The Gift Community

Jul 22, 2017

How to burn social media and make it better

If we’re being honest about social media, here’s the moment that broke me: in a Facebook group of people I went to college with, one of them posted three part exciting news—they were moving city, moving to a new role in a new church, and they had a baby on the way.

And in response? 24 people had left a thumbs up. Not a single comment. None of those twenty-four had taken the six seconds or so to type out ‘congratulations!’. Doubtless others had seen it and not bothered with the like.

I know these people well, I spent four years with them, and without exception they are kind and loving, well-suited to the vocation of ministry, people whose kids my kids happily played with.

None of them would think it would be acceptable in a physical conversation to answer an announcement like that with a thumbs up. None of them would treat the physical announcement with less than handshakes, hugs, shouts of excitement.

It is possible, I suppose, that they thought that all of that was translated into the single click of a like button. But I suspect it is more likely that when provided with the easiest avenue of least resistance for caring, they took that road.

And this is not about them, nor that moment, so much as what that moment made realise. It made me realise that social media has inoculated us against caring intentionally about people that we care about.

And that it has replaced intentional care with callousness, disregard, and a void of empathy.

We broke the internet; the internet broke us.

We thought it would be a good idea to allow everyone in the world instant access to the mailboxes of everyone else in the global village and the mailboxes filled up with spam and hate mail.

We thought it would be a good idea to let communities form around shared interests and hobbies bypassing the limits of geography and social physicality and communities gathered around hate speech, racism and all the other worst parts of all of us.

We thought it would be a good idea to let anyone contribute to the global near-instant conversation using Twitter and the sweet serendipity of a small digital neighbourhood turned into a wilderness of outrage porn and hate mobs.

One of the underlying problems is that the motivation for big box social media is not community but profit. And while monetary profit is tied to clicks and views, the pressure is always going to be to put more things in front of more people, a task as Sisyphean as trying to reach the bottom of an endlessly scrolling page.

The lie here is that social media is ‘free’. There is no money paid but it’s cost is high: letting advertisers know the extent of your social network and the degrading of your productivity and the eroding of your awareness and the privacy of your data and the pulling of your time—the seconds and hours of your one and only life—into a sinkhole while you hope in vain for another hit, another single synapse spark of amusement, or amazement, or anger.

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But of course, anything we broke: we can fix.

I truly believe community and social media can become places where people can flourish. But to do so means including the wholeness of people into their DNA, their ethos, and their behaviour—both in the tech sense, and the human sense. Because really, both are, or should be, the same thing.

And I suspect that it has to do that from the ground up. Recent attempts to keep the worst of people off Twitter and Facebook increasingly look like trying to fight a forest fire with a water pistol. Nobody wants to say it, but it’s actually good business for them to include racists and bigots in their ‘community’, because controversy leads to views and ‘engagement’, and views lead to profit.

One of the problems with social media and technology unbounded by ethics is that it takes everything that we, human beings, are not and tries to make us less like ourselves. Social media as is, is designed around selfishness, a reality distortion field that asks who is in your network, who you follow.

Which is why I wonder if part of an answer might lie in the gift.

Design for gift-giving

The Gift by Lewis Hyde, is a book about creativity and what it means to be an artist in a world of commerce but also gives us insight into what a gift community can look like, and what we lack when gifts do not flow throughout a community.

Hyde starts from the premise of art being a gift. This idea is reflected in our language: ‘I love your painting, you have such a gift’. But he writes that maybe one of the reasons there is such confusion about artists and art and the way that they interact with our modern economy is that we’ve lost sight of what a gift actually is, and what it should be for.

That is, throughout the history of most cultures, gifts are considered not as property but as something to be passed on. And so if art is a gift, it isn’t meant to be kept, it’s meant to be passed on. The gift has to keep on moving or it dies. When a gift is met with selfishness and propriety, it ceases to be a gift.

In this sense, gifts have different capacities: they can function as shared history as they pass from person to person, they can inaugurate the transitional and threshold markers of age. Gifts can establish gratitude, relationship and connection.

Gifts here are not only physical gifts but the gifts of ideas, the gifts of creativity, the gifts of art:

The commerce of art draws each of its participants into a wider self. The creative spirit moves in a body or ego larger than that of any single person.

In a sense, the ideal of a gift-giving community is simple: we see the limitations of the labour of our own two hands, or the capacity of our own limited thoughts. Nourished by the labour next to us, and the conversations that arise around the campfire, we, together, make something greater. We see that we are making something that we could not have made by ourselves.

At its worst, social media is a tarnished, funhouse mirror inversion of this ideal: we become much less than ourselves, accomplish much less with our hands, and are driven backwards by something less than conversation.

When we deal with gifts, we are dealing in commerce with the self. Hyde writes that ’it is not when a part of the self is inhibited and restrained, but when a part of the self is given away, that community appears’.

So what if we designed communities with gift-giving built in? What if they were designed not with ‘what metrics can we extract’ but how we can allow users to give themselves away, so that a community might appear?

The community that gives

The best community I think will be one that is created for a season and then moves on to sow smaller communities in its wake.

It’s a mistake to think that communities have to be static. The gift has to move throughout the community—but also into and out of the community, both within and outside of the people. It can be good for communities to be closed to the outside for a while: to create closeness, to incubate relationships in a particular season of life.

But there also comes a time that communities have to open up again. Communities that don’t do this become, at best, a clique, and at worst a cult.

But the ideal of a community has to be one not that remains forever encased in glass, but one that is alive and then moves outwards, equipping its community to create smaller communities around them, and enabling their gifts to spread and spread and spread.