As I understand it, the "gift economy" ideas says that we are moving away from direct exchange to something more circular.
Instead of trading "exactly this" for "exactly that," we now release things into the world (blog posts like this one, tweets, music, Youtube videos) with the hope that something will return to us someday in the form of some kind of value (revenue, reputation, social capital, cultural capital.) In other words, we gift the world with our efforts, and we do so without expectation or guarantee of a return. Adam Smith would be horrified.
I like this idea and what's more I believe in it. But it's not without its problems.
Take the case of Jimmy Pantino. He's spending his summer working at Denny's as a short order cook. He would much rather have spent it shooting and editing shorts for YouTube. He's got pretty good at it. The trouble is YouTube doesn't pay him anything. Nor do any of the 120,238 people who have seen his work on line. In point of fact, at least from Jimmy's point of view, this is not a gift economy. It's a grab economy, which is to say, no economy at all.
The problem is not that people don't want to pay Jimmy and free him from his Denny's bondage. They just don't want to pay him in the usual domination. In our economy, in most circumstances, the smallest useful unit of payment is a dollar. And we don't want to pay Jimmy a dollar. It's just too much. But we are prepared to pay him a nickle. And at a nickle a hit, Jimmy's YouTube audience would have paid him around $6000. This is not a princely sum. No, as an alternative to working this summer at Denny's, it's actually much richer than that.
The further problem is that there isn't any financial architecture that makes it possible for us to pay Jimmy his nickle. Certainly, there's no way to do it easily and swiftly. Not only do we not want to pay Jimmy a dollar. We really don't want to make a big production of it. Unless it happens in the blink of an eye, we can't be bothered. Which is to say, we want to spend as little in time as we do in money. (What is the temporal equivalent of a nickle? Two seconds, probably. Click of a mouse.)
What we need is a financial system capable of delivering fractional amounts in a frictionless way. When looking at one of Jimmy's videos we that they can just hit a button and keep going. No signing in or keeping track. Jimmy gets a nickle. We fill up our virtual wallet every quarter or so, distributing fractional amounts til it's gone.
The company that creates this system gets to be a hero to the kids. (Expect abject worship from Jimmy in particular.) It gets to be a participant in the new social networks and the plenitude of contemporary culture. It gets to be a patron of the new society and culture now in the works. Most simply, it gets to escape its status as an old order corporation and become a new order one. Tactically, this is a seat at the most important table. Strategically, its a chance to own some part of the future instead of tagging witlessly along behind it.
The person who does it gets to be the next Jeff Bezos or Jimmy Wales. You will be interviewed by Wired Magazine. You will be showered with honorary degrees. Most important: You will get way better seats at basketball games.
Building a system like this must be complicated. Otherwise we would have one by now. But surely it's not more complicated than Facebook. It just has to be a little more secure. Ok, a lot more secure. (I would love to hear from someone who has an idea of what this sort of system would require from a technical point of view.)
My plea: let's put the gift back into the gift economy, and for that matter, the economy in the economy. I mean, imagine what Jimmy Pantino could do for our culture if he was working with more than his free time and that crappy old computer his parents refuse to replace.
Economies create great things. Let's turn this one loose.
Mauss, Marcel. 2000. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. Reissue. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Aldine Transaction.