The gift economy as described by Rheingold (1993), is a community where help and information is offered without the expectation of any direct, immediate quid-pro-quo. In the online community, everything that has to do with the sharing of information seems to revolve around this concept. This act of sharing information then, be it giving advice on how to repair a gadget or even teaching someone how to play an instrument, is our gift to the world.
Take the recent phenomenon of YouTube for example. It is a popular free video sharing website that allows users to upload and share their videos with the world. In such an economy, information is shared explicitly with others. Moreover, with its system of allowing other users to rate the videos, comment on them, and subscribe to their favorites, YouTube isn’t merely a website to view videos, but also one where active participation and interaction with the audience is possible (YouTube, 2007).
To illustrate the point that YouTube is a gift economy, let me briefly explain how my brother is actively involved in it.
Just about two months back, my brother decided to hop on the bandwagon and get involved with the YouTube community. His motivation was fueled by the growing numbers of Christian music related videos being posted. Since he had the gift of playing the guitar, he decided to post some videos of himself to contribute to the community. The videos he posted then, are his gifts.
According to Bell (1991), gift economies are driven by social relations. In the instance of my brother, posting his videos on YouTube has brought him many viewers as shown below:
Moreover, he has had 85 individuals subscribe to his videos, forming the social relations that drive gift economies. To take the matter one step further, he has had constant communication through messages posted by users in his inbox.
These users usually ask him to create separate instructional videos on how to play certain songs, or to request for him to perform another song that they wish to learn, and he dutifully responds to their requests. More often than not, it may seem like a one-way transaction with my brother posting up videos upon the users requests. However, the transactions are indeed two-way, whereby he in turn receives the satisfaction of having helped out somebody in the community.
The whole business of sharing videos over YouTube truly constitutes a gift economy. When the Internet first came about, people never expected the sharing of information to proliferate to such an extent. According to Kollock (1999), he stated that "given that online interaction is relatively anonymous, that there is no central authority, and that it is difficult or impossible to impose monetary or physical sanctions on someone, it is striking that the Internet is not literally a war of all against all." Instead, there is a great deal of sharing and cooperation over the internet, as can be seen in the case of YouTube.
However on the flip side of the coin, this gift economy can also bring about certain detrimental effects. Apart from the conventional communication that occurs as in the case of my brother to other users, there too is the problem of flamers who make up a considerable part of the audience. These flamers engage in the act of flaming whereby they "send or post messages that are deliberately hostile and insulting, usually in the social context of a discussion board on the Internet" (Flaming, 2007). This then breaks down the gift economy as flamers discourage others from posting videos, for fear that they would be flamed.
With respect to this, the advice I have for the YouTube community is that they should not be fazed by flamers. Continue sharing your information and gifts with others. And for the flamers out there, show some love to the others. You are after all receiving these gifts for free.
Flaming. (2007). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 8 from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Flaming_%28Internet%29&action=history
Kollock, P. (1999). The Economies of Online Cooperation: Gifts and Public Goods in Cyberspace. Retrieved February 8 from http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/soc/faculty/kollock/papers/economies.htm
YouTube. (2007). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 8, 2007 from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/YouTube