Sharing [draft] [#digitalkeywords]

“For the next few pages, we shall not be concerned with whether this or that activity is really sharing. What is important is that it is called sharing. “Sharing” is an important digital keyword …because it bears the promise that today’s network and mobile technologies… will bring about a better society. Given the myriad creative ways in which precisely these technologies are used to challenge the powerful and offer alternative ways of doing things, this is a promise that should not be too perfunctorily dismissed. Nor, of course, should it be naively accepted.”

The following is a draft of an essay, eventually for publication as part of the Digital Keywords project (Ben Peters, ed). This and other drafts will be circulated on Culture Digitally, and we invite anyone to provide comment, criticism, or suggestion in the comment space below. We ask that you please do honor that it is being offered in draft form — both in your comments, which we hope will be constructive in tone, and in any use of the document: you may share the link to this essay as widely as you like, but please do not quote from this draft without the author’s permission. (TLG)


Sharing — Nicholas A. John, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

“Sharing,” in digital contexts, can simply refer to the transfer of data from one place to another, or to making some data available to other people or machines. This is certainly how the term was used in describing the various arrangements by which data was transported between the entities and programs exposed by Edward Snowden in the summer of 2013. However, while “data sharing” would not appear to be a controversial term in any way, the same certainly cannot be said of “file sharing,” despite its equally deep roots in the field of computing. File sharing, assert certain representatives of the state and the entertainment industry, is not sharing, but rather theft. Critical voices of quite a different ilk might point out that Facebook, Google and the rest do not “share” information about users with third parties, which is the language used in such companies’ privacy statements; rather, and more linguistically accurately, they sell it. Both of these objections to the use of the word “sharing” – despite their quite different political motivations – are equally revealing. What they reveal is that, for many people, sharing is a cherished notion which must not be sullied; some things may properly be described as sharing, but others most certainly may not.

In discussing “sharing” as a digital keyword, though, we must look beyond these criticisms of the word’s use and search for a richer understanding of its workings as a metaphor that saturates our usage of information and communication technologies (ICTs) today. For the next few pages, we shall not be concerned with whether this or that activity is really sharing. What is important is that it is called sharing. “Sharing” is an important digital keyword not only because of its roots in computing (time sharing, disk sharing, file sharing, etc.), but because it bears the promise that today’s network and mobile technologies – because they make it easier for us and encourage us to share extensively – will bring about a better society. Given the myriad creative ways in which precisely these technologies are used to challenge the powerful and offer alternative ways of doing things, this is a promise that should not be too perfunctorily dismissed. Nor, of course, should it be naively accepted.

As a keyword of the digital age, “sharing” is the constitutive activity of Web 2.0, or the interactive, user-generated internet. It is what we do on social network sites (SNSs); it is the name given to the act of distributing data (photos, links, videos, tweets, etc.) through electronic networks; it is what we do when leaving a review on Amazon (“Share your thoughts,” says the site) or uploading a movie to YouTube; it is the act of updating our status on Facebook or checking in on Foursquare; all of these, and more, come under the extremely broad umbrella of “sharing.”

The word “sharing” has a history, even within the context of social network sites. To understand something of this history, I analyzed the emergence and development of the word “sharing” in 44 different SNSs from 1999 to 2010 (since when I have not noted any significant changes). [1] The overall trend in the usage of the word is from the specific to the far more general, and the introduction of the word to describe existing activities that had previously been called something else (posting, sending, updating, etc.). We have also witnessed the introduction of a communicative logic of sharing, in addition to its distributive logic.

In the early 2000s, when we shared something on a social network site, the object of our sharing was clearly defined: we were invited to share web links and photos and the like. However, from 2007 (and not before), on their home pages SNSs started urging us to share what I call “fuzzy objects of sharing,” which included things such as “your life,” “your world,” or “the real you.” I call these fuzzy objects of sharing because it is not explicitly clear what it is that we are meant to share. I understand what it means to share photos or videos, but what exactly does it mean to “share your world”? When the object of sharing is fuzzy, the act of sharing online becomes far broader and includes many more behaviors. Sharing your world implies letting other people know as much as possible about what you are doing, thinking, and, importantly, feeling. Its vagueness – or fuzziness – enables its comprehensiveness.

Another innovative use of the term “share” in SNSs, which also reflects its increasing generalization, was that it began to be used without any object at all, but simply on its own, sometimes as part of the site’s self-description (in texts that might read, “On this site you can share with your friends”), and sometimes in the form of an imperative (“Share!”). This represents an important stage in the short history of the keyword, “share,” in the context of Web 2.0, as it indicates to us that SNSs users were now assumed to know what sharing is without having to be told what to share. Significantly for a historically-informed understanding of this keyword, none of the SNSs that I analyzed used the word “share” without an object prior to 2005 (which is to suggest that if this book had been published on the 30th anniversary of Williams’ text, the inclusion of “sharing” as a digital keyword would not have felt quite so natural as it does now, on the 40th anniversary).

Thirdly, in the second half of the 2010s, as “sharing” became the word to describe our participation in SNSs (and recall that Facebook opened its doors to all comers in October 2006), a number of sites started replacing words such as “update,” “post,” and “send” with “share.” The functionality of these sites had not changed, but their rhetoric did. This reflects the ascension of “sharing” to its current position as the constitutive activity of Web 2.0: not only did SNSs feel that users were now familiar enough with them that they could talk of sharing without indicating what is to be shared, they recognized that if they were not describing themselves in terms of sharing, they had better start to do so; they recognized that “sharing” is the name of the game, and if they want to position themselves within the booming SNS industry, they had better be in the business of sharing. Hence, for instance, on the photo-sharing SNS, Fotolog, the tag line, “Make it easy for friends/ family to see what’s up with you” was replaced with, “Share your world with the world.”

“Sharing,” though, is not just the keyword for social network sites. It refers to the range of digitally-mediated communication. Thus, for instance, mobile service provider, T-Mobile, ran an ad campaign with the tag line, “Life’s for Sharing.” As noted above, this usage of the word “sharing” can be dismissed as ideological. Commercial enterprises are trying to entice us to use their services by cloaking them in a language of altruism and concern for others, runs the argument, whereas “sharing” (and here the scare marks become particularly pertinent) only serves the companies’ bottom line and makes us even more narcissistic. But if we dig deeper into this keyword, we can see it as bearing the promise of the digital era, as the new meanings of sharing just outlined merge with the older and almost exclusively positively valenced meanings of the term. Sharing, as I shall attempt to briefly show, then becomes the model for a digitally-based readjustment of our interactions with things (sharing instead of owning) and with one another (sharing as the form of communication on which our relationships – especially, but not exclusively, romantic ones – are based). In order to make this point, though, we need to go back further than the invention of social network sites.

In its non-metaphorical sense, to share is to divide. The ploughshare rents the earth asunder; “share” and “shear” were once the same word, with their roots in the Old English, “scearu.”[2] When a child shares their candies, she divides them between her and her friends; when a child shares a toy with another, he gives that child joint access to the toy; also, if I own shares in a publicly-owned company, I own part of that company. Sharing, then, at least from the 16th century, is about distribution – both dividing stuff up, and giving more than one person access to the same thing, while the word would seem to be agnostic about the object of sharing. There are rules and norms for sharing which are not wildly divergent from those that govern gifting – there is an implicit expectation of reciprocity, for instance (“if you don’t ever share your candies with me, I’ll stop sharing mine with you”). Similarly to gifting, sharing also creates and sustains social ties.[3] Some things we share actively and voluntarily; other things we share passively and by necessity – including infrastructures, public spaces, or even our planet.[4]

More recently – that is, within the last 100 years or so – in addition to referring to distribution, sharing has taken on a more abstract communicative dimension. Here, sharing is a category of speech, a type of talk, that is particularly characterized by openness and honesty, and with which we might also associate such values as trust, reciprocity, equality and intimacy, among others. This is the sharing for which AA members are thanked after telling the group about their struggles with the bottle; it is the sharing referred to by Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995) in their characterization of the modern, or pure, relationship as based on “a couple sharing emotions,” and as no longer based on a family “sharing the work” (p. 48); it is the sharing described by Donal Carbaugh (1988) in his ground-breaking work on Donahue in the mid-1980s. This type of sharing – which clearly resonates with assumptions about the self, and how it must communicate itself and with others, that characterize our so-called therapeutic culture – has its roots in the Oxford Group, an early-20th century Christian group that gave birth to the pre-WWII Moral Rearmament movement and to Alcoholics Anonymous. Sharing, in the Oxford Group, was the public confession of sins, or to put it in terms that show its current relevance, the public declaration of weakness for the sake of redemption. Sharing thus understood is the communication of a deep personal truth, and, in the Oxford Group, was perceived as the bedrock of man’s relationship with God, but also, and perhaps primarily, with other people (especially one’s spouse). Even to the religious leaders of the Oxford Group the psychological aspects of sharing were quite clear: sharing made you feel better; it contributed to your well-being.

Today, the category of speech we call “sharing” tends to involve the communication of emotions and the word itself functions as what speech act theorists call a metalinguistic performative verb, or illocutionary force indicating device – meaning that it tells us what kind of speech is about to follow. Put simply, if someone tells us they have something they would like to share with us, we will get ready to hear something personal, something of emotional import, and not, for instance, that the toothpaste has run out. This sense of sharing – as the type of communication on which contemporary friendships and intimate relationships are based – is part of the metaphor of sharing in the context of SNSs and in its digital sense more generally.

The final sense of sharing that informs its multi-layered meaning as a digital keyword harks back to its distributive logic, and is found in the neologism, “the sharing economy.” The sharing economy incorporates elements of both production (think Wikipedia and Linux) and consumption (think Couchsurfing and Zipcar), and is constructed as a predominantly online and technological phenomenon. An analysis of 63 newspaper articles about “collaborative consumption” published between May 2010 and April 2012, for instance, shows technology to be central to this phenomenon, both in enabling new ways of distributing goods (searchable and geo-tagged databases make it easier to locate and therefore borrow your neighbor’s power drill) and, interestingly, in driving new/old sharing behaviors. Here, a causal argument is sometimes posited that sharing online (updating statuses, tweeting, etc.) leads people to want to share offline. Regardless of the empirical accuracy or otherwise of this claim, sharing is represented as a more moral and environmentally-friendly alternative to capitalist models of production and consumption. It plays heavily on interpersonal relations, promising to introduce you to your neighbors, for instance, or to reinstate the sense of community that has been driven out by the alienated lifestyle characteristic of the city. It conceptualizes sociality in terms of mutuality, openness, trust, commonality, and, to a degree, equality.

This, then, is the final component of sharing as a digital keyword. It is an important component, both because it relates us back to our most intuitive sense of what sharing is – distributing stuff among people in a fair way – and also because it helps to infuse the notion of sharing with its utopianism. Indeed, whatever we may think of sharing online, we would be hard pushed to think of any kind of good society in which (offline) sharing did not feature prominently – in both its distributive and communicative senses. More than this: those who say that what we do on Facebook is “not really sharing” are trying to protect the word from the deleterious influences of commercialism.[5]

As I hope is clear by now, my objective here is not to call the tech companies out for hypocrisy, and I am not overly concerned with what is and is not considered “really sharing.” In trying to understand “sharing” as a keyword, I am far more interested in the ways in which the term works as a metaphor, how it “organize[s] our thoughts and actions,” as Lakoff and Johnson put it (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980, p. 40). When we call our digital interactions “sharing,” this encapsulates the promise of our generation’s technologies, just as the telegraph, the radio and the television came with their promises too. The promise of sharing is (at least) twofold. One the hand, there is the promise of honest and open (computer-mediated) communication between individuals; the promise of knowledge of the self and of the other based on the verbalization of our inner thoughts and feelings. On the other hand, there is the promise of improving what many hold to be an unjust state of affairs in the realms of both production and consumption; the promise of an end to alienation, exploitation, self-centered greed, and breathtaking wastefulness. For some the incongruity is too much, but these are the associations with sharing that tech companies seek to be identified with, and that utopianists – the vast majority of whom do not have a stake in the success or failure of this or that platform – think will be realized as a result of the deeper embedding of social media in our everyday lives. For them, the internet really does promise improved sociability and really is the technological key to a better society through the spread of the (technology-driven) sharing economy. The concept of sharing represents both a set of values and a set of practices such that the latter, it is claimed, will help us achieve the former. As a keyword for the digital age, “sharing” bears the promise for a better society, while requiring us always to keep in mind the political economy of the structures – digital and otherwise – through which we carry out our various practices of sharing.


1. The methodology for and detailed results from this research can be found in (John, 2013a).

2.   Even this sense of sharing may be metaphorical, as perhaps the earliest use of the word was to refer to the groin, where the trunk of the body divides into two legs.

3. This is described superbly in Tamar Katriel’s ethnography of how Israeli children share candies (Katriel, 1987).

4. For brevity’s sake, I am eliding two senses of sharing – sharing as dividing, and sharing as having in common. Both of these senses fall within what I call the distributive logic of sharing (for more, see John, 2013b).

5.   I do not have the space here to explore the idea that the high-tech entrepreneurs behind today’s tech behemoths also feel a commitment to an ethos of sharing (normatively understood). If I did I would discuss Yuval Dror’s work on how some high-tech companies (including Facebook) claim that they are not in it for the money (Dror, 2013) and Fred Turner’s exploration of the link between Google and the antiestablishmentarianism of the Burning Man festival (Turner, 2009). I would also most likely discuss Barbrook and Cameron’s polemic against the “Californian ideology” (Barbrook & Cameron, 1996).


Barbrook, R., & Cameron, A. (1996). The Californian Ideology. Science as Culture, 6(1), 44-72.

Beck, U., & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (1995). The normal chaos of love. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Carbaugh, D. A. (1988). Talking American: Cultural discourses on Donahue. Norwood, N.J.: Ablex Pub. Corp.

Dror, Y. (2013). ‘We are not here for the money’: Founders’ manifestos. New Media & Society, 1461444813506974.

John, N. A. (2013a). Sharing and Web 2.0: The emergence of a keyword. New Media & Society, 15(2), 167-182. doi: 10.1177/1461444812450684

John, N. A. (2013b). The Social Logics of Sharing. The Communication Review, 16(3), 113-131. doi: 10.1080/10714421.2013.807119

Katriel, T. (1987). “Bexibùdim!”: Ritualized sharing among Israeli children. Language in society, 16(03), 305-320.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors we live by. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, F. (2009). Burning Man at Google: a cultural infrastructure for new media production. New Media & Society, 11(1-2), 73-94.

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