The Role of Gift Giving (sharing) in Social Networking

The giving and receiving of gifts by humans and other species has ancient roots and is hardwired into our very survival. 

The concept of the gift covers a range of situations and circumstances and has been recorded throughout human history.  

Today the web is the primary domain where these types of interactions can be observed daily. 

The gifts are in the form of posts, likes, shares and comments.

We tend to think of gifts in a very simplistic way and yet the gifts function, has far reaching implications and can determine many aspects of our everyday lives. 

What drives the gift giver is more important than the gift itself. The gift can become a commodity of exchange. 

The content that people most readily share is the content that they feel makes them look good, intelligent, caring and a whole lot of other feelings. 

Their sharing behavior is an online representation of themselves. Or more accurately. Who they would like us to believe they are.

It's like giving them a megaphone or holding a mirror up to themselves. Their content shares reflect their personal opinions, values and attitudes.  

Many animal species, including birds and mammals, regularly give each other gifts, usually but not exclusively; related to courtship rituals.

It has been extensively studied in both the Psychology of gift giving, and the Sociology of the Gift ritual

Most research has focused on the social cohesion aspects of these practices.

This gifting behavior is evident in contemporary life. In our interactions on social networks :- Posts, Likes, Shares and Comments.

Reciprocity or mutual reciprocal assistance, according to many economists, is based on rational self interest. 

The idea is simple. 'You help me, and I will help you'

In terms of social networking, this model appears to make sense but does it really work. 

Some people share things randomly with no thought of reciprocity, these types of shares I have labelled as a 'pure gift'. There is no expectation of reciprocity.  

To the person doing the sharing, the object has become their property, with the originator removed from the gift/post in question. 
The originator of the content may get a mention or credit occasionally.

The person that produced the object (gift) also feels no obligation to share the other persons content either. There is no social relationship between these two agents.

Pinterest is a perfect example of this phenomenon. People make up boards of other peoples photos with no thought of where it came from, or any feeling that they should even thank the originator of the work.

Up to and until they become content creators themselves, when this form of reciprocity may appear quite important. It may be useful to have your work shared, but what is really going on here.

When we drop our photos into pinterest, people just pin them wherever they like, they may follow you, because they find your work interesting, or more often because they want you to follow them back.

If a content creator spends a little time on search engine optimization (SEO) and in the process make their content useful and easy to find. Then they do not have to get involved with this aspect of social interaction, giving and sharing, but they still do.

So the question is why do so many people continue sharing other peoples work.  They may have formed a relationship, in the process of developing an online presence or persona.

Gift or Commodity

The gift of sharing then; becomes a commodity in itself, that can be exchanged for reciprocal shares from those whose products you share. This is a common feature of many online communities, and as we have seen, it is not necessary with a little SEO.
So sharing under these terms cannot be considered altruistic. (unselfish)

Working together obviously works better and faster than going it alone. In the process people can and do form mutual bonds of assistance.

Someone in your social network will share something with you, a nice photo, article or video and if they have a monetary interest, then it is not a gift at all, but a commodity that they want you to share.

The concept that  'we don't give to receive' seems at odds with some online behavior. 

We like to think that altruism is at the core of our beliefs about gifts. Our actions suggest another reality.

Search engines like Google encourage this commodity exchange and is in the weird position of being both gamekeeper and poacher. 
They want people to share things, but at the same time they do not want people to 'game the system' (manipulate posting activity)  

They solve this dual dilemma by monitoring the number of shares of a particular post, after the social network group has finished their sharing activity. 
If the shared item is of little interest i.e. no one else shares it, then it may be demoted in importance, relevance and page rank.

Is the gift ritual changing, and what impact may this have on social cohesion. Is the web socially cohesive or divisive. 

To understand this we need to look into the social, psychological and historical roots of gift giving. What was the purpose? Was there a purpose? Are some forms of sharing, a truly altruistic or unselfish trait.

The prime reason to cooperate is grounded in survival of the self and the wider tribe. Mutual assistance in this case makes sense but doesn't describe altruism. 
The member of the tribe that jumps in front of the charging elephant to save the tribe is exhibiting truly altruistic behavior. Knowing he will not survive, still jumps in. He gave the tribe the ultimate gift. We see this behavior in the fire fighter, who enters a burning building to save strangers.
  
Gift giving can have deep psychological meanings. It is used by many societies as a bonding ritual, and also as a form of control, involving a wide range of human characteristics including, who has the most power, in terms of influence or financial status.


In familial settings these intentions can be expressed in 'who gave the most expensive gift, or the least thoughtful gift'. It can become a real minefield of politics and emotions.

There are records of the island people of Yap, Micronesia and elsewhere, who solved the problem of having little on no material goods to gift to others. They resolved this by giving each other shaped stones. These stones took on a unique value over time. The older the stone the more valuable it became.

This simple, elegant solution helped to remove peer pressure, as everyone was in the same position. The giving of lucky or wish stones is still a common practice today, even in western culture. 

The stones are passed around by the Yap islanders. After a few years the giver will probably get their own stone back again. It solves a problem, in which everyone can give equally, and no-one loses face.
This isolated island example, indicates that there is something significant going on here. It has a deep meaning and everything to do with social cohesion. Or keeping everyone happy and together. 


There are many examples in nature. Birds exchange gifts and Adele penguins also give their partners stones, as well as mating for life.

There is something important going on in this apparently simple behavior  It is not as simple as we may assume. Primarily it has implications for survival.

There is a delicate balance between giver and receiver. The receiver, is allowing the giver, the privilege of thinking about a gift for them. Which they can accept graciously. 

The giver is in the powerful position of deciding, which gift to give. A deliberately ill considered gift, can cause offense. This of course may be the desired effect or alternatively. The giving of a gift that financially cannot be reciprocated, can be interpreted as a form of economic dominance, and therefore quite abusive.

The giver gets a payoff, because it may make the giver feel  good, to give something to someone, so isn't that actually a selfish act. 

The receiver may not be in a financial position to reciprocate, and so may feel pressure and develop a resentment, towards the giver.

Reciprocity Is Complicated

Maybe you feel obligated to give a gift. Then you feel annoyed, that you have let your emotions get the better of you. 

Like fish in a shoal we generally want to go with the flow. Reciprocity can be a strong characteristic. Being unable to reciprocate can have negative effects emotionally. There are examples of pure altruism all around us. 

Acts of pure altruism exist


How many times have you dug deep into your pocket, to help someone you will never know or meet. 
Some people or animals may have been caught up in some disaster, and the only thing that you can do, is to give some money to the relief fund. 
Helping someone in the street, who has fallen over.  Returning mail that has been wrongly delivered to you, and the myriad of other ways that we help each other daily, with no reward in mind. 

Gift giving and the nature of sharing on the web is influenced by who we are. Every tribe has selfless members. The way we interact online will reflect this.

The web has made meeting people worldwide much easier. It may in time lead to more social cohesion rather than less.

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