Screw the gift economy, a reply to Clay Shirky

PhotosI came across a post today by Gaby Dunn called “Get rich or die vlogging: The sad economics of internet fame.” Dunn gives us YouTube and Instagram celebrities forced to live hand to mouth. It reminded me of an essay I wrote months ago, shelved and then forgot. Here’s a piece of the larger whole.

Consider this crude calculation. Let’s posit 100 people each of whom is producing 10 artifacts a year for the digital domain. (Artifacts include blog posts, fan fiction, web sites, remixes, podcasts, fan art, Pinterest pages, and so on.) We are going to assume that these creative efforts are funded by day jobs, scholarships, and parental support. With this subvention, this “gift economy” produces 1000 artifacts a year. Some of this work is rich and interesting.

The creators are rewarded for their work with acknowledgment and gratitude. The exchange is ruled by what the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins would call “generalized reciprocity.” (See his Stone Age Economics.) Gifts are given without expectation of immediate or exact return. There is lots of cultural meaning here but no real economic value.

Let’s release economic value into the system. Now, the best work costs. We pay for ownership or for access. We could even use a “tipping” system. When we admire a piece of fan art, we tip the creator. This tip could come out of the $5 our ISP returns to us from our subscription fee. Or it could be supplied to us by Google which has been the overwhelming beneficiary of the content we have put online. A postmodern PayPal springs up to make this distribution system easy.

Thirty of our 100 kids are now accumulating value. The best of them are accumulating quite a lot of value. Let’s suppose that a piece of fan art, drafting on the success of a hit TV show, goes viral. Let’s say it’s viewed by an audience of 100,000 people, twenty percent of whom tip 40 cents on average. The result, eight thousand dollars, is not a prince’s ransom. (I would check these numbers. An anthropologist with a calculator is a dangerous thing.) And if it is used to allow someone to move out of their parent’s basement, it has no obvious cultural effect.

But if our winner uses the money to take the summer off from her job at McDonald’s, this is a difference from which real differences can spring. Now a good artist can become a more productive artist and eventually a better artist. And a virtuous cycle is set in train. More and better work brings in more income, more income becomes more time free for work, and this leads to more improvements in art and income. Eventually, the McDonald’s job can be given up altogether.

In this scenario, the gift economy loses…but culture wins. The supply of good work increases. Standards rise. Good artists get better.

I expect this vista will make Clay Shirky’s eyes water and possibly tear. (My text is Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.) He might well feel this is a brutal intrusion of capital into a magical world of generosity.

Not so fast. In point of fact, the internet as a gift economy is an illusion. This domain is not funding itself. It is smuggling in the resources that sustain it, and to the extent that Shirky’s account helps conceal this market economy, he’s a smuggler too. This world cannot sustain itself without subventions. And to this extent it’s a lie.

Shirky insists that generalized reciprocity is the preferred modality. But is it?

[In the world of fan fic, there] is a “two worlds” view of creative acts. The world of money, where [established author, J.K.] Rowling lives, is the one where creators are paid for their work. Fan fiction authors by definition do not inhabit this world, and more important, they rarely aspire to inhabit it. Instead, they often choose to work in the world of affection, where the goal is to be recognized by others for doing something creative within a particular fictional universe. (p. 92)

Good and all, but, again, not quite of this world. A very bad situation, one that punishes creators and our culture, is held up as somehow exemplary. But of course reputation economies spring up, but we don’t have to choose. We can have both market and reputation economies. But it’s wrong surely, to make the latter a substitute for the former.

Shirky appears to be persuaded that it’s “ok” for creators to create without material reward. But I think it’s probably true that they are making the best of a bad situation. Recently, I was doing an interview with a young respondent. We were talking about her blog, a wonderful combination of imagination and mischief. I asked her if she was paid for this work and she said she was not. “Do you think you should be paid?” I asked.

She looked at me for a second to make sure I was serious about the question, thought for a moment and then, in a low voice and in a measured somewhat insistent way, said, “Yes, I think I should be paid.” There was something about her tone of voice that said, “Payment is what is supposed to happen when you do work as good as mine.”

One data point hardly represents proof of my position. But it does suggest what might happen when the possibility of payment enters the world. A light goes on. The present internet is so much a gift economy and so little a market one, that it is hard for its occupants to imagine alternatives.

I am not going to take up the intrinsic — extensive distinction that matters here. Clearly, people are now being “paid” in intrinsic satisfactions. They are making great work online for the sake of doing so. But I believe it’s true that here too the intrinsic was never meant to be a substitute for the extrinsic. The luckiest people in the world get paid twice, with intrinsic satisfaction and extrinsic value. That’s actually what we’re hoping for. This is, mark you, the way the academic world mostly works. Surely, it’s wrong and a little odd to celebrate the intrinsic as an alternative to the extrinsic.

But let’s get to the very large elephant in the room. It is the career satisfactions of the so-called Millennial generation. This group has suffered diminished career options. They have been obliged to work as interns, always with the promise that this would prepare them the “real job” to come. But of course the “real job” often never comes. The obligation to work for free online reproduces the obligation of working for free in the world, as if life were one long internship, unbroken and unpaid. After a while it begins to look like one’s lot in life. My research reveals a culture of compliance in which members of this generation agree to agree that their present circumstances are not outrageous. Millennial optimism and good humor endures. (Let’s imagine if someone had tried to pull this on Gen X. Oh, wait, someone did. The reaction was an “alternative” culture and a ferocious repudiation of the status quo.)

But back to our academic contemplation of the gift economy. When Shirky says that work given “freely” on line is a great act of generosity, I think we’re entitled to say that generosity is only properly so-called when there are alternatives. And there aren’t. Forced generosity isn’t generosity.

Still more troubling, the gift economy has a second guilty secret. People can only participate if they have access to resources from outside the digital world. In fact, the moral economy excludes people who do not have wealthy parents, generous scholarships, or rewarding day jobs. If someone is poor, uneducated, and or underemployed, it is hard to participate. So much for generosity and connectivity.

Because the “generosity” view is an idealistic view, it feels somehow above reproach. Clearly for Shirky it is manifestly good. But when people are driven by generosity and rewarded with community, something goes missing. Good artists are denied the resources that would make them better. A generation continues to go underemployed. The next evolutionary moment is lost. A series of social and cultural innovations are not forthcoming. The real generative engine of our culture falls silent.

Some will object that there is an economy online even if financial capital does not circulate. They will say that people are paid in reputation, acknowledgement and thanks. Well, yes. But mostly no. The trouble with “acknowledgement” and “thanks” is that they are both mushy and illiquid. They are impossible to calculate. They cannot be exchanged for anything outside the moral economy. Acknowledgment and thanks are not worth nothing. But they verge on the gratuitous. We can “like” something with nothing more than the energy it takes to move the cursor and click the mouse. This is not quite the same as surrendering a scarce value for which sacrifices have been made. Choice, made carefully, at cost, in hope of gain and at peril of loss, this is the fundamental act of economics. Without it, all we have are bubbles of approbation. Our moral economy isn’t an economy, except in a disappointingly slack metaphorical sense.

Finally, I do not mean to be unpleasant or to indulge ad hominem attack, but I think there is something troubling about a man supported by academic salary, book sales, and speaking engagements telling Millennials how very fine it is that they occupy a gift economy which pays them, usually, nothing at all. I don’t say that Shirky has championed this inequity. But I don’t think it’s wrong to ask him to acknowledge it and to grapple with its implications.

The gift economy of the digital world is a mirage. It looks like a world of plenty. It is said to be a world of generosity. But on finer examination we discover results that are uneven and stunted. Worse, we discover a world where the good work goes without reward. The more gifted producers are denied the resources that would make them still better producers and our culture richer still.

What would people, mostly Millennials, do with small amounts of capital? What enterprises, what innovations would arise? How much culture would be created? I leave for another post the question of how we could install a market economy (or a tipping system) online. And I have to say I find it a little strange we don’t have one already. Surely the next (or the present) Jack Dorsey could invent this system. Surely some brands could treat this as a chance to endear themselves to content creators. Surely, there is an opportunity for Google. If it wants to save itself from the “big business” status now approaching like a freight train, the choice is clear. Create a system that allows us to reward the extraordinary efforts of people now producing some of the best artifacts in contemporary culture.