04 Nov

The Age of Sharing

Posted By polity_admin_user


It was in the Autumn of 2010 that I noticed that the word ‘share’ was all over the internet. Two or three things were immediately obvious: first, the word ‘sharing’ has very positive connotations and hints at intimate, authentic interpersonal relations; second, it has fairly deep roots in the world of computing; and third, it serves to obfuscate relationships that are purely commercial. This final point is easy to make: Facebook does not ‘share’ user data with advertisers, it sells it, hiding these profit-motivated relations behind the rainbows, puppies and children conjured up by sharing. However, as I show in The Age of Sharing, there is much more to ‘sharing’ than this.

Right now, the term ‘sharing’ signifies a unique constellation of meanings and values. Sharing is central to three social spheres: it is the way we participate in social media; it is the type of talking we do with intimates and therapists; and it is a model for a type of economic relations. In all of these instances, sharing stands, among other values, for honesty, authenticity, openness, and mutuality. Very often, though, we hear the argument that this or that isn’t really sharing. I should stress that while I certainly have opinions about social media use, or about the sharing economy, in my book I do not engage with the question of whether tweeting or Airbnb-ing really involve sharing. Instead, I historicize ‘sharing’ in these various contexts, asking when the activity that it represents came to be called ‘sharing’ and what work the word does in those contexts.

For instance, ‘sharing’ only came to refer to a type of communication around a century ago, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that sharing came to refer to a confessional kind of talk. This was in the context of the Oxford Group, an evangelic Christian movement, whose members would meet in each other’s parlors, sit in a circle, and publicly confess their sins, a practice they called ‘sharing’. The similarity between this practice and that of Alcoholics Anonymous (and every support group ever since) is not coincidental: two members of the Oxford Group set up AA, bringing the practice of sharing with them. The point here is that the association of ‘sharing’ with intimacy is modern, as were the circumstances of the emergence of this particular practice (others have described how modern consumer culture created a sense of thinness and directed attention inwards, to the psyche).

We can similarly historicize the association of sharing with caring and show that they came to be linked in the 1970s. Here too the context is important: this was the decade of the counterculture and the consolidation of the ideal of authentic self-expression. Here too, then, ‘sharing’ promised an alternative to mainstream capitalist culture. Yet today ‘sharing’ is also associated with social media giants and new forms of labor. People are suspicious of practices called sharing, yet wish to protect the term itself; hence, ‘it isn’t really sharing’. By tracing the emergence of new meanings of ‘sharing’ and by showing how and when positive values came to be associated with it, The Age of Sharing positions the concept of sharing as both central to and critical of contemporary capitalist society.

Nicholas A. John is Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His book, The Age of Sharing, is now available from Polity.