Reflecting on Chapter 1 of The Age of Sharing, by Nicholas John

Last month, Culture Digitally shared an excerpt from The Age of Sharing, the new book from Nicholas John. Below, several CD contributors reflect on the aims of the book, and its resonance with related concerns. Nik offers a brief response at the end. The book is now available in the U.S. as well as around the world, directly from Polity, where you can use the code PY794 to get a 20% discount.

 

Benjamin Peters

Sharing, as my colleague and friend Nicholas John establishes in his important new book The Age of Sharing, may be the keyword of current media discourse: talk of sharing tugs at our devices, our hearts, and our purse strings (or in the book’s organizing troika: social media, intimate relationships, and sharing economies).

What is sharing? John lets the term shine in its full polysemic splendor: sharing can signify a dividing or shearing (think ploughshare, corporate shares, or my fair share), a confessional telling of inner emotion, a rich-get-richer multiplier on and for social networks, and a complex of “relational embraces” between corporate optics, media technology, and human ethics: in specific, to invite “sharing” is to invoke (sometimes childhood-tinged) moral values of “honesty, openness, mutuality, caring, equality, trust and fairness.” More darkly, this same invitation renders the sharer’s rich emotional capital open to new uses and abuses. For example, the sharing, in the origin sense of division, of political news in the most recent election stands out as the most painfully obvious example of how sharing can strike back.

As John warns, in his articulation of the desires of many PR executives, startup financiers, and surveillance data architects, “if we call it sharing, we might be able to get away with anything.” Yet so often the public is fed the opposite line: “Sharing is always good–you cannot share non-nicely. Sharing, we are told, is caring, and, as such, has a warm glow around it.” Rainbows, Care Bears, and kindergarten iconography mix with self-help therapy mottos to help giftwrap the call to share more and more content. Since 2005, the emotional scales seem to have tipped, against the social media user who wants not to share. To talk of not sharing online risks branding oneself a Luddite or a lurker, a prudish curmudgeon or a privacy paranoiac. It seems we are in a bind: sharing puts ourselves at risk, but not sharing puts our relationship to others at risk.

History abhors binaries, of course, and John carefully accounts for the latter half of the twentieth-century shift from sharing as a confessional witnessing of one’s intimate feelings to sharing as the default mode of online communication. The chapter case studies—from the 1930s confessional groups behind to Alcoholic Anonymous to today’s oversharing on social media and filesharing on torrents—each help issue a stirring plea to reconsider how capitalism and modernity have molded our relationships. Sharing is in some ways the most recent PR exploit foisted on us by the data industries; for example, Facebook algorithms in fact screen out our shared news feed posts from most of our friends. Facebook shares (or divides up) your contacts before you can share (or connect) with them. Perhaps social media chambers have been echoing so loudly recently because they are mostly empty (emptied by algorithms).

This book chronicles much more than just the next big critical internet problem. In fact, the same humane spirit that supports much of what is genuinely good in sharing discourse also buoys John’s larger project and his cautious, open-minded analysis. I’m tempted, at least for now, to see in his discourse analysis of sharing an emerging script for understanding how it became possible to talk meaningfully about collective identification online. What language makes possible a language of collective group identity—of a usable “we”—in the first place? Perhaps, building on John’s argument, I + you = we if and only if sharing exists between us. And “we” is often a fine thing. On the other hand, as the recent election of President-elect Trump teaches, sometimes “us” consolidates as opposition to an ever online hidden “them.” (Perhaps bipartisan political identity behaves according to what I think they think we think about others, and not what I actually think about others.)

John’s scholarship ranges widely on the consequences of sharing discourse. Drawing on a large corpus of English texts and scholarly literature, his is the first book to my knowledge that synthesizes the distinguishable yet overlapping scholarly and popular conversations about sharing media, emotions, and economies—and the scholarly review stands out for its interdisciplinary usefulness. That the book itself is useful also performs his point that the term sharing meant an economic good before it meant a moral good (and The Age of Sharing is obviously both: consider buying a copy from Polity here). John’s candid and accessible prose invites the reader to tag along as he unfolds the argument step by step. Only rarely does a wrinkle of backpedalling distract, and John’s own language grants a healthy reminder that to write for smart undergraduates is also to write for the educated world.

Both in what it talks about and how it talks, the Age of Sharing tells the vital story with the semantic webs of words behind our experience of the World Wide Web.

I will be sure to return to it again and again. To that end, here are a few discussion questions:

  • What can the etymological roots of the word share(cf. shear) in the notion of division or part teach us—especially in light of the most recent election and news sharing habits?
  • If the distribution logics of sharing economies depend on how scarce a resource is, then how might the carbon footprint of computing complicate the assumption that certain forms of social media sharing are resource-neutral? Is any sharing ever free?
  • Which, if any, of the following “sharing” terms deserves special commentary, and why? Web 2.0 “share,social media sharingfile sharingdata sharingtime-sharing (in computer science), time shares (in real estate), knowledge sharingridesharingcouch-surfing/sharingsharing economiescorporate shares (allocation or portion), share something personalsharing your feelings (therapy), tragedy of the commons, etc. 
  • How might alternative terms for sharing – uploaddownloadupdatepostsendlink, etc. – change the consequences of how we talk about social media, emotions, and economies? How about overshare, reshareundershare, and unshare?
  • Could the lenses of thinking aboutchildren / thinking like children focus what we can learn from the childhood iconography around sharing? For example, is the notion that children are naturally good at sharing a myth that adults think about children? What are the costs of idealizing childhood sharing?

 

Stephanie Ricker Schulte

Nik John maps the rise and evolution of the term sharing: the ways in which the term has helped not only to frame but also to shape our understanding of mediated practices, economic activities, and emotive exchanges. Nik reminds us that we haven’t always thought about the internet as a place for sharing, that we have retroactively applied the term in our memories. This makes it seem like sharing has always been there and, therefore, that it always should be. Most importantly, to my mind, Nik shows us why it matters that sharing has become the overwhelmingly dominant framework, the normative lens through which we interpret so many of our lived experiences.

In Nik’s work, I hear echoes of generative scholars—Carolyn Marvin, Sherry Turkle, Lisa Gitelman, Fred Turner, John Durham Peters, and Nick Couldry—who have drawn attention to the meanings made around media technologies and their ancillary practices, as well as the effects of those meanings (rather than only thinking about their structures or content). Nik shows us how conceptualizing sharing as good for human relations merged with metaphorical descriptions of online message exchanges as sharing. This convergence presented social media companies the opportunity to brand their products as spaces of sharing (as opposed to selling). On the one hand, thinking about these practices as sharing drove social interactions as well as revolutionary economic change, facilitating alternative economics outside traditional market ones. On the other, it worked to reinforce established power hierarchies by filling corporate coffers.

And like so many of the scholars I listed above, Nik travels far beyond the bounds of media to track the conceptual slippage between sharing and visions of emotional, social, economic, and political health. In tracing sharing as a discursive construct back to its origins, Nik helps us understand how disclosure, collaboration, connection, and fluidity got their rosy glow, and how sharing became a free-floating modifier that helped brand a range of activities as pro-social. By paying attention to the effects of sharing as a concept more than the actual practices of sharing, Nik seems to see sharing as less a matter of fact and more a matter of concern, to borrow Bruno Latour’s terms. In this focus, he helps us parse the narratives we have told ourselves about sharing from the acts themselves, not necessarily to unravel them or cast them out as false consciousness demons, but instead to demystify them as historical, cultural, and strategic, instead of natural.

After reading this excerpt, I am left struck by the heavy lifting sharing has done in the background. Excavating this term in order to interrogate it, to understand why it has had such sway in the last decade feels intuitively helpful, in particular the way the term has been deployed to obscure market power and corporate strategy. Ideally, I think Nik’s work will allow us to look beyond sharing, to think in new ways about what we’re doing in online spaces, how our economy is and should be working, and what affective connection can look like. But I also worry about the stakes of unseating sharing as a central organizing principle for these spaces and practices. What might we lose if we abandon sharing? What might replace it? If we keep sharing as our dominant construct, how might we discuss the sides of sharing exchanges in terms of power inequities? How might we think about making “sharers” more equitable, more responsible, or more informed? This final question seems to take on special weight in a historical moment dominated by discussions of “fake news” and indictment of sharing as creating echo chambers or ideological eddies.

 

Annette Markham

Nicholas John develops a comprehensive and complex analysis around the term sharing, using a remarkable blend of historical, cultural, and close level discourse analytical methods. Early on in the book (and in the excerpt here in Cultural Digitally), John offers many examples of contradictory uses of the term sharing. He notes, right on page one, that it’s too easy to simply criticize the use of the term:

“pointing to the misuse or even willful abuse of the word ‘sharing’ is too easy and fails to contend with its shifting senses and multiple layers of meaning.”

Well, it might be easy, but I think it’s important.

It is in the tiny instances of everyday conversations that social structures are built, reinforced, or resisted. In my work on the topic, I found that the misuse or appropriation of the word sharing matters precisely because it is so seemingly innocuous.

Over the past twenty years, the U.S. has witnessed a slow and very subtle shift of the burden of responsibility for protection of (data) privacy from the state or corporation to the individual. I suggest we can link this very clearly to the shift of language around how we use the internet over that same time period, from the idea that people ‘use’ to the idea that people ‘share’.

As Nik discusses in various places throughout his book, sharing is generally understood as a voluntary and conscious behavior. In addition to framing sharing as voluntary, there is a tendency to assume that the act of sharing is informed, rather than ignorant. We affirm and accept this logic every time we say something like: “Everyone knows the internet is public and you should know better than to post anything there you don’t want everyone to see.”

Of course, this is flawed in many ways. It oversimplifies the complexity of how privacy is experienced or understood in public spaces and in addition, requires an impossible degree of knowledge about future causal chains. I think it’s important to identify and call out when sharing is invoked in order to place blame inappropriately heavily on the shoulders of the individual. It’s sort of like blaming the individual for the theft of their own wallet because they left it on the table.

This is not exactly the path that Nik takes in his work. But for me, it’s a natural extension to think about how the misuse of the term can infect policymaking, especially around privacy and data protection. The Age of Sharing is a book that can help us launch into discussions about how studying small words can help us understand giant infrastructures. I’m deeply appreciative of this work.

 

Gina Neff

Nicholas John’s fabulous new book The Age of Sharing dives into the concept of sharing as the key metaphor of our moment. Sharing, John argues, has come to refer to “our technologically mediated social lives; about our economic lives as producers and consumers; and about our emotional, interpersonal lives.” (4) That one concept now stands in for so many different realms—imperfectly and incompletely—is part of John’s argument and what he sets out to explore. Sharing metaphorically links practices of consumption (sharing music) and production (sharing in coding and editing projects). Sharing also links communication (sharing a story) with distribution (sharing my beer). John argues that these distinct practices have fundamentally different implications for understanding the digital economy, but in part Silicon Valley’s use of the language of sharing for all of them prevents the distinctions among them from being easily recognized. Unlike cheerleaders for the sharing economy, John does not see how or why sharing things on social media prepares the way for a society of hourly car rentals, self-catering apartment rentals, and unlicensed and unregulated taxi rides. In John’s words:

“If this is the sharing economy, then its message is pure neoliberal ideology: if you have any spare resources (including your time, that drill you are not using right now, your spare bedroom) and you are not monetizing them, then do not complain about being poor. There is a part of the sharing economy that turns us all into microentrepreneurs, and that looks mercilessly upon those who refuse to participate.” (69)

John’s examination of sharing lays bare a larger ideological project. As a concept, sharing captures a kinder, gentler kind of interaction—one that John covers at length in sections on childhood and the so-called natural state of human economic behaviour (tl;dr – there is no kinder, gentler state of human of nature). His argument is convincing. And it is an argument should have economic sociologists interested in this book, opening up ways to extend his argument further.

John does not use Émile Durkheim’s notions of mechanical and organic solidarity to describe the work that the concept of sharing does for contemporary economic life, but he very well could have. Pre-modern society worked on “mechanical” solidarity: small communities with tight social ties ensured that our economic transactions will be repeated, lowering any chance that one side will cheat the other and creating community-based mechanisms for dealing with it when they do. Durkheim suggests that modern society is the opposite: everyone has a job to do within a complex division of labor, and we no longer need to rely on trust and community ties to ensure fair exchange. The problem with the sharing economy, in John’s rich description of it, is that it seeks to re-enchant the modern economy with these kinds of pre-modern ties described by Durkheim.

“This is the age of sharing, then, because sharing stands for both the cutting edge of our digital media-saturated capitalist society and economy, including the way we interact online, and a critical position vis-à-vis this society and economy. Sharing is both supportive and subversive of hegemonic (digital) culture: supportive in that the more you share updates and pictures on social media, for instance, the wealthier those platforms become, and subversive in that the more you share actual stuff with others, the less everyone needs to buy. Moreover, some say that sharing—be that of the distributive or communicative kind—leads to true and deep human connections.” (2)

The message of the sharing economy, according to John, is that “technologically enabled sharing is somehow a return to an older and better way of living” (83) and “that sharing will help us regain a paradise lost.” (81) We should all be doubtful and cautious when powerful business interests promise to restore our lost innocence.

Which raises, for me, the question of solidarity. The Silicon Valley versions of sharing promise to recreate small communities of like-minds in which any natural altruism is modulated carefully through online platforms—for a small fee, of course. This kind of solidarity is mechanical solidarity at its worst, recalling the ways in which pre-modern communities remained close to outsiders and difference and relied on the basest logic of crowds and gossips. Durkheim’s solution was something that looked more like the solidarity of today’s big urban areas, a sense of belonging to a place that relied on each of us being an important piece of a very large system that needed different kinds of jobs, different kinds of skills, and different kinds of consumption. Durkheim’s metaphor for modern society was not one of sharing, but of reliance—just as a body relies on different organs, so too a modern society needs different people to function.

Sharing is polysemic, John concludes, because people evoke the different meanings and values of the word in ways that can be read in differently by different audiences. John’s examination of the difficulties of using sharing as a metaphor for a kinder, gentler economy could not be better timed than when scholars are questioning how social media may contribute societal fragmentation. (Sharing fake news, anyone?) Questioning sharing is the first step. Next is rebuilding a true sense of solidarity as part of, or after, the so-called sharing economy.

 

Jean Burgess

First of all, thanks so much to Nik for sharing (LOL) this sneak preview of his new book with us, and thanks to Tarleton for the invitation to comment on it. Having been lucky enough to hear Nik present a number of conference papers along the trajectory of its development, I’m super excited to see the book in print. And I know this isn’t supposed to be a book review, but I have to say how beautifully written it is! I’m writing this from the tail end of the international Crossroads in Cultural Studies conference in Sydney, where I’ve been lucky to hear people like Larry Grossberg and Meaghan Morris speak about the history and ongoing importance of the cultural studies project – which to figure out what’s going on at each complex, messy moment in history, and what we might want to do about it. It is in that spirit that I’m struck by the liveliness and critical generativity of this book – because there’s something about sharing that reveals, conceals, and points us to so much of the complexity of contemporary social and cultural life.

One of the best things about the intellectual project Nik has undertaken here is the way he zooms in on sharing as a discourse that is actively shaping and reflecting some of the most profound contradictions in contemporary culture and society. Rather than simplistically dismissing sharing as a ‘buzzword’ or lecturing us on how it’s really all just exploitation, Nik asks serious questions about the cultural work sharing  is doing, and teases out the different threads of that – and its threads are of course just about everywhere, although articulated differently to specific local and sociotechnical contexts. There are obvious (and I realise from reading further, deliberate) resonances here with the great Raymond Williams’ work Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. As Nik shows, Williams’ keyword approach is still a very productive methodological tactic for that central question I mentioned earlier – the question of “what’s going on?” – that Larry Grossberg famously called “the only question worth asking.”

Sharing is a wonderfully productive site for this project, because it is so multivalent, and the practices it describes have multiple political implications. Re-reading the introduction, I am struck over and over by how much sharing works as a call to action in service of the dominant ideology of openness. Sharing does both operate simultaneously as an invitation to “open up” and disclose for one’s own benefit and in the service of better communication – and by the way I love that Nik locates part of this history in Alcoholics Anonymous. At the same time, the imperative and invitation to share works to exploit that which is opened up – especially since in digital culture whatever is exposed is then rendered as data; similarly, the digital economy uses sharing to commodify intimacy and hospitality through phenomena like Airbnb.

But we aren’t just cultural dopes – sharing has progressive aspects as well. It has a deep cultural history associated with altruism and collectivism, and so is also a site of hope for a less individualised, ownership-focused future – and this optimism too can be commodified, as we fantasise about not owning but sharing our driverless cars (as long as they don’t run too many red lights). And finally, the ethic of sharing articulates a politics of openness that structures certain cultural practices in digital culture like open source software, open access publication, and even ‘illegal’ filesharing.

I’ve also come away from my reading and skimming today buzzing with ideas for how the keywords approach might be applied to other cultural tropes and discourses, so would love to have a brainstorm on that.

 

Nicholas John – Response

The main thought that passed through my head when reading this terrific collection of responses was that they all seem to be doing interesting things with my text: things that I hadn’t thought of, things that I wish I had thought of, and things that I had thought of but remained unsure about how to address even as I was reading through my proofs one final time. In this latter category are these questions of power, domination, and hegemony, along with attendant issues of solidarity and we-ness. All of the comments here say something about how the world might be made better—indeed, this is what “sharing” makes us think about—though I myself remain unsure as to how my book says anything in that direction itself. We can call out appropriations of “sharing” that serve the powerful, but I argue strongly that the pro-social meanings of sharing can also be deconstructed, leaving me feeling somewhat normatively anchorless. I take encouragement in the way that the comments above engage with my work at a normative level, and wonder if I could have done more to that end myself.

My fears that the time taken to write the book would have diminished its sense of pertinence have been assuaged by the repeated questioning in the responses of what we are to make of the sharing of fake news. Following the approach to sharing suggested by the book, we might want to say the following: When someone shares a piece of fake news, we can see this both as an act of distribution and an act of communication. We can see the creation of data points that will be converted into hard cash. And we can also see ideology at work through language: in nostalgia mode, the exhortation to share holds out the promise of better social relations, but of course the companies issuing that promise are part of the same system that undermined the values for which they are now nostalgically yearning.

Having said that, while the commenters here generously commend me for the timeliness of this book, one cannot help but wonder whether the zeitgeist that it tried to capture has in fact ended, with November 8 2016 as its date of passing. Some might argue that now more than ever we need sharing—of emotions, resources, empathy—while at the same time others might wonder whether latest U.S. election cycle will finally force us to give up the “internet makes us share more” trope. I expect the term to be a battleground, along the lines drawn up in the book and made bolder by the commenters. I think that we are still in the age of sharing, but I wonder now for how much longer.

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