Digital gifts: Participation and gift exchange in LiveJournal communities
First Monday

Digital gifts: Participation and gift exchange in LiveJournal communities by Erika Pearson



Abstract
This paper explores notions and rationales of gift exchange among participants of the social networking site ‘LiveJournal.’ While gift exchanges can be framed as a form of power relations, this paper argues that they also have the potential to function as a way of forming and maintaining social bonds, and of maintaining individual and collective identity within the virtual social space.

Contents

Introduction
The gift
Gift–giving in LiveJournal
Reasons for the gift
Conclusion and further questions

 


 

Introduction

Exchanging gifts as a social activity has been extensively documented in anthropology and historical studies. Yet ideas of the gift and gift exchange on the Internet have only recently become a topic of interest. For example, writers such as Ghosh (1998) and Barbrook (1998) have both noted that online, gift economies are linked to processes of developing reputation and social capital within their social networks, and along with writers such as Bays and Mowbray (1999), Veale (2003), Zeitlyn (2003), McGee and Skågeby (2004), and Ripeanu, et al. (2006) among others, have noted that there are a number of possible motivations for users to freely gift their time, expertise, or other commodity to their social networks. These possible motivations include indirect reciprocity (financial or otherwise), to exploit the capacities of the technology to facilitate an abundance of infinitely replicable (digital) capital, social prestige, as a social ‘glue’ to hold a community together, and even simply for a sense of personal satisfaction. Rheingold (1993) and Kollock (1999) have argued more generally that exchanges of ideas, information, cultural product, technical assistance, and gossip could be seen as formulating the basis of a gift economy, one which facilitates non–linear exchanges in time, energy and knowledge amongst community participants.

This paper intends to explore further the notion of gift exchanges in cyberspace, specifically looking at various types of gift–exchanges amongst LiveJournal [1] users. In particular, this paper intends to demonstrate that gift exchanges in this context act as a public good, a way of strengthening social bonds, as well as a way of displaying worth and status, and as a way of generating prestige and merit amongst participants. In doing so, it will argue that, unlike earlier anthropological and socio–economic notions of the gift economy that see the exchange as one of power relations, gift exchanges within online LiveJournal communities are more focused on creating and reinforcing lateral bonds within the technological boundaries of the virtual community.

 

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The gift

Before exploring ideas of the gift as connected to Internet communities such as those on LiveJournal, it is first necessary to explore what is understood by the gift. As already noted, the idea of gifts and gift exchange as a way of maintaining social relations has long been a focus of research, particularly in anthropology. Marcel Mauss’ 1924 Essai sur le don (Essay on the gift) is still often cited in discussions on gifts and gift exchange, but the study of gifts has expanded out to encompass social, economic, political and cultural discussions. Notions of gifts and the gift economy retain strong historical overtones — gift economies are seen as pre–modern artifacts that have no place in capitalist societies (Rehn, 2004). Perhaps for this reason, there is still only preliminary scholarship that explores the notion of the gift in virtual environments and the active social relations they help support. This paper will not reiterate all this prior scholarship, but will instead focus in particular on notions of gifts and gift exchanges as part of social practices that create and maintain social bonds.

Gift exchange is nebulous activity that can be difficult to fully articulate. In the past gifts have been defined by the participants, the intentions, and even the levels of reciprocity expected in the exchange (Komter, 1996a, 1996b; see also Godelier, 1999). In its most general terms, a gift exchange may be defined as “a system of redundant transactions within a moral economy, which makes possible the extended reproduction of social relations.” [2] Cheal’s definition highlights the idea of transaction within existing social relations, implying that the relationships presuppose the gift (Milbank, 2006; Roster, 2006). However, it is arguable that Cheal’s approach is too strongly influenced by economic interests. For the purposes of this discussion, it may be useful to develop an understanding of gifts and gift exchange which maintains this link to social relations whilst also creating some distance between the gift and economic (especially capitalist) interests. At its most basic level, a gift is an offer of an object or services between two or more parties without immediate overt demand or expectation of like recompense (Kollock, 1999; Osteen, 2002). It is still arguable that in gift economies, there is an implicit expectation that the gift will be reciprocated, if not to the original giver, than back via other means, such as through a common pool of social capital (Osteen, 2002, see also Appadurai, 1986; Schwartz, 1996).

Social capital can be defined as “the processes between people which establish networks, norms and social trust and facilitate co–ordination and co–operation for mutual benefit.” [3] In such networks, participants often voluntarily do work (or exchange gifts) which benefit not only those directly connected to the exchange, but the network as a whole. This collective benefit can be thought of as a pool of social capital, just as our bank accounts represent our pool of financial capital. And just like a collective bank account, capital can be deposited into the network’s pool of accumulated social capital by things such as the exchange of gifts, and withdrawn through requests made to the network, group or community as a whole.

But how are such exchanges monitored to ensure that participants aren’t taking from the pool without putting back? In cyberspace, the exchange of gifts often takes place in a public forum. The group as a whole then has a memory of the act of giving and receiving, and can respond accordingly the next time a gift is given or a request made (Rheingold, 1993). However, this collective memory relies on participants being identifiable over a long period of time. Therefore, certain online environments can be seen to be more conducive to the accumulation of social capital and economies of gift exchange than others.

As Ippolito (2001) notes, the early Internet was founded on a notion of gift exchange. Ippolito’s vision of the early Internet may be informed as much by the myths surrounding the Internet’s creation as by the actual history, but there are still areas of Internet–based activity and development, such as the open source movement, which fit Ippolito’s idea of a network facilitating the free exchange of gifts of code, knowledge and ideas, without expectation of material recompense. Their reward, if any, for these efforts is “something intangible like public prestige or personal satisfaction.” [4]

... exchanges of gifts within these flexible social networks not only strengthen social bonds between participants ... but they also constitute social displays of community participation and prestige ...

Such ‘intangible’ exchanges can also be observed between participants in LiveJournal–based social networks also support similar gift exchanges. LiveJournal (or LJ, as the users themselves casually refer to it), is a social networking site “with an emphasis on user interaction” (LiveJournal FAQ, 2007). Within the technological framework set up by LiveJournal, users can post public, ‘friend–only,’ or private messages. The readership of their journal is, in the latter two categories, under the control of users. In public mode, anyone can read the postings made, whether or not they have a LJ of their own. Part of the LJ format is the ability to add other users, known as ‘friends,’ to your journal, and be added as a friend to others. The friend’s utility of the software automatically collates the postings of every other user on that list into one page, making it easier to read the other entries. The hypertext–supported internal code system also allows users to link easily to other users, or to specific posts. It is mainly through these two functions that the rhizomic webs of interconnection are formed between users (Wray, 1998). These webs create a flexible, dynamic technological/informational network upon which a social structure might form. It is the contention of this paper that exchanges of gifts within these flexible social networks not only strengthen social bonds between participants (through reciprocal exchanges within the framework of a wider gift economy), or provide a public good, but they also constitute social displays of community participation and prestige, and form part of the process of maintenance of social relations (Roster, 2006).

It must be noted that this approach to gifts as being an offer without expectation of direct recompense runs somewhat against earlier ideas of Mauss and his supporters. Mauss’ ideas of the gift strongly imply notions of having power over others within a hierarchy [5]. Whether the Internet supports or challenges hierarchy is still an area of strong debate, and so in acknowledgement of what might best be termed the capacity for the Internet to support non–hierarchical social structures, this paper will consider gifts and gift economies from the perspective of maintaining mutual and reciprocal social relations rather than as a way for individuals or groups to achieve social dominance within such hierarchies. The idea of such power relations existing within such gift–orientated exchanges is a fascinating one, but falls outside the purview of this discussion.

Abstract discussions of what constitutes the gift could continue further, but at this juncture, it may be more productive to turn to look at the Internet, more specifically at LiveJournal itself, in order to develop ideas of the gift as relating to such Internet–supported communities.

 

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Gift–giving in LiveJournal

In order to explore the motivations of gifting in LJ itself, it is first necessary to distinguish the different types of gifts exchanged. There have been some attempts to classify or order gifts (McGee and Skâgeby, 2004), but it can be argued that gifts on LJ can be classified into two general categories: object–gifts and effort–gifts. Object–gifts are the exchange of physical objects or monetary gifts. These may comprise of what are known in certain online circles as ‘care packages,’ [6] or might be a payment to ensure the recipients continued presence online. In this particular case, this may be a gift of ‘paid user time’ on LJ (paid user accounts have more functions and features than the generic free or advertising–supported accounts) or paid/hosted Web space. In both cases, the giver of the gift has some taken on a level of financial burden in giving the gift, such as in purchasing an artifact or in providing storage or bandwidth, to use McGee and Skâgeby’s terminology. Especially in terms of the latter type of object–gifts, the act of gift giving may be explained using the notion of participatory gift–giving.

Effort-gifts are gifts which are created through the effort, skills or knowledge of the giver. Examples of such gifts include graphical images (especially the small graphical icons which act as a combined personal avatar and expression of virtual identity within LJ), fiction or other literary works, or gifts of time and companionship (such as ‘lending a sympathetic ear’). They may also consist of technical advice or gifts of expertise (such as Web design, offers to edit professional/academic/creative works), or the free donation of otherwise specialized knowledge which would in the commercial sphere be prohibitively expensive or unavailable to the recipient.

In both cases, the onus is on the giver to expend the energy (through either financial expense for the object–gifts, or time and knowledge for the effort–gifts) to create and exchange the gift. So this begs the question; why do participants go to these lengths to give these gifts, often to others with whom they have had only virtual connections?

If you ask an LJ user why they give gifts to other users, the first response you are likely to receive is a variation of ‘because I wanted to.’ However, it is possible to ascribe at least four other possible motivations for gift–giving in this environment. These can be classified as acts for reciprocity, acts as participation, acts as a public good, and acts of enhanced reputation.

 

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Reasons for the gift

Kollock (1999) notes that there are many possible reasons why people participate in gift exchanges. Firstly, there is the notion of the gift being reciprocated at a later date, which is the notion of the gift most closely aligned to anthropological notions of the gift. This idea ties in with the concept of a group accumulating social capital through its identified participants exchanging gifts amongst each other, as discussed earlier. Cheal (1988) notes that gifts are often symmetrically reciprocal, in that the ‘worth’ of the gift given will in some way balance with the worth of the gift the sender at another time may receive. Symmetrical reciprocity would suggest that there is a kind of informal balance sheet operating over time within the collective memory of the group, tallying deposits against withdrawals, which resonates with Rheingold’s (1993) observations regarding gift and requests in the WELL community (see also Kollock, 1999). However, this idea of reciprocity doesn’t account for gifts that are given anonymously — something which can easily occur in a virtual environment.

In LJ communities in particular, object–gifts of paid account time can be given anonymously through the existing technological infrastructures. In such situations, the notion of some nebulous form of ‘deposit and withdrawal’ tally seems untenable. However, such gifts may be a way for the giver of the gift to ensure the continued participation of other users without themselves and their motivations coming under scrutiny. Such a gift exchange may seem attractive to so–called ‘lurkers’ (those who observe the exchanges, activities and bonds in a community without directly participating themselves) but does challenge existing notions of gift–giving as a reciprocal exchange.

Another reason for gift exchange may be one of participation. This notion explains gift–giving as a tool for implementing change or evolution within the group. Participatory gift–giving may explain object gifts given to freely or anonymously to other participants of online groups as a way of ensuring they remain actively involved in the group as it grows and evolves. In terms of effort–gifts, which are usually less tangible and more of an artistic nature, participatory gift–giving may be strongly tied in with notions of meritocracy, which are explored in more detail below.

A third reason for gift–giving is the notion of use–value (Osteen, 2002). Under the framework of use–value, gifts are given purely because there is a need their gift can satisfy, without any conscious thought of social or personal gain motivating the act of giving. This is a useful if basic framework, which ties to the idea of maintaining the underlying infrastructure of the community, especially through object–gifts (which often has some tangible worth beyond that of goodwill and ‘warm fuzzy feelings’). There is no way for the user to identify their benefactor, and therefore the giver cannot receive reward (either through increased status, or future reciprocity). The gift is given purely to meet a need. This seems to better account for the notion of anonymous object–gifts, in that by giving gifts such as LJ time or Web space, the supplier of the gift is ensuring the continuing participation of others in their shared community, without forcing the receiver of the gift into a cycle of reciprocity. However, it is arguable that such a functionalist explanation for the reason behind the gift may be too basic and does not account for secondary or parallel motivations of status within or engagement with the community of users into which the gift was injected.

Finally, there is the idea that a gift is given to improve the gift givers reputation within that community. This is an especially interesting idea when linked to older myths of the Internet as a meritocracy — a place where displays of knowledge and ‘worth’ (a terms whose definition can be seen to vary from community to community) are more valued than financial wealth or economic success. As Pinchot notes, “[i]n a gift economy, status is accorded to those who give the most to others.” [7] Therefore, the gift may enhance the givers prestige value, perhaps even earning them access to a larger portion of the community’s accumulated social capital. But apart from this delayed payoff, the giving of the gift may also lead to more immediate acclaim from peers, raising the profile of their online identity up through the ranks of any internal meritocracy that may be in effect. These facets of the idea of gift giving to enhance reputation are reliant on the idea that, at the very least, it is publicly known that the gift was given. But to continue this notion of gift–exchange as a way to increase status, it could be argued that the gift itself must be given publicly, to make the gift open to public acclaim, and consequently the giver open to elevation within the community. This notion works much better with effort–gifts than with object–gifts, which is to be expected if it is to be argued that merit in virtual social networks such as is found between LiveJournal users is separate from notions of financial status. This framing of the gift links back to the ideas of Mauss and others who saw gift exchange as part of an on–going power dynamic, but I would argue that within an online community such LiveJournal, such a desire for elevation is a concurrent rather than sole reason for gifting [8].

Accepting gifts

As has been shown, there are many possible reasons why people give gifts to people they only interact with in virtual spaces. But why do people accept these gifts? At a very simplistic level, there is the notion that gifts are accepted purely out of courtesy — that is would be churlish to refuse a gift someone with who you participate with and have a social bond with (be it online or off) has gone to the effort to prepare and give you. However, LJ users have indicated [9] that they would refuse a gift (especially an object gift) from someone they did not know well online, which suggests that there are limits and boundaries to the exchange of gifts.

Apart from this, there are two other possible explanations for the accepting of gifts in online communities such as those of LiveJournal. Firstly, there is the desire on the behalf of the recipient(s) for the gift object. This may be especially relevant to object–gifts, or gifts that are given as a public good to fulfill a perceived need. Secondly, there is the idea that, by being singled out as a recipient of a gift, the receiver is somehow being rewarded within their own community. This may be especially true of effort–gifts, where there is no observable material gain in receiving the gift (such as a new icon, or a piece of fiction). However, by either publicly receiving the gift, or being known publicly to having been a recipient, the receiver’s own social status may increase, most probably alongside the status of the supplier of that gift. However, this also suggests the potential for a cycle of reciprocity where givers and receivers compete in a way for public acclaim, social capital, or elevation of status. This echoes Maussian notions of the ‘potlatch’ and gifting as competition for relative social status.

the act of exchanging gifts ... might also be seen in terms of the way participants can reinforce their sense of belonging to this network or group ...

Wellman and Gulia state that “[a]ll CSSNs (computer supported social networks) provide companionship, social support, information, and a sense of belonging.” [10] If the interpersonal connections supported and maintained by the LiveJournal format can be considered a social network, then perhaps the act of exchanging gifts (be they object or effort gifts) might also be seen in terms of the way participants can reinforce their sense of belonging to this network or group. By being included or ignored in the circulation of gifts, participants are being publicly excluded from or included in certain social networks. In other words, by being allowed to contribute to and access the collected pool of social capital, participants are being recognized as part of that group. Similarly, it has been noted that the exchange of gifts “imposes an identity upon the giver as well as the receiver.” [11] It could therefore be argued that the exchange and circulation of gifts of both types could constitute part of the identity–formation processes within that group at both the individual and community level.

An event which is common in LJ user circles (due to the specific technological tools in place) is something known as ‘friendslock.’ A friendslock is when the poster seals the message so only selected participants can read and access the post. In terms of this discussion of gift exchange, questions need to be asked about the impact such locks have on displays of meritocracy and cycles of reciprocity. Specifically in terms of effort gifts, it could be argued that sealing such gifts behind a friendslock actively delineates the community who can participate in or benefit from this exchange. Such delineation also leads to a conscious decision as to who is included or excluded from the communal exchange process. If (as has already been argued) the pools of social capital that help to create and maintain social bonds between participants are reliant on this exchange of gift, then it can be seen limiting who has access to this gift cycle also limits with whom these social bonds can be formed. Furthermore, it could be argued that placing gifts behind friendslock is also a display of relative privilege or merit. For example, if a user is granted access to this posting, then that user can assume they have been ‘deemed worthy’ of participating in that cycle of social capital, or virtual sub–community. Such ideas open a host of questions about social networking behaviours that support and are supported by interactions such as the gift exchange.

One final point which needs to be touched on briefly is the concept of non–intentional gift exchanges. Such exchanges might also be considered asymmetrical gift exchanges, in that only one ‘side’ of the exchange considers their act to be of giving a gift. Asymmetrical exchanges may be intricately connected to either public goods and merit displays, in that the cycle of exchange is started off not by the giving of a gift, but by the participant making public something which, whilst not intended to be given as a gift in the sense that has been discussed above, is nevertheless considered to be a gift by those who consume it. For example, a participant may make public Web space they owned but did not use to group members who needed but did not have the resources to acquire such storage space. This sender may consider such behaviour a functional act (‘you may as well use it’). In recognition of their consumption (enjoyment or usage), they gift to the original sender some token, (‘this picture is for X, who gave me the webspace!’), thus creating a social bond between two participants who might otherwise have remained unlinked.

Gift exchange and social bonds

Having looked at possible explanations as to why participants give and receive gifts, it may be useful to examine how these exchanges affect social bonding.

At a basic level, gift exchanges within communities serve to tie people together into loops of reciprocal obligation. In the case of gift exchanges in large virtual communities such as LJ, these loops may become tangled and complicated as the gifts move through the overlapping rhizomic webs of connection between participants. By including other participants in the gift exchange, whether it be by ensured continued participation or by making the gift itself available to all in the community, the gifts acts to bond together participants, making the individuals feel connected and linked into something larger than their own immediate social (internodal) connections.

On another level, gift exchanges (especially ones where knowledge of the exchange or the exchange itself) can be seen as displays of relative skill or merit. In particular, gifts of knowledge, skill or creativity lend themselves to peacock–like displays for the wider community (links by these circulating flows of social capital) to enjoy and acclaim. Such acclaim may reinforce participants’ willingness to make the effort to give gifts, providing added incentive to continue to offer capital into the system. This added incentive (the ‘ego boost,’ an idolization and acclaim of peers) may also help to keep the communities’ social capital ‘account’ balanced against members who consume freely of the offered gifts, but who, for various reasons, offer little in return themselves.

It can be seen that effort gifts are more about social bonds between participants who can access the virtual realms of such communities. Effort gifts are predominantly ‘virtual’ themselves — information, data, goods, that can be created, transmitted, and retransmitted virtually. In many cases, effort gifts can also be digitally copied, replicated and passed from one participant to another. It could be argued for example that an image created as a gift for one group of participants could be ‘regifted’ over and over, perhaps loosing its novelty value as it is passed along those rhizomic webs connecting participants and groups. This differs from object gifts, which are usually discrete, non–replicable entities. A gift of LJ user time cannot, in itself, be passed along or reused. For the gift to repeat, more money has to be spent — unlike effort gifts, the process has to begin over again from the beginning each time. This suggests that object gifts are renewed as gifts each time they are sent, but that effort gifts may loose their value as gifts the further they move from the original gift exchange. The attached social and interpersonal ties and values erode as the gift is retransmitted, becoming in a way part of the communal ‘public domain’ unless re–laden with new social ties or expectations.

 

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Conclusion and further questions

The above discussion has looked at the process of gift exchange in one limited environment under a particular set of social and technological circumstances. However, by looking more broadly at gift exchanges in cyberspace, it may become necessary to clarify certain issues.

Firstly, this paper has delineated gifts into only two categories: effort and object. Particularly for effort gifts, it may be necessary to further break down and classify the nature of the gift, the intent in giving, and the expectations of receiving. These sub–categories may then be used to tease out different ‘flavours’ of social bonding that may result from the exchange of such gifts. Or alternatively, closer examination may reveal that the same basic patterns apply no matter the nature of either the group or the gift. In a similar vein, such a sub–classification may lead to a better understanding of the different levels of merit and social status awarded to the creators/givers of such gifts.

Secondly, although it has been implied here that gifts may cross community boundaries, the question of whether these transient gifts take with them the social bonds and relative merits that it has generated is one that would benefit from further research. Are gifts contextual? Does moving a gift to a different context alter the nature or intensity of the social bonds it may generate? Or can a gift have value even if removed from the communal network in which it was first generated? To understand these questions will need a far broader scope than just individual LJ communities as was used here.

In conclusion, it can be seen that gift exchanges in these communities can serve multiple functions. On the surface, they may be considered merely an exchange amongst like–minded participants. However, they can also serve a deeper function, maintaining social bonds, constructing virtual identities, and ensuring continued presence of participants. Furthermore, such exchanges, especially those that reflect the creativity and skill of the gift–giver, may arguably act in such a way as to garner social status and elevate ‘worthy’ individuals up through the social hierarchy. End of article

 

About the author

Erika Pearson is a lecturer in communications at the Department of Film, Media and Communications, University of Otago, New Zealand, focusing on digital and visual culture and communication.

 

Notes

1. http://www.livejournal.com is the primary LJ user site. However, the source code for the journal format has been appropriated by other communities (such as http://www.deadjournal.com/ amongst others) and the same technological approaches which facilitate community are replicated across the Web.

2. Cheal, 1988, p. 19.

3. Cox, 1995, p. 15.

4. Ippolito, 2001, pp. 159–160.

5. Godelier, 1999, p. 45.

6. Care packages often contain physical objects which are unique to the senders’ region (such as foodstuffs, postcards, etc), and/or objects which represent some shared interest between the participants (i.e.: tapes of a favourite show, magazines, pictures, information, etc). They can combine aspects of both object and effort gifts.

7. Pinchot, 1995, p. 49.

8. As a side note to this, it is interesting to observe that it may be possible to measure, at least crudely, elevations in social status of an individual user through any increases in the number of ‘friends lists’ they are added to. By being added to others’ friends lists, it is implied that other users find the LJ posts to be worth reading — and since meritocracies are, by definition, hierarchies of knowledge and intellectual/social worth, this therefore suggests that the original user is gaining status amongst their fellow LiveJournalists.

9. One LJ user said in private conversation: “Why we accept gifts? Because a while ago someone I only knew online wanted to give me a gift, and I said no, because he was someone I wasn’t entirely comfortable with, and wasn’t entirely friends with, and I didn’t want to feel like I owed him anything.” And later; “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to have to buy him stuff in return, although that was partly it. It was more that I didn’t want to feel obliged to talk to him and be his friend. When a friend buys you a gift, it’s okay, because you’re already friends and you’ve chosen to talk to that person, but when someone you don’t like so much wants to get you something, you don’t want them to, because you accepting it would somehow mean that you were required to maintain contact with that person.” (8 May 2003 and 9 May 2003).

10. Wellman and Gulia, 1999, p. 169.

11. Schwartz, 1996, p. 70.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 13 March 2007; revised 30 March 2007; accepted 15 April 2007.


Copyright ©2007, Erika Pearson.

Digital gifts: Participation and gift exchange in LiveJournal communities by Erika Pearson
First Monday, volume 12, number 5 (May 2007),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_5/pearson/index.html





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