Participating in a gift economy: Are you giving enough?


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Open source communities are often compared to gift economies. You participate. You solve shared problems. Others do the same.

In many ways, you give to get.

And you earn credibility and status based on what you give. Here’s how Wikipedia (a gift culture at work) describes this element of the gift economy in the software world: "The volunteer software engineers in the open source software community are far more likely to help those who have demonstrated their commitment to the success of the overall open source software development process."

The principles of the gift economy can also be applied to the working environment of the 21st century. 

In this environment where work is less about completing simple tasks in prescribed steps, but about finding new, complex, creative solutions--your creativity and effort are also gifts. 

Sometimes you have to give a lot. 

Author Seth Godin devotes a chapter to the power of gift-giving in his book, Linchpin. Linchpin is about how to become indispensable in today's hyper-competitive organizations. He uses the theme to illustrate the inherent benefits of giving of your energy, talent, and art.

"The hybrid economy we're living in today is blending the idea of capitalism ('do your job and I won't fire you') and the gift economy ('wow, this is amazing.')"

Our work has become more complex, and it demands more of us. You give your time, attention, ideas, commitment. Today’s organizational models demand brave problem solvers who are willing to venture into the unknown.

Did you put in the extra time to solve a big problem? Did you reach out to collaborate even when it was difficult? Did you make the impossible a reality? These are all gifts. 

Godin describes this opportunity as “The New American Dream”: 

Be remarkable
Be generous
Create art
Make judgment calls
Connect people and ideas

 ...and we have no choice but to reward you. 

Organizations can also give. Those gifts may come in the form of providing autonomy to their employees in helping them choose projects they're passionate about, or providing opportunities for mastery in their work. These are kinds of motivating conditions that Daniel Pink talks about it his book Drive. This motivational model is also designed around the complex, creative work that is expected of us in the 21st century organization.

Godin also warns against the dangers of giving with the expectation of reciprocity. Gifts with strings attached don't make good gifts. 

When you give because of the value it generates--for both you and the community of fellow gift-givers--these are the kinds of gifts that help companies and communities thrive.

Perhaps nowhere is it more obvious to see a gift culture at work than in social media. In an environment like Twitter when everything is done in the open, the system is fueled by a network of gifts. You follow someone, they follow you back. You retweet, they retweet. 

Author and social media expert (really) Chris Brogan, who has built more than 140,000 Twitter followers in much the same way, talks about favors and the power of taking first action in his book, Trust Agents

“Humans understand how favors work. Doing and trading favors is woven into the fabric of our culture. When people are recipients of a favor, it's in their nature to want to pay it back. Doing nice things does make people feel good, but there's neurology behind it, too. We want to pay people back because it is in the nature of a community to do so; it keeps communities strong and protected against the outside world."

Where do you start? As Brogan suggests, take the first step. Prove that you're willing to offer your time and talent. Maybe others will be more willing to offer theirs.

Sure it takes trust to give. Not every gift will come back to you. But the rewards can be amazing nevertheless.

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5 Comments

cgrams's picture
Open Source Champion

I've often seen Chris Brogan give this simple advice:

Be helpful.

First time I heard him say this, it was so simple it blew me away. Now I ask myself all the time whether something I am doing that I view as a "gift" would really be helpful to anyone other than me.

It is very easy to give gifts that people don't find helpful. In reality, the only thing these gifts are actually doing is making /you feel/ like you are doing something helpful.

Now I try not to focus on giving gifts, but instead being genuinely helpful whenever I can. It's harder, but ultimately more rewarding, in my experience.

Great post, Jonathan!

Stuart Gathman's picture

An ancient principle: Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Ecclesiastes 11:1

Emily W.'s picture

So the basic idea of a gift economy is that if you give enough of your product or service away, you will become “indispensable” to your customers. In other words, your customers will become so dependent on you that they will start paying you money to get obtain your product or service. Essentially, the goal of a gift economy is to make people addicted to your product. What kind of satanic philosophy are we promoting here? Yes, this philosophy has worked well economically for the illegal drug industry, but what are the moral implications of accepting and practicing it as a civil society?

Stuart Gathman's picture

The focus of Free/Libre software is *not* being locked to a particular vendor. But as a competing vendor in the open software market, to make a profit you must be indispensable in some way to your customers. What free/libre software takes off the table is retaining customers by holding the source code hostage. If you are "indispensable" due to expertise, it is possible for someone else to acquire similar or superior expertise. And if such expertise is in demand, they probably will. RedHat is indispensable because of certification, among other things. RedHat is not stopping anyone from going through the arduous and expensive process of certifying your own binary built from the same sources - it just isn't worth it.

To put it in the addiction terms you used, closed source is a cocaine addition. Open Source is a snack food addiction.

Stuart Gathman's picture

I meant to say, "To put it in the addiction terms you used, *commercial* closed source is a cocaine addition. *Commercial* open source is a snack food addiction." And like free/libre software, anyone can slice and deep fry their own potato chips, but most of us prefer to pay someone to do it for us.