How to Thrive in Social Media’s Gift Economy

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To understand a gift economy, consider the example of moving into a new apartment. When friends help you move, you express your appreciation by providing pizza and beer — really good pizza and beer. When you hire professional movers, you pay with money. Offer your friends money instead of pizza and beer, and they are likely to be offended. Offer to pay the movers in pizza and beer, and they won’t unload the truck. Your friends are operating in a gift economy; the movers in a market economy.
While both market and gift economies are systems of exchange, they differ in three fundamental ways.

1) Context: Transaction or Relationship 
In a market economy, the focus is on transactions. In a gift economy, the focus is on relationships. Trobriand Islanders passed along necklaces and armbands as part of a ritual called the Kula Ring. An item’s value was not determined by supply and demand, or measured by a market price. Instead, its value came from the relationship between the giver and receiver and its meaning in the community.

2) Currency: Financial or Social
In a market economy, people use money as a medium of exchange — a financial currency. In a gift economy, people use social currencies. The purpose of a social currency is not to execute a transaction, but to express a relationship. Social currencies don’t have a price set in the market. In the moving example, pizza and beer are a social currency.

Note that social currencies are not the same as virtual currencies. Facebook “Likes” are social currencies, while Facebook Credits are virtual currencies. There is no price on a Facebook Like, while Facebook Credits have a clear market value.

But just because something has a monetary value doesn’t mean it can’t be a social currency. In the moving example, imagine if one of your friends drove a long way to help you out. It would be entirely appropriate to give your friend some gas money to cover the extra cost. The key point here is that the context is relational, not transactional.

3) Status: Earned or Bought
A tell-tale sign of a gift economy is that status is earned, rather than bought. In the Pacific Northwest, native tribes developed the ritual of the potlatch. Status was given not to those who accumulated the most wealth, but instead to those who gave the most to the community.

On a Google search page, you can see these two worlds of earned and purchased status side-by-side. In the middle of the page, so-called “organic” search results are earned based on a site’s popularity. In contrast, the ads in the top rows and right-hand column are based on how much advertisers have paid for the spot.

Social media are fundamentally gift economies. People are there to cultivate relationships, not conduct transactions. They exchange social currencies, not financial currencies. And status is earned not bought.

This illuminates why many brands are struggling with social media. They have confused market and gift economies. They focus entirely on transactions, buying status, and pushing products and promotions.