Chris Anderson, addressing an audience of entrepreneurs and other business people immersed in marketplace thinking, cited Hyde’s work in his book Free, published last year. “A larger gift economy of deeds, the things we do for each other without charge” has become more visible than ever, thanks in large part to the Internet, he argued. As one example, he cited 12 million blogs written by people sharing “billions of words,” mostly for no measurable marketplace reward.
The overlap between Hyde’s idea of a gift and Anderson’s idea of free is, at best, limited. But Anderson has a point. Think not just of written words but of images, artworks, videos, songs, craft how-to pages and on and on. Surely it’s the case that never before have so many creators offered so much to so many for $0. A result, in effect, is a gift glut.
To the extent that this is framed as a problem, it’s invariably discussed as a challenge for business or for cultural consumers. To me, it seems far more challenging for the gift givers. Those who see the world in a market-economy way — Anderson’s readers, let’s say — can find many examples of how those with a profit motive might capitalize on or leverage the no-charge offerings of the creative masses; the valuations of various Web 2.0 enterprises that do precisely this suggest that the market economy seems to be adjusting to this incursion of the gift economy rather nicely. For the consumer, meanwhile, it’s a bonanza. Even the most hardened skeptic of the self-expression free-for-all has to admit that plenty of nonprofessional creators, ignoring the wants and needs of the market, have produced priceless gifts for the rest of us to enjoy. On the other hand, even the most ardent enthusiast of giveaway culture has to admit that a lot of what’s on offer is not only free but worthless. That is to say, with so many gifts out there, some $0 things seem more valuable than others.
To Hyde, a creative “gift” had a particular set of meanings. It referred to an artist’s talent and inspiration, but also to the spirit in which a creation is offered to others. “The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market,” he wrote. “He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made.” This idea is illuminated, among other ways, by comparisons to tribal cultures that maintain social ties through the ritualized giving and sharing of ceremonial objects.
I couldn’t help noticing the way one anthropological account Hyde cited described certain shared items: “long, thin, red strings, and big white worn-out objects, clumsy to sight and greasy to touch.” The lesson there is that a product of the gift sphere may be pure, but even a sharing economy depends on somebody’s wanting what’s being offered — or at least not dismissing it as greasy. In a different context, Russell Belk, a consumer-behavior expert and marketing professor at York University in Toronto, once defined the “perfect gift” as having specific characteristics, including the notion that it is something the recipient is “delighted” to receive.
We tend to focus on the breakout successes of democratized culture-making. But there is also a great deal of creative expression out there of the type Hyde had in mind that nonetheless qualifies as an unwanted gift: the unlinked-to blog post, the unliked Facebook page, the unfavorited Flickr photo, the unwatched YouTube video, the unretweeted link and all the other expressions that are ignored or overlooked or simply not rewarded with positive feedback. In a recent 25th anniversary edition of “The Gift,” Hyde pointed out the emergence of various Web projects with gift-economy structures, notably the open-source-software movement. But at the same time, much about the Web prods the gift giver into a very marketlike mind-set. Hyde warned that the more we gauge creative successes through Nielsen ratings and box-office rankings and the like, “the less gifted we will become.” The newer and more accessible economy of sharing means that practically everything is subject to some kind of rating or ranking, all the time. And that’s exactly what makes it so hard for any given sharer to judge what his or her gift is really, finally, worth.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, May 13, 2010.