The changing shape of sharing: digital materiality and moral economies

The changing shape of sharing: digital materiality and moral economies

Jörgen Skågeby (Stockholm University)

The digital is expanding. More and more of our virtual world (e.g. emotions, sentiments, ideas, fears, beliefs, thoughts) is being digitally crowdsourced and quantified as Big Data. Equally, more and more of our physical objects (including our bodies) are being interlaced with digital information (commonly referred to as the Internet of Things). Thus, there is no longer (if there ever was) a clear separation between the digital on the one hand and the virtual and the material on the other hand.

At the same time, the digital-material objects we surround ourselves with can take on different transactional identities — as gifts, public goods or commodities — and thereby become parts of larger economies. Depending on the transactional identity of objects, these larger economies can be seen as following different moral orders. These two processes, digital materiality and moral economies, have become more visible in our everyday lives as they converge in the so-called sharing economy. In what follows, this article will show how sharing has changed shape and that we can understand this process precisely by considering digital materiality and moral economies together.

The changing shape of sharing
Sharing has become a conflated concept. In short, the once threatening notion of sharing (as in file-sharing) has now been effectively co-opted to produce the foundation for the “sharing economy” — a kind of short-term individualist money-exchange under the guise of collective resource sharing.

Social file sharing, as it was enacted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was often analyzed in terms of gift-giving or as a form of public goods. In juridical terms it was still highly contested of course — file-sharers were commonly described as “kids who want to get stuff for free” and who “stole money out of creators’ pockets” — but as a social practice based on shared interests the communal elements were often clearly discernible and even driving sociogenesis. Regulators, tax collectors and big companies had up until this point had an adverse relationship to sharing (by clinging on to a preferred mode of strictly material transactions). This would change, however.

With the social media explosion, networked individualism was taken to new heights. So did the constant monitoring of online activities connected to a specific individual. In parallel, business developers were trying to find new spins on “sharing”, which had, despite the attempts to demonize it, managed to retain a fairly positive connotation in terms of interaction on digital platforms. New streaming services were introduced as “legal alternatives” to file sharing (e.g. Spotify, Netflix). In fact, these business models were basically a step back towards company-controlled video-and-music-on-demand. Following this, sharing would take on yet a new notion through the so-called “sharing economy”.

The sharing economy of today is a business model where intermediary companies make money by connecting material resources to people via social media. This conflation of commodities (emphasizing exchange values) and public goods and gifts (emphasizing ethical and social values) puts these new business models in many questionable grey zones, which obscures issues of, for example, social security, environmental implications, tax evasion, insurance policies and legislation.

As such, it is especially interesting that the companies that now commodify sharing, use the same arguments as the previous file sharing community: namely that current laws and regulations are not adapted to deal with the digital (in a way, a reference to a digital imperative, where anything that can be made digital must be digital). As such, the resignification (the reworking of the projected meaning of the concept) of sharing included not only exchanging social objects and relations for commodified objects and relations, but also a claim that regulatory functions should now adapt to their “digital” business models.

So, essentially “sharing” as an economical concept in the digital age, moved from being about virtual and digital gifting and public goods towards being a business model focusing on material commodities exchanged for a price in the market. This outlined transition is not representative for all exchanges that take place of course, but still provides a compelling example of how we now also need new models to assess virtual-digital-material changes and instabilities.

A model of virtual, digital and material moral economies
Building on political economist and media theorist, Dallas Smythe, Graham Murdock presents a framework of moral economies, making a conceptual separation between commodities, public goods and gifts. Essentially Murdock’s framework stresses a consideration for the larger consequences of abiding by a certain model of exchange and the values it emphasizes (thus moral economies emphasize how there are always social, ethical and environmental implications emanating from a certain mode of economic transfer). Murdock claims that corporate interests have increasingly commodified the inherently social values of the gift economy. This is a view also expressed by Nancy Fraser who argues that the continuous embedding of capitalism into social institutions and relations “sought to build a world in which society, morals and ethics were subordinated to, indeed modelled on, markets.”

This leads to a question of what constitutes value in different moral economies. The market economy certainly recognizes that value is a term with many dimensions. In business-to-consumer relationships one of the main methods is to use symbolic values of commodities (e.g. brands, corporate social responsibility) to inflate or obscure the material values (e.g. financial returns, production circumstances). These methods are part of a process where consumers are left to engage with commercialized symbolic values through which a lifestyle can be bought and attention can be commodified.

In order to grasp such resignification processes, we need an analytical model that re-separates the values conflated by the market. Too often, however, models that address digital economies put all effort into describing the peculiarities of the digital, forgetting how practices and objects traverse various modes of object existence. As such, van Doorn presents an interesting model that proposes that the digital is a space of convergence where the virtual and the material meet and “in which the ‘immaterial potential’ of the virtual is materially actualized in the form of digital objects.” This creates a (conceptual, not actual) division between virtual, digital and material, which, in combination with Murdock’s three types of moral economies, produces an interesting matrix:


Virtual Digital Material
Commodity Intellectual property, user attention Computer file sold for a price in the market, user attention actualized as e.g. ad space Material product or service sold for a price in the market
Public good Immaterial “cultural commons” Public informational and computational resources, open source software projects Institutionalized, public, infrastructural, physical resources
Gift Socially bonding knowledge sharing (outside the market) Socially bonding file sharing (outside the market) Physical gifting (outside the market)

Table 1. A matrix of virtual, digital and material moral economies


The future of sharing
This article has illustrated how there is a conceptual complexity to sharing, which the “sharing economy” partly obscures. Social values are unceasingly quantified, measured, aggregated and reified by social media services. Developers continuously engineer more advanced surveillance systems to refine the commodity (e.g. audience attention) sold to advertisers. In early works, the gift is often contrasted with the commodity. In everyday life in late-modern capitalism this distinction is, however, deliberately blurred. Over the last century, or so, the gift has been reified as an occasion-centric anomaly, grounded in individual sovereignty, property ownership, obligation and the commercialization of our calendar (i.e. time).

Nevertheless, the gift (economy) is also a persistent model presenting “participatory alternatives to capitalist totality”. As such the digital presents new opportunities for examining the viability and potential outcomes in the intersection between gift economies and media technologies. Therefore, this paper has proposed a combined model that destabilizes some, and retains some theoretical distinctions. The combination of Murdock’s model and the digital materiality of van Doorn creates interesting theoretical synergies, where objects can be seen as moving over, being immobilized (enclosed) by and/or blurring, borders.

The arguments of this article, then, are in many ways part of a larger current of recent critical approaches to digital distribution, which also calls for alternative, technology-supported, ways forward. For example, French philosopher of technology, Bernard Stiegler rejects a capitalism that has made carelessness into the very principle of its organization and outlines what he calls an economy of contribution. This economy relies on a socially grounded ambition to cause “the technical tendency to ‘diffract’, to deflect, and even to reverse its direction”. Underpinning this proposal is a view of technologies as pharmacological (i.e. potentially both toxic and curative). Thereby, new media technologies can provide us with sustainable alternatives, mainly through a process where the current short-term, deceptive, disposability-oriented, unconcerned capitalist economy are reworked through the notion of care-fulness. Care-fulness, in turn, includes a re-orientation towards an economy based in social values rather than exchange values. Notably, according to Stiegler, this entails positive externalities resulting from transversal relations between the psychosomatic level (body), the technical level (technology) and the social level (discursive practices), in many ways comparable to the concepts of material, digital and virtual.

Further, gift economies also hold a prominent position within feminist critiques of exchange, ranging also here from more discursive to more material accounts. Vaughan’s linguistic critique of exchange generates a conceptualization of the gift where a change in language is a first step towards a material change. As she puts it: “With language, we create the human bonds that we have stopped creating through material communication”. These accounts are, of course, just examples of theories using gift concepts to project more just and sustainable futures. Sharing economies in general, and gift economies in particular, should become more concerned with virtual-digital-material things and social relations rather than unremitting efforts to quantify the unquantifiable.

To conclude, sharing has had a peculiar position in the theorizing of things, relations and economy, particularly when pertaining to its digital or informational hybrids. While it has been repeatedly invoked to shine light on the enmeshed social aspects and values in (the labour of) digital distribution, it is also a model that has been (again) co-opted by market forces. The initial enthusiasm about online sharing and its importance to social bonding and community-building has met with technology-augmented enclosure, surveillance and profiteering. While this may be viewed as supporting the idea that technology can only ever be a tool for the continued and more efficient exploitation of labour, this article suggests that thinking through digital-material moral economies can push us to consider viable alternatives that go beyond momentary eruptions of subcultural agency.


Jörgen Skågeby is an associate professor at the Department for Media Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden. He has written extensively on sharing as an analytical and practical concept in digital cultures. Other research interests include material interactions theory, media archaeology and feminist design.

Photo Credit : Toban B. “Sharing” In Toronto, Ontario.