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

Today, I want to share with my readers an interview with the author of a smart new book, The Age of Sharing -- well, I wanted to share it with you, but Nicholas John does such a great job in this book of drilling into and complicating my understanding of the very concept of sharing that I am now not certain that's what I want to do after all. I will post it. You may recirculate it. But should we call this sharing?

The central project here is to understand how the meaning of sharing has shifted over time, the ways the term has been dematerialized (no longer about material relations) and made to stand in for all kinds of social interactions, the ways the term has become central to our understanding of the digital age and yet it continues to mean somewhat different things to producers and consumers in an era of social media. I learned a lot in this book about the history of sharing as a concept and a set of practices, and it sets us on a path to a more nuanced deployment of the term as we talk about what it is we are doing with each other in an era of spreadable media content. 

I hope this interview captures your interest so that you will pick up a copy of the book for yourself.



You write, “When we -- English-speakers in western societies -- hear talk about sharing today, we understand the concept differently from both our grandparents and their grandparents.” (20) How so? Can you characterize what the term, sharing, meant in each of these periods?

Obviously the answer may depend somewhat on how old the reader is, but what I’m getting at here is that new layers of meaning have been added to the word, sharing, giving it its current set of connotations and meanings. (Of course, today’s constellation of meanings is just as unstable as any set of meanings in the past.) Today, obviously, sharing refers to digital participation. I have called sharing the constitutive activity of social media to highlight how it has become the key word for describing our online participation. It covers the whole range of digital activities: updating statuses, uploading videos, sending messages, posting pictures – all these are called sharing. More than this, though, a crucial aspect of the meaning of sharing today is its sense of fairness and caring, which are tightly linked to sharing as a specific type of talk about our emotions. This association of sharing with rainbow colors and intimacy is new – when my 92-year-old grandmother was a young woman, this sense of sharing would not have been accessible to her. In the 1940s and ‘50s, she would not have come across the idea that “sharing is caring”. Needless to say, none of the digital implications of sharing would have been available to her either.

She would, though, have understood sharing as a kind of talk about emotions. This had been emerging particularly since the 1930s as part of the secularization of romantic relations, especially those between husband and wife.

My grandmother’s grandmother, living around the turn of the previous century, would not have understood sharing to be a type of talk at all. The metaphor of sharing one’s troubles would have been accessible, and obviously one shared one’s troubles by talking about them, but the talk itself was not called sharing. We can understand this best by going further back in time, to the 16th century, when sharing meant dividing – this is the pre-metaphorical sense of sharing. Consider the similarity between the words “sharing” and “shearing”: this is no coincidence; “to share” used to mean (and sometimes still means) “to divide”. In fact, the old English word from which “sharing” evolved, namely, scearu, had two meanings. One referred to the groin, that part of the body where the trunk of the body divides into two legs; the other referred to a monk’s tonsure, where his hair had been sheared off. Sharing one’s troubles, then, meant dividing them in two, and giving a portion to your collocutor, thereby reducing your burden. The metaphor here is still physical. It wasn’t until the 1900s that the word sharing started being used to refer to the talk itself, taking another step away from the rather material, pre-metaphorical sense of the word.

Looking back over how the concept of sharing has changed over the last 100 years or so, I would say that it has added layers of meaning that take it further away from its material sense of sharing as dividing. This has included the institutionalization of sharing as a type of talk, and also the notion of sharing as morally desirable, exemplified, for instance, in the way parents (especially American parents) teach their children to share nicely.

As I read you, part of what has taken place has been the dematerialization of the concept of sharing -- from an early emphasis on cutting into parts or cutting off -- to the contemporary sense where the exchange of information also often involves the exchange of feelings and may play an active role in shaping the social ties between parties. How do you explain these shifts over time?

Yes, the concept of sharing has been dematerialized. This is a useful way of thinking about it. But we should remember that the development of many metaphors is about dematerialization, or perhaps even more specifically, decorporealization, as so many metaphors – including sharing – have their origins in the body.

I think that there are two broad paths to the current meanings of sharing. One is related to shifting conceptualizations of the self throughout the 20th century. Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it is related to the emergence of the specific idea of the self that we have today. This is a self with a coherent core, that is accessible to us through talk, and conveyable to others through talk. This is the Freudian, therapeutic self. The emergence of this sense of self is concurrent with secularization and urbanization, and what T.J. Jackson Lears calls a thinning of life and a consequent “quest for self-realization”. This is the path by which sharing, as a type of communication, becomes related to authenticity, self-understanding, and the basis for the conduct of intimate relationships.

The other path remains closer to the pre-metaphorical sense of sharing as dividing, and can be traced through the brief history of computing. When time-sharing was invented, and named, it was a technology that divided up a computer’s computational capacities among multiple users; the computer’s time was being dividing up and allocated to different users. Later, disc sharing was developed. Here, the “sharing” part of the term referred to the fact that the disc was shared by more than one user; it was held in common. Likewise the idea of file sharing, at least in its first instantiation: file sharing meant making a file accessible to others (not duplicating and distributing it, as most people understand it today).

The conjunction of these two paths came surprisingly recently, not much earlier than 2005, in fact. This is when social network sites recruited the concept of sharing to describe and promote what we do there. Some of this was no doubt opportunistic, harnessing their businesses to the pro-social implications of sharing; some of this was organic, as for computer scientists the idea of sharing files, images, and so on, was already common currency, though lacking in a normative dimension. 

Your references here to the Care Bears is a good reminder that those of us coming of age in western society are taught to share our toys, our feelings, at an early age. When we use sharing in relation to other practices -- for example, in the phrase, “the sharing economy” -- we tap something very primal. Some authors you reference go so far as to assert that sharing is a fundamental aspect of human nature -- hardwired into our very being -- but we are often required to unlearn those sharing impulses to operate within competitive capitalism and its struggle over resources. How might this reliance on a concept so bound up with childhood development render us blind to hidden agendas at play within the “sharing economy”?


The terminology around the sharing economy has been under scrutiny for a while, and my position on this is not a simple one to lay out. To be sure, there are companies within what is called the “sharing economy” that want potential customers to associate certain values with them (the values of sharing) while operating according to the logic of capitalism. To be sure, there are exploitative practices afoot within the “sharing economy”, and they must be criticized and rooted out. Also, it cannot be denied that the word, sharing, is an important weapon in the marketers’ arsenal. Accordingly, one could, if one wanted, compile a list of practices that are compatible with sharing, and a list of practices that are not. Then, one could confidently say whether a certain service is “really” about sharing or not. For instance, one might want to argue that if money changes hands, there is no sharing going on.

This, though, is not my approach. Partly this is because language is dynamic and I do not find it useful to say that this or that practice is “really” sharing, which is to reify words (in other words, my approach is a pragmatic one). For instance, I have not read a critique of sharecropping (where the tenant pays the landowner by giving him a share of the crop) that says it is not really sharing.

More than that, though, I think that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What I hope the book shows is that there is much to be gained from pushing beyond the question of whether practices are “really” sharing. I try to historicize and culturally contextualize our present concept of what sharing “really” is, and I think an outcome of this is the realization that uses of the word, sharing, that are critiqued for not “really” referring to sharing, and those very critiques themselves, have common cultural origins. In other words, when I read that something is not really sharing because it involves money and is not an authentic type of communication, say, I recall that the type of authentic communication that we call sharing emerged, and was called sharing, as part of the formation of a self that was suited for modern, capitalist society. The word, sharing, today has a distinct set of meanings that quite simply was not enacted previously when the word was used. Thus, in the book I argue at some length that to apply the word “sharing” to prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies is to be anachronistic.

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.