sharing and caring in the social web

In the nightmarish scene below, a purple dinosaur commands that you “share your stuff:”

If you are of a certain generation, younger than I (or parents of that generation), then the refrain that “sharing is caring” might be echoing through your skull. In the world of Fb, of course, sharing takes on a whole new dimension.  As familiar as you might be with Barney, most of my colleagues would recognize the Marxian argument of Trebor Scholz‘s notion of “immaterial free labor.” As Scholz writes (in 2008), “People like to be where other people are. They enjoy using these platforms: from entertainment, to staying in touch with friends and family, to chatting, remixing, collaborating, sharing, and gossiping, to getting a job through the mighty power of weak links. It’s a tradeoff. Presence does not produce objects but life as such that is put to work and monetary value is created through the affective labor of users who are either not aware of this fact or do not mind it (yet). In short, sharing is producing, though we might also note recent concerns from Facebook that people aren’t sharing the personal details of their life as much as they once did but rather shifting to sharing web content. Though Fb might struggle to figure out what to do with this sharing practice, there’s much to investigate in this burgeoning habit of ours to share.

If your Fb is like mine, then the occasion of various violent acts–police shootings (now in both directions), mass shootings, terrorist attacks–have become all-too regular content on your timeline. If your friends are like mine, then they remark on their struggles to figure out how to respond or on the affective effect of the content. Some take up the political kairos of the moment. Some are angry; some are hurt. Others respond to the ethical obligation to express sympathy. No one would deny that there are bigger issues to address regarding these events than what happens on Fb: racism, terrorism, our cultural propensity for violence, etc., etc., etc. And yet, here we are, on Fb. Undoubtedly we are getting something from it. I will admit that it is elusive to me, at least on a subjective level. That is, I’ve never felt the desire or obligation to share, comment, change my photo, and so on in response to such events, or at least I’ve not felt it strongly enough to do it. So for me to understand it, I have to try to get at it from a more distant conceptual level without falling for the easy errors of such an approach to judge, criticize or explain away what others do.

So that’s what brings me back to the idea that sharing is caring. The “share” button doesn’t really mean sharing in the way Barney meant it. For Barney, sharing means giving something to someone else that they want and by doing so denying yourself that thing, like when kids share their toys. On Fb we mean something a little closer to sharing ideas, which others may not want and which, rather than denying them for ourselves, actually might make our hold on those ideas stronger. In that respect, sharing ideas is more like sharing a cold than it is sharing toys; so much so that we commonly say ideas can be viral. In a meta sense one might say that the idea of sharing has gone viral. Oddly we seem to like the notion of viral ideas. We are quick to share them. As the TED talks remind us, they are “ideas worth spreading.” I suppose I could (and briefly will) offer a pseudo-anthropological explanation where human societies have been held together by our ability to share information and that one’s standing in one’s community is bolstered by one’s sharing and reaffirmed when others value that sharing. In short, sharing is a mark of belonging and a way to belong. The more an idea has been shared the more likely it is to be shared again. And you can see this on your timeline where friends keep sharing the same information over and over. Do you friends really think that you don’t know about the global/national tragedy that happened yesterday? Of course not. So  why do they care to share?

Here I suppose I would turn, as I tend to, toward media-ecological, materialist explanations of distributed cognition and emergent capacities of agency (as Latour would say, we are “made to act”). In the world of Fb, when we encounter an idea (or more specifically a media object because we aren’t literally sharing an idea), we gain the capacity to share it. We can then look at the rhetorical forces involved that lead us to act on that capacity. On Fb, users are made to share. Not forced to share, but composed as agents capable of sharing, who inevitably will share given various other conditions.

If sharing on Fb isn’t quite what Barney meant, then maybe neither is caring. There’s caring as in caring for a child or caring for the victims of a tragedy. Then there’s caring as in caring about the presidential election: an expression of interest and value. It’s possible that sharing a news event could be an act of care in the first sense, but mostly I think it’s more in the second sense. If I share something I care about then it is an expression of my values and a way to mark my place in a community. Maybe that sounds cynical, and I suppose it could be cynical at times, but mostly it’s just the way we connect with one another. But just as we are made to share we are made to care. Not forced to care but composed as agents capable of caring, who inevitably will care about something.

What I get from all this and from the operation of Fb, especially recently in my timeline at least, is that it is probably worth investigating the way we are composed to share and care through our encounters with this platform. As apropos as Scholz’s warning about affective labor was and is, the rhetorical-cognitive-agential capacities that emerge through our relations with social media seem to be more pressing to me.

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