February 18, 2009
If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead (Part Four): Thinking Through the Gift Economy

This is part four 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.

Lewis Hyde: Thinking Through the Gift Economy

Lewis Hyde's The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983) represents perhaps the best guide on the ways that gift economies operate within the modern world. For that reason, we want to walk through some of his basic claims about the relations between commodity culture and the gift economy.

In a commodity culture, goods are traded as wages for labor or are purchased directly. Neither transaction shapes the circulation of materials within a gift economy
: "A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us." (p.xvi). Gifts depend on altruistic motivations; they circulate through acts of generosity and reciprocity. Their exchange is governed by social norms rather than contractual relations.

The circulation of gifts is socially rather than economically motivated
: "Unlike the sale of a commodity, the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved." Furthermore "when gifts circulate within a group, their commerce leaves a series of interconnected relationships in its wake, and a kind of decentralized cohesiveness emerges." (p.xx) The circulation of goods is not simply symbolic of the social relations between participants; it helps to constitute them. Hyde identifies three core obligations which are shared among those who participate in a gift economy: "the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate." (p.xxi) Each of these acts help to break down boundaries between participants, reflecting a commitment to good relations and mutual welfare.

Gift economies are relatively dynamic in terms of the fluid circulation of goods while commodity cultures are relatively dynamic in terms of the fluid social relations between participants. As Hyde explains, a "clean" trade within a commodity culture "leaves people unconnected," (p.29) since it involves no future obligation between the buyer and seller. Under such conditions, "wealth will lose its motions and gather in isolated pools....Property is plagued by entropy and wealth can become scarce even as it increases." (p.29) The commodity, he suggests, moves towards wherever there is a profit to be made, while a gift moves "towards an empty space," towards resolving conflicts or expanding the social network. (p.29) By contrast, he writes, "To convert an idea into a commodity means, broadly speaking, to establish a boundary of some sort so that the idea cannot move from person to person without a toll or fee. Its benefit or usefulness must then be reckoned and paid for before it is allowed to cross the boundary." (p.105) In so far as the new media ecology depends on spreadability, it needs to embrace the fluidity of exchange which enables a gift economy rather than the stasis that emerges from commodity culture.

In a gift economy, 'status', 'prestige' or 'esteem' take the place of cash renumeration' as the primary drivers of cultural production and social transaction.
Of course, even within a commodity culture, the production of cultural goods is rarely motivated entirely by profit. Artists also seek recognition for what they create; they seek to influence the culture; they seek to build reputations; they seek to express personal meanings. Only a complex set of negotiations within creative industries allow artist to serve both sets of goals at the same time. As Mark Deuze (2006) notes, anxieties about the free circulation of their output within a participatory culture are motivated both by a sense of losing artistic control and by the perceived economic threat to their livelihood.

Conversely, we seem to be seeing a series of misrecognitions between Web 2.0 companies and consumers as the companies misunderstand what motivates participation. On the one hand, consumers increasingly resent the ways that companies transform their labors of love into commodities which can be bought and sold for revenue. There is a growing recognition that profiting on freely given creative labor poses ethical challenges which are in the long run socially damaging to both the companies and the communities involved. On the other hand, many participants are frustrated when companies offer them financial compensations which are at odds with their understanding of the social transactions which are facilitated through the exchange of gifts. Fan communities, for example, have long-standing social taboos against "exploiting" other fans for personal gain, wanting to share their creative goods outside of commodity relations, rather than seeking rewards for what they produce. C3 research affiliate Abigail Derecho argues that the gift economy has gendered implications, with women traditionally associated with crafts in a gift economy and men associated with art within a commodity culture. Hyde would support this argument, suggesting that salaries tend to be lower within those professions which have historically been associated with the gift economy, not simply because they attract more women but also because they provide other kinds of social compensation.

Hyde sees commodity culture and the gift economy as alternative systems for measuring the merits of a transaction. He writes, "A commodity has value... A gift has worth." (p.78) By value, here, Hyde primarily means "exchange value," that is, the rate at which goods and services can be exchanged for money. Such exchanges are "measurable" and "quantifiable" because there are agreed upon measurements of value. By "worth," he means those qualities we associate with things that "you can't put a price on." Sometimes, we refer to what he is calling "worth" as sentimental value. It is not an estimate of what the thing costs but rather what it means to us. Worth is thus variable even among those who participate within the same community, even among those in the same family, hence the complex negotiations which occur around possessions when a beloved member of a family passes away. Worth can not be measured, though it can be negotiated, but in doing so, we have to take claims about worth at face value, since they have to do with internal emotional states.

Commodity culture and the gift economy are animated by different fantasies, which in turn shape the kinds of meanings which are going to be produced and transmitted around the exchange of goods. Hyde writes, "Because of the bonding power of gifts and the detached nature of commodity exchange, gifts have become associated with community and with being obliged to others, while commodities are associated with alienation and freedom" (p. 86). The values which shape exchanges in a commodity culture have to do with personal expression, freedom, social mobility, the escape from constraints and limitations, the enabling of new "possibilities". We sometimes refer to such fantasies as escapism or social experimentation; they are closely associated with the patterns of "transformation" and "plentitude" which Grant McCracken has documented. The fantasies which animate the exchange of gifts are often nostalgic, having to do with the reassertion of traditional values, the strengthening of social ties, the acceptance of mutual obligations, and the comfort of operating within familiar social patterns.

Because the exchange of goods within a gift economy brings with it social expectations, not all gifts can be accepted. In that sense, there are goods and services which literally can not be given away, because even in the absence of an explicit value proposition, consumers are wary of hidden obligations, unstated motives, or hidden interests which come smuggled inside the gift, much like the classic myth of the Trojan Horse. Hyde describes some circumstances where gifts are inappropriate: "On the simplest level, we are wary of gifts in any situation that calls for reckoning and discrimination....A gift, no matter how well intentioned, deflects objective judgement" (p.92). Even traditional societies, then, distinguish between gifts which facilitate generalized good will and bribes which are designed to distort or corrupt process of judgment. At the same time, the translation of gifts into commodities can be socially damaging. Hyde writes:

We do not deal in commodities when we wish to initiate or preserve ties of affection....Emotional connection tends to preclude quantitative evaluation....When a decision involves something that clearly cannot be priced, we refrain from submitting our actions to the calculus of cost-benefit analysis (p.85).

Both sets of category confusions represent potential pitfalls for companies seeking to negotiate the boundaries between commodity culture and the gift economy. That said, Hyde does believe it is possible for there to be valued and meaningful transactions between these two social systems:

The boundary can be permeable....Put generally, within certain limits what has been given us as a gift may be sold in the marketplace and what has been earned in the marketplace may be given as gift. Within certain limits, gift wealth can be rationalized and market wealth can be eroticized (p.357-358).

Hyde's use of the word, "erotic" here is especially evocative, meant to refer to the ways that the exchange of goods gains emotional intensity as it mediates between two or more participants. If "diamonds are a girl's best friend," as the old song goes, it is both because they have extreme value within a commodity culture and because they are emotionally meaningful within a gift economy.

We might understand spreadable media as content which passes between the commodity culture and the gift economy. Each of the above contrasts between the two social systems are helpful in understanding what kinds of terms might best facilitate exchanges between them. Each also helps us to identify historic sites of conflict or misunderstandings between the diversely motivated agents involved in the flow of content across the current mediascape. Many of these contradictions surfaced in the controversy which surrounded the launch of FanLib, a Web 2.0 company which sought to capitalize on the circulation of fan fiction. Fan fiction had been a part of the gift economy of the web for more than a decade, representing a cultural practice which dated back to Star Trek fandom in the 1960s. Seeing their stories as a "labor of love" which was designed to be shared with the community of others who shared their interests, fans have reluctantly charged money to recoup the costs of printing zines but there was a strong prohibition against any attempts to profit financially from the exchange of stories.

Some fans welcomed the emergence of digital distribution because it lowered the costs of sharing stories and thus pulled fan fiction fully into the gift economy. There was also a perception that the absence of financial profit helped to protect fans from prosecution for what might otherwise have been seen as an attempt to capitalize on the original producer's intellectual property. FanLib, however, sought to pull the production and circulation of fan fiction more fully into the commodity culture: they wanted to monetize on the traffic that fan stories drew to their sites, a step which provoked strong backlash from those most committed to fandom's gift economy. They showed little grasp of what motivated the activities of the gift economy: at various times, they sought to compensate fans either through a share of the revenue or through giving them access to the media producers, neither of which reflected the system of status and reputation which had emerged within fandom.

The threat that fan fiction might be commoditized motivated some fans to create the Organization of Transformative Works, which would, among other things, create an alternative web portal for distributing fan created works totally outside of commercial imperatives. Yet, despite the controversy, FanLib did attract a significant number of contributors. C3 researcher Xiaochang Li (2007) discovered that many of those posting on the site did not feel strong ties to the existing fan community and did not understand their cultural production in terms of "gifts" to fellow fans. These fans did not see a conflict between what motivated their creative expression and the logic of a commodity culture. That said, it was not clear that such fans were as valuable to FanLib or the rights holders because they were less "connected" to the larger fan community, were less likely therefore to draw other fans to the site or to help expand the potential markets for the series being depicted.

Value, Worth and the Transfer of Meaning

For a good to move from commodity culture to a gift economy, there has to be some point where value gets transformed into worth, where what has a price becomes priceless, where economic investment gives way to sentimental investment. If we do not understand how this occurs, we probably cannot understand what motivates consumers to "spread" advertising and other media content within their social networks. When people pass along branded content, they are not doing so as paid employees motivated by economic gain; they are doing so as members of social communities involved in activities which are meaningful to them on either an individual or social level. Symbolic goods stop circulating when they take on such economic value that there is no longer an incentive to give them to someone else or where their exchange fails to serve social goals within a particular community. In other words, symbolic goods cease their movement when they assume too much value or too little worth.

In Culture and Consumption, Grant McCracken (1988) brought together anthropological and marketing literature to offer an account of the way "meaning transfer" shapes the circulation of goods. McCracken starts from the premise that the circulation of goods is accompanied by the circulation of meaning: "Meaning is constantly flowing to and from its several locations in the social world, aided by the collective and individual efforts of designers, producers, advertisers, and consumers." Both designers and advertisers draw on meanings already in the culture around them as they seek to construct offerings that will be valued by their potential consumers. Advertising, as seen by McCracken, helps to move both the products and the cultural claims being made about the products into the life world of consumers. Once consumers have purchased the goods and bought into the symbolic meanings that surround them, they perform a series of rituals which are designed to integrate both goods and meanings into their everyday social experiences. In a later revision of this argument, McCracken (2005b) writes "Consumers turn to their goods not only as bundles of utility with which to serve functions and satisfy needs but also as bundles of meaning with which to fashion who they are and the world in which they live." (p.102)

McCracken (1988) identifies four different kinds of consumer rituals which help us to adapt acquired goods into symbolic resources:

  • Exchange Rituals -- McCracken suggests that when we select a gift for someone else, we do so with an awareness of what makes this gift meaningful. A lover giving a gift seeks to symbolize something of their emotional investment in the relationship -- think about the difference between white and red roses, for example. A parent giving a gift to a child seeks to express and embody some of their hopes for the kind of person that the child will become -- think of the whole line of "Baby Einstein" products for example.
  • Possession Rituals -- McCracken argues that consumers spend a great deal of time asserting their claim on goods which enter their lives from the outside. We like to "perform" our ownership of those goods through "cleaning, discussing, comparing, reflecting, showing off and even photographing many...possessions." At a higher level, he describes a process of "personalization" where goods are altered to better express the personality of their owners.
  • Grooming Rituals -- McCracken claims that for some goods, meaning is perishable and certain practices need to be repeated in order to extract value and meaning from them. These practices often center around either practices of personal grooming or the grooming of the goods themselves.
  • Divestment Rituals -- For McCracken, these rituals need to be performed when goods change hands -- first, to exorcise the imprint of the previous owner so that they may be more fully one's own and then later, to strip aside any emotional investments we have made into goods which we now must dispose or "regift" to others.

Each of these claims may be useful in thinking about how symbolic goods -- such as spreadable media content -- functions in the new world of social networks. But to do so, we need to recognize some core differences. First, for McCracken (1988), goods are "an opportunity to make culture material" (p.88). That is, goods attach symbolic meanings to physical objects. To draw on a now tired but useful distinction, goods are atoms. Yet, the kind of cultural goods we are discussing throughout this white paper are much more often virtual rather than physical, bytes and not atoms. They may still render visible the often implicit assumptions through which we organize our culture: "The consumer system supplies individuals with the cultural materials to realize their various and changing ideas of what it is to be a man or a woman, middle-aged or elderly, a parent, a citizen, or a professional" (p.88). We can see the widgets on our profile pages, the links on our blogs, the refinements on our avatars, as doing a similar kind of social work -- as giving expressive form to our values and performing certain kinds of social identities.

It matters, though, that material goods are limited: they can only exist in one place at one time and to give them to someone else is to give them up yourself. Virtual goods, however, can be shared because they can be infinitely replicated. I can have my "cupcake" on Facebook and eat it too, or more importantly, I can share it with you without having to give it up myself. It is clear that personalization may play as strong if not a stronger role in such a system -- as a means of distinguishing between countless copies of the same cultural good. Yet, we may have to spend less time with divestment rituals because the good we receive is no longer a good taken from the hands of another.

For McCracken (1988), there remains something arbitrary about the assignment of particular meanings to particular goods, with advertisers involved in a series of competing bids for interpretation. Yet in the case of spreadable meaning, what we are circulating is often not the material good but the advertisement itself. It is involved in the exchange of meaning from its conception, though the meanings may change through the process of consumption just as goods may be altered, repurposed, or redeployed by consumers through the processes of possession, grooming, and divestment rituals.

Second, for all of his reliance on anthropological theory, McCracken (1988) holds onto the idea of consumers as individuals who are motivated by personal desires and goals, "engaged in an ongoing enterprise of self-creation," rather than as parts of larger social networks and cultural communities. Indeed, his account of consumption in the North American context stresses all of the ways that identity is optional -- that we choose which social categories are operative and which are irrelevant to our presentation of ourselves. Going back to Hyde (1983), then, the fantasies he sees expressed through consumer goods are those we associate with commodity culture -- those having to do with freedom and individuality -- rather than those of the gift economy-- having to do with tradition and social cohesion.

As we think about why we pass along media content, though, we need to recognize that we are both expressive individuals and social beings, that we seek both to personalize content and to share it with others. We might understand how this process plays out by thinking about the ways social networks change the process of taste-making and gate-keeping which McCracken describes in this essay's discussion of fashion. For McCracken, what counts as fashion gets defined rhetorically through journalists who "serve as gatekeepers of a sort, reviewing aesthetic, social and cultural innovations as these first appear." These professional gatekeepers "winnow" down selections before these options even reach the population of early adopters. In a social network, however, this power of evaluation and "winnowing" is dispersed. Each member potentially assumes the role of grassroots intermediary, contributing to a collective process which evaluates and ranks cultural goods and thus speeds or retards their circulation.


Deuze, Mark (2006). "Media Work and Institutional Logics," Deuzeblog, July 18.

Hyde, Lewis. (1983). The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property. New York: Vintage.

McCracken, Grant (1986). Culture and Consumption. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.