In a recently published article in New Media & Society, Nicholas John (2022) reports on the decline of the use of “sharing” in the self-presention of large social network sites (SNS) over the last decade:

“there is a clear reduction in the use of the terminology of “sharing” in the self-presentation of SNSs during the decade under study. Where in the mid-2000s SNSs relied heavily on a rhetoric of sharing to promote their services, by 2020 “sharing” appears hardly at all.” (p. 2)

The world’s largest social media service Facebook is a case in point. Facebook changed the description on its landing page from “Share what’s new in your life on your Timeline” (2011) to “Connect with friends and the world around you on Facebook” (2020; on a side note, German Facebook still refers to “teilen” as of 2022).

Proportion of social network sites with “sharing” on their front page, 2011–2020. (Source: John 2022, p. 7)

Interpreting his findings, John states that “sharing” is no longer “the constitutive activity of social media” (p. 6). I would tend to disagree with this rather bold assessment and instead argue that sharing is still constitutive for even the largest and most successful social media sites such as Instagram or TikTok. However, the activity of sharing has become so institutionalized – taken-for-granted, as neo-institutionalists would say – that emphasizing it is not necessary to clarify what is happening on social media anymore. Actually, John himself later refers to related studies that put forward such a reading, claiming that practices such as “sharing” or “remixing” have “faded in to the ‘background noise’ of mainstream culture” (p. 12, with reference to Rosa et al. 2021).

A decline in idealism?

In addition and more semantically, John assumes that “the rhetorical power of ‘sharing’ [to conceal commercial interests of platforms] has waned over time as SNS users have become savvier both as to their business model and as to their political impacts” (p. 12). He even points to studies attesting “a decline in idealism in relation to media practices around copyright” to support this thesis.

I think this analysis runs the risk of mixing up the fact that the non-commercial, non-profit gift-giving character of sharing platforms was dominant for the vast majority of users then, as it is today, and has nothing to do with the profit-orientation of the platform operator in the first place. The overwhelming majority of users of SNS does so without a profit motive but for all kinds of reasons such as self-expression, file-exchange, friendship, political activism or simply for the fun of it. The conclusion of a “decline in idealism” therefore seems premature to me, if not outright misguided.

Regardless, however, the finding raises the question of what meaning can accompany the designation of gifts as “gifts”, of sharing as “sharing”. How performative is the designation of sharing as sharing for the gift-economic character of online platforms?

This question leads to yet another reading of John’s empirical findings. The renunciation of the sharing diction could then also be a rather defensive maneuver on the part of the platform operators to mitigate the normative and partly profit-skeptical excess of sharing frames and the associated claims of users and the wider public. Avoiding the “sharing” frame might then mitigate certain avenues of criticism. (Of course, being less convincing for audiences and avoiding potentially harmful subtexts are not mutually exclusive but may both be part of the explanation for the decline of sharing as a label of social media sites.)

Screenshot of the landing-page of the Wikimedia Foundation in 2022, prominently featuring the “sharing” frame

Conversely, it would then only be logical that organizations such as Wikimedia continue to prominently rely on sharing frames. The Wikimedia Foundation, the organization behind the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia, continues to prominently display the same phrase on its home page as it did 20 or 10 years ago: “Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

In contrast to commercial for-profit platforms, Wikimedia fully relies on a sharing-based economic model with donation-based funding of the entire platform under complete renunciation of advertising revenues and a strict abstention from paying Wikipedia editors for contributing content to the encyclopedia. From the perspective of a truly sharing-based business model such as the Wikipedia, the normative surplus of the “sharing” frames may be more attractive and valuable than ever.

This blog post sums up remarks I made at the workshop “Giving and Gifting: Gift Economy in the Horizon of Digitalization” at IFK Vienna.

(leonhard)

References

  • John, N. (2022): Sharing and social media: The decline of a keyword? New Media & Society, in press.
  • Rosa, F. R., Clifford, M., & Sinnreich, A. (2021). The More Things Change: Who Gets Left Behind as Remix Goes Mainstream?. In The Routledge Handbook of Remix Studies and Digital Humanities (pp. 36-52). 52 Vanderbilt Avenue, New York, NY 10017: Routledge.