in newspapers. The right to privacy has as its object the discrete individual. On one account, privacy is necessary so that the individual may make authentic decisions (for whom to vote, or what to purchase).

Paradoxically, the contemporary injunction to share (as a type of communication) also addresses the discrete individual who expresses her authentic individuality by making it public. In their work on reality TV, Andrejevic and others have shown how self-exposure and its subsequent scrutiny are taken as a guarantor of truth, and I see sharing on social media as an extension of this. Of course, I’m aware that many social media users feel that others are not being authentic in their self-representation, but the rhetoric of sharing on these platforms, and especially Facebook, is all about connecting with others and being your most authentic self. (It has been interesting in this regard to follow Mark Zuckerberg’s comments about apps for anonymous communication, which also claim to offer users the opportunity to be their most authentic self.) Moreover, there are sanctions against not sharing. For instance, refusal to use Facebook can be perceived as deviant; and if we think about interpersonal relationships outside of social media, it seem obvious to me that you will not be able to sustain a romantic relationship without talking about your emotions.

Perhaps the term that points to failure in managing these seemingly competing demands – to share and for privacy – is “oversharing”. This is when we are given too much information, when the boundary between the public and the private – which is always shifting and negotiable – leaves too much in the public sphere. When we accuse someone of oversharing, we are not only saying that we did not want to know that, but that they should not have wanted to tell us in the first place, that they should have had a better sense of their own privacy.

Which term has more moral and emotional weight in our culture -- sharing or piracy?

I haven’t studied the metaphor of piracy per se, though it clearly is a meaningful cultural resource for those more deeply involved in the community (that is, it may not be a term that resonates with everyone downloading the Game of Thrones finale, but it is important to the people who contribute to the file sharing forums I analyzed). The metaphor of piracy is, I think, seen as more subversive among the file-sharers I studied. It’s more edgy than sharing, though one does come across “sharing is caring” slogans and images in members-only file-sharing sites too.

In terms of our broader culture, I think I’ve nailed my colors to the mast pretty strongly here: after all, the book is called The Age of Sharing. I think that the term, sharing, is an extremely powerful term today, both morally and emotionally. Part of the evidence for this is actually provided by people who strenuously oppose its application to practices that they say are “not really sharing”. Sharing, for them, needs to be protected from appropriation by commercial entities (among others).

Your conclusion stresses the unfulfilled promises of the concept of “sharing” in contemporary culture, which is often used to mystify far more traditional kinds of economic relationships. But we could turn this around and say the persistence of the concept of “sharing” across the various contexts you discuss suggests an ongoing desire, amid large chunks of the western world, for an alternative set of economic and social arrangements that does not look like capitalism. Can we deconstruct the abuse of the concept of sharing while keeping alive the radical potential of these shared social values? As you ask, “if the promise is extinguished, what are we to do?” (155)


What are we to do? I wish I had an answer.

Were I asked to present a blueprint for the Good Society, I have no doubt that it would include sharing: my good citizens would share resources; relationships would be built on openness and honesty. But in fact this blueprint says a great deal about my cultural circumstances; perhaps more than the desirability or attainability of this Good Society. There certainly is an ongoing desire in large chunks of the western world for an alternative to capitalism – an important wing of the so-called sharing economy is trying to present such an alternative – but our ability to imagine this alternative is defined, or at least shaped, by our present-day culture. I certainly think this is the case when we imagine a past in which people shared and drew inspiration from that past, and I think this is what Benjamin was intimating with his notion of an ur-past, a mythological past of harmony. With the help of anthropologists, in the book I argue that our conceptualizations of hunter-gatherer societies as grounded in sharing are anachronistic and misplaced. We imagine a better past (and future) from our place in the present. How could we do otherwise?

It is from this perspective that I refrain from talking about the abuse of the concept of sharing. Culturally speaking, the concept and its “abuse” have common roots. I suppose this is another way of saying that we cannot get outside the system. This isn’t to say we should critique the system (whatever we perceive that as being), but it is to suggest that arguing about whether this or that is “really” sharing isn’t going to get us very far. If there is a problem with certain parts of the “sharing economy” it isn’t that it is called “sharing”, it is that people’s labor is being exploited.

Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.