a gift horse in the mouth

So, why are you so attached to capitalism?

He’s smiling when he asks the question, though he’s not joking. He asks, more or less, if I see myself married to Bourdieu in my framing of my dissertation project.

I know how to spell Bourdieu, and I have a longstanding casual acquaintance with the idea of cultural capital. Less so social capital.

I Google. “Social capital is the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” – Bourdieu, 1983.

I shrug, equivocally. Dude has a point.

I use the term social capital – along with reputational capital, an idea I initially (ha!) thought I’d been genius enough to just conjure up as a description of my experience – to talk about what is exchanged in social media; in our blog interactions, our Tweets, our wiki contributions. The notion of this sociality as capital, and thus as capitalism, is a deeply embedded part of my concept of social media.

I suddenly want to explain to him that I’m NOT attached to capitalism, per se, but think it’s important to reflect the ways it shapes the online environment that my dissertation will argue shapes US.

Then I realize he gets that. That he’s having fun.

A thesis committee might as well be fun.

He notes that Bourdieu, to an extent, reduces social activity to an economic relationship. He mentions Marcel Mauss and the idea of gift economy. I nod, note that I’d started down the gift economy road in our Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) research back in the fall. Started remains the operative word. Let’s face it: in both philosophy and social science, I am an academic hack, eternally on the learning curve. I suspect I will feel this way even if I die at the ripe old age of 103, having memorized the entire canon of Northrop Frye and Foucault, both.

I wonder if my preliminary writing has over-emphasized the capital aspects of an environment in which my own experiences have been largely, overwhelmingly non-monetary. For Mauss, it’s not like the gift economy precludes exchange or even the obligation of exchange: as I understand it in these early forays, it’s an honour system, but not a quid pro quo one. Customs govern the future benefits derived from actions, and both status and trade are part of the system. It sounds, to me, a lot like the blogosphere I knew back in 2006 and 2007, vestiges of which still beat at the heart of a great many of my online relationships.

And so I take it to the place where all my intellectual inquiries into the veracity of social media representations begin – to the crowd. A Twitterary Salon, of sorts: do you see social media as a gift economy or a social capital economy? In 140 characters or less.

Here, in highlights from five or six overlapping conversations, is the beginning of what I think is a great and unfolding debate on the nature of our communities and our interactions online.

@SaraHamil: My inner anthropologist just squee’d over you even asking that question. Also, I’d argue social capital.

@SaraHamil: I think we desire for social media to be gift, but in reality I feel the value of connections outweigh giving (not to sound negative)

@suefisher: A social capital exchange combined w/ the consumption/boasting of cultural capital. Status by affiliation & being in the know.

@Quadelle: Both. Some people/media will always fall higher on the gift spectrum, some on the social capital, but most will do some of both.

@SaraHamil: I totally agree about ye olde blogosphere being more gift culture though, for sure

@dougsymington: my vote is for ” social capital exchange” — particularly when more than one social media space involved in consideration

@Quadelle: gift = IVF online board. Everyone there to give (& receive) – mostly encouragement, but also ideas, info, stories, knowledge, etc.

@suefisher: Excellent point about discussion boards & their purpose. Yes, more like a gift economy there.

@dougsymington: was thinking one’s social media capital or “stock” rises (potentially) in proportion to number of “spaces” inhabited

@courosa: See there can be a problem of dilution, however.

@courosa: i think weight has to be unbundled from visibility – some correlation, but not necessarily positive.

@Quadelle: I think there’s three factors to consider: the individual (their motivation, which can change over time), the medium

@Quadelle: (some way more gift, others way more capital) & the network/community they form/join in them (peer influence).

@suefisher: In a certain respect, Wikipedia is the ultimate online gift economy.

@dougsymington: I see consistency of one’s conduct over time, and across spaces, most important factor when assessing social media resources

@AureliaCotta: I think the FB movie kind of answered that, no?

There you go. An informal, entirely unauthorized and entirely voluntary focus group of sorts, made up of people with a multitude of vested interests and histories online, some professional, some entirely personal, most a mix of both.

Apparently, I’m not alone in leaning toward the social capital idea, especially in the “matured” blog world of 2011. Apparently though, too, there are still ways to congregate online – wikis and discussion boards being the primary ones mentioned, though I think of a community like Glow in the Woods, and nod – wherein the interaction is still ostensibly and primarily less about reputation and potential capital gain, whether monetary or no, than about simple participation, or sharing, or contribution. And at the same time, social capital online is apparently no simple equation. I figured. Apparently, I need to think through how this matters, and what the distinctions mean.

Apparently, I need to see the Facebook movie.

Thanks, to all of you who threw your two cents in to the Twitter conversation. Everyone else, please consider it still open here: how do you see the economy of the online world in which you interact? In what ways do you experience it or perpetuate it along the principles of a gift economy?

And in what ways – even if not for money or love of money – are you attached to capitalism? Do you think I need Bourdieu?