Gift-giving as a conceptual framework: framing social behavior in online networks

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This paper explores the use of gift-giving as a theoretical and conceptual framework for analyzing social behavior in online networks and communities. Not only has gift-giving the potential to frame and explain much social media behavior, but
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  Research article Gift-giving as a conceptual framework: framing social behavior in online networks Jo¨rgen Ska˚geby Department of Journalism, Media and Communication, Stockholm, Sweden Correspondence:J Ska ˚ geby, Department of Journalism, Media & Communication, Box 27 861, 115 93 Stockholm.Tel:  þ 46 737 090420;Fax:  þ 46 8 661 03 04 Abstract  This paper explores the use of gift-giving as a theoretical and conceptual framework foranalyzing social behavior in online networks and communities. Not only has gift-giving thepotential to frame and explain much social media behavior, but reversely, and perhapsmore importantly, mediated social behavior also has the potential to develop gift-givingtheory. Information and communication technologies form joint sociotechnical systemswhere new practices emerge. The paper focuses on describing the academic backgroundof the gifting framework to help develop a deeper, theory-based, understanding of thesesociotechnical phenomena. Three themes are prevalent in the gifting literature: other-orientation, social bonding and generalized reciprocity. The paper gives examples of howthese themes are enacted by end-users via the use of information and communicationtechnologies. Finally, sociotechnically embedded economies, called gifting technologies,are identified and discussed.  Journal of Information Technology   (2010)  25,  170–177. doi:10.1057/jit.2010.5Published online 4 May 2010 Keywords:  gift-giving; gifting technologies; social networks Introduction T his paper will explore the relationship between giftingconcepts and social networking technologies. Socialnetworking and sharing has been subject to arevitalization in the Internet age, particularly with therecent emphasis on user-generated and user-contributedcontent in system genres such as wikis, media-sharingservices, blogs and social networking sites. However, digitaltechnologies add certain social and technical characteristicsthat impact on mediated social behavior: digital replic-ability – digital content is easy and theoretically flawless toreproduce; digitalism adds a tension between the persis-tence and ephemerality of content in online networks; andglobal networks add a mix and multiplicity of strong andweak ties. On a larger scale, these tensions exist in adynamic intersection between end-users, communities,business models and technology. At this crossroad, thispaper will explore the applicability of concepts from anestablished social theoretical field (i.e. gift-giving) toexplore and explain mediated social interaction. Towards gift-giving Humans maintain relationships largely by giving and takingservices, information and goods to each other. At a morestructural level, groups and collectives are formed out of giving and taking information and goods that are of common interest. At an even higher level of abstraction,gifting generates pools of knowledge, experiences andstories that again become useful to the individual seekingto help themselves or, indeed, to help others. Under-standing these ‘sharing outcomes’ and how they relate tothe use of modern information and communicationtechnology is essential in supporting the progression of any digitally supported social network. In order to be clearabout what gifting entails, it is necessary to be clear aboutwhat  sharing   entails (or does not entail). A definition fromWordnet 3.0 states that sharing means to:1: have in common2: use jointly or in common3: have, give, or receive a share of 4: give out as one’s portion or share5: communicateIt is clear that sharing is a wide term and while it could beused to describe many end-user activities in mediatedsocial networks it is also clear that it does not providescholars with much analytical power. By introducing giftingconcepts to the analytical repertoire, sharing can in turn bemore refined as a concept. The main benefit of usinggifting, and which makes it especially relevant in the  Journal of Information Technology (2010) 25,  170–177 & 2010 JIT Palgrave Macmillan All rights reserved 0268-3962/10 palgrave-journals.com/jit/   context of mediated social networking, is that (1) it has arich history as an academic area of study, allowing for theidentification, separation, analysis and comparison of important sub-concepts and (2) more specifically, that thishistory includes studies on the motivations, concerns,intentions, relationships and contexts that surround thesocial exchange of information, objects and services.Gifting is a central concept in both the analysis andpractical building of social networks and communities(Berking, 1999). However, what actually constitutes a  gift  has been much debated. Gifts have been suggested to berelationship signals (Goffman, 1971) capable of expressinglove, caring and trust (Cheal, 1987). They have also beendescribed as symbols for normative ideas, judgments andexpressions of taste (Berking, 1999), as well as supporters of transactive memories (Wegner  et al  ., 1991). Komter (2007)finds that there is no single, universal and unambiguousway to understand the gift. It is highly dependent on itssituated practice (such as objects, motivations, occasionsand norms). With the growing use of mediating technol-ogies to give content in social networks, it becomesinteresting to ask if the practice of this central humanactivity changes, and if so, what dimensions and character-istics are different or new? Gifting: a social phenomenon This section surveys gift-giving literature in order to show that it contains relevant concepts for addressing socialnetworking through ICTs. This survey forms the basis foridentifying ‘what is new’ in the context of mediatedactivities and to get a better understanding of the impactthe migration of an age-old social activity brings to a new context.Gifting is an implicit practice containing elements of uncertainty and ambiguity. The rules of gift-giving are bothsocialized and tacit. As such, they make up a form of practical knowledge (of which most people are aware) thathas a strong potential to shape social relationships(Komter, 1996). This also means that gifts carry a lot of flexibility and indetermination, which indicates that they cannot be reduced to mechanical laws, closed systems oruniversal definitions (Komter, 2007). However, the gift-giving literature almost consistently highlights the divisionbetween the rationales of the market (utilitarian) and therationales of personal relations (anti-utilitarian). It is oftensuggested that the ‘simple’ models of profit, trade andexchange are insufficient for fully explaining the gift (Bell,1991; Godbout and Caille´, 1992; Berking, 1999; Kolm, 2000;Klamer, 2003). This has spurred a turn to other models of explanation when dealing with (seemingly) altruisticbehavior. Instead, it limits its coverage to bodies of work from sociology, economy and, to some extent,anthropology, in order to provide a background on‘traditional’ gift-giving (please see the upcoming sectionon limitation of the survey for an elaboration on survey scope). The included attempts at definitions are importantfor two reasons: first, since they make up a body of comparison between traditional (non-mediated) and tech-nology-mediated (digital) gifting; and second, since they provide a way to initially define online gift-giving and whatwe will call gifting technologies. Key gifting concepts Economic theory has differentiated between four majormodes of transfer: coercion, exchange, reciprocity and puregift-giving (Kolm, 2000). The gifting literature is generally concerned with reciprocity and pure gift-giving. Recipro-city refers to the motivation or process of   returning   gifts –to treat others as you have been, or wish to be, treatedyourself (for more detail on reciprocity, see the section ongeneralized reciprocity), while pure gift-giving refers to thedisinterested gift, in which you give without an expectationof a return. As the theoretical review will show, there is noreal consensus regarding the existence or non-existence of pure gifts and altruism.Three characteristics of gifts and gift-giving are recurringin the literature: other-orientation, bonding value andgeneralized reciprocity. Table 1 summarizes how the threeconcepts are related to overall themes in the giftingliterature. As seen from the table, gifting concepts are oftencontrasted against opposing concepts to distinguish theirrespective meaning. The bolded words in the table indicateconcepts that are distinctive to gifting and which will befurther elaborated on in this paper. Other-orientation Other-orientation is often naturally contrasted against self-serving motivations, and seen as the opposite of such. Inreality, other-orientation and self-centeredness exist on asliding scale, sometimes even as concurrent markers on thesame scale (i.e. an act that is both selfish and other-orienteddepending on level of abstraction). While strict self-interestcan be a part of gifting research, most of the literature seesthe varied complexity and subtleness of other-orientationas more interesting (Kolm, 2000).Typical examples of other-oriented motivations are thewill to contribute to others’ welfare without thoughts of areturn or a ‘moral obligation’ to help those who are in need(Komter, 1996). The existence of pure other-orientation isdebated (for an overview of this discussion see (Osteen,2003). Cynics and neoclassical economists often considerany type of altruism as covert pure selfishness, that is thereis always a strict and measurable selfish motive back-grounding apparently altruistic acts. The gift-givingliterature often contend this notion by (1) consideringself-interest to be a part of the gift, but instead expanding Table 1  Central ideas and key concepts in the gifting literature Themes explored in the gifting literature Key concepts Motivations  Other-orientation , self-orientationGift values  Bonding value , exchange value, use valueReciprocal rules  Generalized reciprocity  , balanced reciprocity, negative reciprocity  Gift-giving as a conceptual framework  J Ska˚geby 171  on the notion of self-centeredness (Bollier, 2001) or (2)broadening the notion of altruism, considering intrinsic/selfish rewards as parts of altruism, but an ‘impure’ such(Andreoni, 1989, 1990). In the first case, the perspective islifted from the individual to the larger structure (e.g. group,community, network, society). The argument goes that gifteconomies can indeed support individual selfish motiva-tions and needs, but that these, when pursued by a largernumber of people, converge to form common resources orpositive externalities that create a ‘sharing spirit’ that isdifferent from the pure utilitarian rationalism of economictheory (Bollier, 2001). In the second case, it is argued thataltruism does exist but that in reality there are often severalsocial structures that can act as potential ‘receivers of altruistic acts’. This creates a practical trade-off where weneed to discriminate between receiving structures, formingstronger relations with some, and weaker with others(Hardin, 1982).Thus, it is not simple to draw the line between what isconsidered to be pure self-centered and pure other-orientedmotivations and behavior. Not only are there philosophicalissues concerning about where to put altruism (e.g. in theperson, in the act or in the context), but there are alsopractical situations where, for example, self-centeredmotivations result in other-oriented actions (and viceversa). Bonding value Gifting has a potential to shape social relationships andbonds. Symbolic interpersonal meanings invoked by giftingis a recurring and important theme in the gift-givingliterature (Cheal, 1986; Camerer, 1988; Carrier, 1991). On alarger scale, various forms of giving and taking make up thefoundation of social exchange, generating group formationsand community-building processes (Berking, 1999: 31).Giving and taking can indeed form lengthy cyclic practicesand relationships.The objective characteristics of things and the intimatequalities of personal relationships often come together ingifts. In fact, the gifting literature states that the transfor-mation of a resource (or ‘simple thing’) to a gift isdetermined by the social context in which it occurs (Sherry,1983: 160). This is also illustrated by Godbout and Caille´(1992) who reason about the different  values  of gifts:   Exchange value  – the quantitative value used formeasuring interchange ratios.   Use value  – refers to the strict material use or ‘the way things work’.   Bonding value  – the gift’s value in the world of ties andtheir reinforcement.Notably, Godbout and Caille´ state that if a transfer of goods is not  primarily  of bonding value it should not bedefined as a gift. In practice, this means that an object witha fairly stable exchange value has different bonding valuedepending on the sorts of relationships in which it occurs(which may in turn impact on the exchange value).To use an economic metaphor, the currency in giftingcontexts is therefore not quantitative, but qualitative. Fromthis we can argue that, gifts are more than simple transfersof possessions and could be seen as concerned with themanifestation of social ties (Gupta  et al  ., 2008). Indeed,almost all literature on gifting includes the importance of social relationships, as the central vector of bonding value,in some form or shape. Consequently, bonding valuesemphasize connectedness and identification (Komter, 2007)and while it can be said to be a value of an artifact it is alsoa value directed towards the maintenance of   relationshipsbetween  oneself and others (i.e. not strictly self-interestednor other-oriented) (Ska˚geby, 2009). Generalized reciprocity Reciprocity refers to the informal circulation of goods andservices – something that is a part of almost all societiesand communities. Three types of reciprocity are generally considered:   Generalized reciprocity (sometimes also referred to aspositive reciprocity)   Balanced reciprocity    Negative reciprocity Notably, there is a slight disagreement in the literature onthe use of the term generalized reciprocity. Some state thatgeneralized reciprocity is when one gives without  any expectation of a return, while most of the literature refers toit as a temporal and personal ambiguity. What is argued tomake the interaction ‘reciprocal’ in the first case is theintrinsic rewards (to the gifter), and the social bonds thatthe gift promotes. The latter perspective assumes that thegiver expects something in return, but that from whom,what it consists of or the time of the return is leftunspecified. In any case, generalized reciprocity is reportedto mostly occur within a group of closely related people (i.e.small village, clan, family or other kin group) whereinterpersonal trust is high (Offer, 1997).Balanced reciprocity occurs when the terms and amountof exchange is judged as equal and fair. It is not necessary immediate, but there is an expectation of an equivalentsome time in the future. The social ties between gifters andrecipients are weaker compared to generalized reciprocity,and in case of an absent reciprocation the relation growseven weaker. Someone who only accepts gifts withoutcompensating them in any form or at any time, will beincreasingly overlooked for succeeding gifts. This iscommon with such social groups as co-workers, friends,neighbors and relatives.Negative reciprocity, as the term implies, is arguably notreciprocity at all (it is sometimes referred to as ‘barter’),and it occurs where the prototypical relationship is to be astranger and there is little or no trust established. Thereciprocal return is expected immediately and each party tries to maximize their own benefit.One of the most liberal definitions of gift-giving roots ingeneralized reciprocity. Generalized reciprocity is oftenvague, non-contractual, serendipitous, ambiguous, openand implicit. This means that any good (even money) thatis transferred without there being an explicit agreement onthe nature, value, or timing of a return, can be considered agift (Klamer, 2003).The literature also makes use of the terms pseudo-reciprocity and pseudo-gifting, why an explanation of theseterms is in order. Selfish forms of reciprocity and giving are Gift-giving as a conceptual framework  J Ska˚geby 172  often referred to in the literature as pseudo-reciprocitiesand pseudo-giving since they more clearly imitate theexchange mode where gifting is performed with thedeliberate and intentional goal of generating self-beneficialreturns or ‘by-products’ (Connor, 2007). Even so, pseudo-reciprocity (and of course reciprocity in general) can beargued to entail more than the incidental or deliberatecoordination of selfish interests:Reciprocity is often the means and vector of mutual self-interest, but it is much more than this, as it also commonly implies positive sentiments and attitudes towards others,which are intrinsically valuable and valued by all, such asgratitude, consideration, empathy, liking, fairness and asense of community. (Kolm, 2000: 2)The argument here is that a gifting norm can add to theoverall spirit and social well-being of the context in which itis performed, regardless of the individual motivations of the participants. In this sense, it may be an essential part of that which forms (sub-) communities from larger societies.In summary, the literature survey conducted in this paperleads us to identify certain central characteristics of gifting.The summary table (Table 2)compares and contrasts thesecentral characteristics.The theoretical comparisons and contrasts in Table 2illustrates that the distinction between seemingly altruisticmotives and pseudo-reciprocities or other motivations isnot always clear-cut. Likewise, reducing gifts to no morethan use value or exchange value can mislead analysis.We need to examine the specific characteristics anddimensions of situations of gifting to properly understandmotivations, values and rules. Retaining them as abstractconcepts or quantitative surface, will not meet analyticalrequirements, nor reveal them as situated parts of everyday practices. Limitations of the survey This survey acknowledges that gifting is conceptually related to many other ideas and theories that are notcovered in this paper, but that could nevertheless beexplored in relation to social networking through ICTs (in away this section also provides matter for future research).One associated concept stemming from social psychology ispro-social behavior, which includes, for example, sharing,helping or comforting (Sproull  et al  ., 2005). A more narrow example of pro-social behavior can be found in themanagement literature, where a prominent stream of research is that of organizational citizenship behavior(OCB) (Organ  et al  ., 2006). OCB refers to the behaviors of individuals who voluntarily help co-workers or theorganizations they work for in ways that are not recognizedby any formal reward system. A nomenclature of behaviors,case studies and meta-analyses have been developedon OCB (Williams and Anderson, 1991; Hoffman  et al  .,2007).Another concept, which relates closely to gifting is socialcapital. Social capital is a concept with a wide-rangingacademic lineage. Several theorists from a variety of disciplines have contributed to its conceptual development(Bordieu, 1984; Wellman and Wortley, 1990; Putnam, 1993,21st March). In general, social capital refers to connectionsin and between social networks. Particularly interesting isperhaps the distinction between bridging and bondingcapital (Putnam, 2000). Bridging capital refers to loosely knit networks where information is exchanged, but not inan emotionally attached manner. Bonding capital relatesmore to tight communities, such as families or closefriends, where emotional support is part of the commu-nicative acts. There is clearly a conceptual relation tobonding value here. One possible difference is that socialcapital often refers to attributes of individuals or collec-tives, while bonding value is an attribute of an artifact. Thisrelation certainly deserves further academic attention.One concept that has an explicit connection to gift-giving, but that has not been explored in this paper is theritual. From being a central concept in religion andanthropology mainly (Malinowski, 1920; Damon, 1980), itis now commonly used in the marketing research literature,often in connection to gift-giving (Ruth  et al  ., 1999). Theritual is many times centered round a specific occasion orindividual, which is the main reason why it was notincluded in the survey of this paper (being more concernedwith everyday activities and practices). As such it could stillprobably provide a valuable analytical tool for researchingspecific ceremonial or formal ways of conduct in socialnetworks. Possibly, one way to utilize rituals is to look athow new members are welcomed into a specific network(‘initiation rites’). Table 2  Four modes of economic transfer and their relation to the central themes of the gift-giving literature Mode of transfer Coercion Exchange Reciprocity Pure gift-givingMotivation Self-centered motivation Other-oriented motivationCentral values Exchange value is central Bonding value is centralReciprocal rules Immediate, specified, explicit and contractual Vague, uncertain, ambiguous and implicit Gift-giving as a conceptual framework  J Ska˚geby 173  Gifting in social networks: the economy of the free and theeconomy of regard This section will contextualize the previously introducedgifting concepts in a mediated social network environment.To an increasing extent, end-users contribute individually owned and produced digital material in online networks.Digital material is released under public domain licenses(by artists and authors) and technical advancements aremaking more types of digital goods more easily (re)dis-tributed in general. Two concurrent trends, which are of special relevance to this paper are: firstly, we are seeingindications that file-sharing is increasingly ‘going social’(Shirky, 2003; Kaye, 2004; Mello, 2004), where emergingsub-communities play an increasing part in the sharingecology. Secondly, social-networking applications are to ahigher extent including what has been referred to as ‘richmedia’ (i.e. photos, music, videos, etc.) (Roush, 2005). Withthese tendencies, qualitative concerns of provision arelikely to become more important to end-users. However, weknow surprisingly little about socially supported econo-mies, qualitative concerns and dimensions of digital goodsprovision.The online gift economy generated certain academicinterest in the late 1990s (Barbrook, 1998; Bays andMowbray, 1999). The connection between gifting econo-mies and technology had however been observed intraditional gifting as well:A complex gift economy has a well-developed technology,but its most important technology is a technology of social relations. The relationships of a group with othergroups, as well as intra-group relations, are critical to thewell-being of the social unit. (Bell, 1991: 166)Nevertheless, it seems only now that the concept of gifteconomy is becoming nuanced and taken seriously inrelation to online contexts. In recent examinations of gifting economies, two concepts stand out as particularly relevant: the economy of the free and the economy of regard (Table 3).The essential concept of the economy of the free ismicro-scarcity, or a growing abundance of (cultural) goods(Kelly, 2007; Masnick, 2007). The concept of micro-scarcity leans on the fundamental characteristic of digital goods asendlessly, and almost effortlessly, replicable. Digital goodshave the potential to become micro-scarce (i.e. available  enmasse  or ‘free’) because of their replicable nature. The factthat certain goods can be micro-scarce is something thatshould (or has to) be utilized according to the economy of the free. Instead, to reach new market viability the economy of the free discusses potential combinations of scarce andmicro-scarce resources. Somewhat simplified, the economy of the free says to allow micro-scarce resources to be free toconsumers, while charging for the scarce resources tied tothe non-scarce. A typical example is to consider a specificartist’s digital music to be available for free (since they canbe micro-scarce), while charging for live concerts ormerchandise (which are more scarce). This approach tothe digital economy has naturally been criticized (Iskold,2008) for creating an illusive concept of the free. The mainargument in this critique is that advertising and market-related operations are, and will be, using omnipresent andincreasingly deceptive methods.Consumers and end-users should not only consider theeconomy of the free and its critique. This paper suggeststhat the economy of the free will concur with  the economyof regard  , which adds a different layer on to the economy of the free, namely a social one. Media sharing is becomingincreasingly ubiquitous and social. The nature of therelationships between actors is highlighted more and moreby social networking services (whether these relationshipsare anonymous or identified). From an end-user perspec-tive, this emphasizes personal interaction, the dynamics of reciprocation and efforts of other-orientation. Regard is acommunicated quality that authenticates a social bond.Regard may sometimes consist of a grant of attention, butalso more sophisticated efforts, such as gratefulness, taste,appreciation, love, etc. Consequently, the  intangible  aspecthas two applications in this economy: not only are digitalgoods intangible, regard is also intangible. The explicitterms of exchange and commodity trade may fail to capturethese intangible, often socially oriented, terms of trade.Indeed, any attempts to quantify regard may be counter-objective and thus explicitly rejected. Putting a price on asocial bond can be devastating to the relationship itself.Thus, when objects and regard are transferred together, any quantified measures could miss out on central concerns,intentions and values.Most likely, we will see cases where the economy of regard and the market economy are mixed up (sic), and itwould be naı¨ve to think that there will not be cases wheremarket economies masquerade as economies of regard.There will also be situations when end-users will not know,or agree to, the embedded instrumental or commercialimpacts of inherently social actions. This indicates aninteresting paradox in terms of content creation, wheresharing-prohibiting efforts from commercial actors standin contrast to cumulative masses of end-user-contributedmedia, bandwidth, expertise and social metadata. Thesemedia contributions and user posts are collected andaggregated, both in commercial services and in research, Table 3  Summary of the economy of the free and the economy of regard Concept Description Economy of the free Concerned with the characteristics of digital goods.Micro-scarcity causes certain goods to be available for free whilegoods and services that add central use-value will cost.Economy of regard Concerned with social context. Regard is a communicated and situatedquality that leverages the bonding value of goods (i.e. strengthens the relationship). Gift-giving as a conceptual framework  J Ska˚geby 174
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