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Why Facebook and Twitter are the virtual Panopticons of our time

13 Nov 2013
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The Panopticon and the native American Potlatch ceremony are the yin and yang of social media gift economics, driving and sustaining the frenzy of exchange made possible by our new 'social era'—an age of constant, multi-channel, real time sharing.

Paul Krugman doesn’t tweet. The economist and New York Times columnist has over one million followers on Twitter, yet he claims that he doesn’t have time to engage them, and employs the services of a tweet-bot to deliver titles from his blog. Krugman’s aversion to Twitter may have more to do with his dislike of chatter than time constraints.

Krugman, in 1998, predicted that ‘[t]he growth of the internet will slow drastically [as it] becomes apparent [that] most people have nothing to say to one another’. Since then, the chattering classes have swept to ubiquity. Twitter has 218 million active monthly users. Facebook, the current king of the social media world, has 850 million active users and is worth about $80 billion.

Tech pundits claim that we have entered the ‘social era’—an age of constant, multi-channel, real time sharing. What drives this frenzy of exchange, and what sustains it, given that, as Krugman notes, most people have nothing to say to one another?

One way of understanding these issues is to look at the psychological and motivational dynamics of gift exchanges. The enticements and rewards of tweeting, posting, pinning, and blogging come into relief when we think of this activity as gifting rather than sharing, as contributing to a common pool rather than simply chattering.

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Photo Credit: Melody Kramer via Compfight cc

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2013
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