This is my review essay on “The Age of Sharing”, published in Culture Digitally.
Nicholas John’s fabulous new book The Age of Sharing dives into the concept of sharing as the key metaphor of our moment. Sharing, John argues, has come to refer to “our technologically mediated social lives; about our economic lives as producers and consumers; and about our emotional, interpersonal lives.” (4) That one concept now stands in for so many different realms—imperfectly and incompletely—is part of John’s argument and what he sets out to explore. Sharing metaphorically links practices of consumption (sharing music) and production (sharing in coding and editing projects). Sharing also links communication (sharing a story) with distribution (sharing my beer). John argues that these distinct practices have fundamentally different implications for understanding the digital economy, but in part Silicon Valley’s use of the language of sharing for all of them prevents the distinctions among them from being easily recognized. Unlike cheerleaders for the sharing economy, John does not see how or why sharing things on social media prepares the way for a society of hourly car rentals, self-catering apartment rentals, and unlicensed and unregulated taxi rides. In John’s words:
“If this is the sharing economy, then its message is pure neoliberal ideology: if you have any spare resources (including your time, that drill you are not using right now, your spare bedroom) and you are not monetizing them, then do not complain about being poor. There is a part of the sharing economy that turns us all into microentrepreneurs, and that looks mercilessly upon those who refuse to participate.” (69)
John’s examination of sharing lays bare a larger ideological project. As a concept, sharing captures a kinder, gentler kind of interaction—one that John covers at length in sections on childhood and the so-called natural state of human economic behaviour (tl;dr – there is no kinder, gentler state of human of nature). His argument is convincing. And it is an argument should have economic sociologists interested in this book, opening up ways to extend his argument further.
John does not use Émile Durkheim’s notions of mechanical and organic solidarity to describe the work that the concept of sharing does for contemporary economic life, but he very well could have. Pre-modern society worked on “mechanical” solidarity: small communities with tight social ties ensured that our economic transactions will be repeated, lowering any chance that one side will cheat the other and creating community-based mechanisms for dealing with it when they do. Durkheim suggests that modern society is the opposite: everyone has a job to do within a complex division of labor, and we no longer need to rely on trust and community ties to ensure fair exchange. The problem with the sharing economy, in John’s rich description of it, is that it seeks to re-enchant the modern economy with these kinds of pre-modern ties described by Durkheim.
“This is the age of sharing, then, because sharing stands for both the cutting edge of our digital media-saturated capitalist society and economy, including the way we interact online, and a critical position vis-à-vis this society and economy. Sharing is both supportive and subversive of hegemonic (digital) culture: supportive in that the more you share updates and pictures on social media, for instance, the wealthier those platforms become, and subversive in that the more you share actual stuff with others, the less everyone needs to buy. Moreover, some say that sharing—be that of the distributive or communicative kind—leads to true and deep human connections.” (2)
The message of the sharing economy, according to John, is that “technologically enabled sharing is somehow a return to an older and better way of living” (83) and “that sharing will help us regain a paradise lost.” (81) We should all be doubtful and cautious when powerful business interests promise to restore our lost innocence.
Which raises, for me, the question of solidarity. The Silicon Valley versions of sharing promise to recreate small communities of like-minds in which any natural altruism is modulated carefully through online platforms—for a small fee, of course. This kind of solidarity is mechanical solidarity at its worst, recalling the ways in which pre-modern communities remained close to outsiders and difference and relied on the basest logic of crowds and gossips. Durkheim’s solution was something that looked more like the solidarity of today’s big urban areas, a sense of belonging to a place that relied on each of us being an important piece of a very large system that needed different kinds of jobs, different kinds of skills, and different kinds of consumption. Durkheim’s metaphor for modern society was not one of sharing, but of reliance—just as a body relies on different organs, so too a modern society needs different people to function.
Sharing is polysemic, John concludes, because people evoke the different meanings and values of the word in ways that can be read in differently by different audiences. John’s examination of the difficulties of using sharing as a metaphor for a kinder, gentler economy could not be better timed than when scholars are questioning how social media may contribute societal fragmentation. (Sharing fake news, anyone?) Questioning sharing is the first step. Next is rebuilding a true sense of solidarity as part of, or after, the so-called sharing economy.
I wrote this about the “La Jolla School” of Communication for the 30th anniversary of that department. I was on the faculty there as a professor from 2003-5.
For the last few years, I have jokingly referred to a “La Jolla School” of Communication. This invisible college has grown up around the Communication Department at the University of California, San Diego. And as a school of thought it is represented by the current faculty, of course, and the Ph.D. alumni who are also emerging as intellectual leaders of the field in their own right.
But unlike the other place-based schools of thought, there is no single topical or methodological link that the whole community abides by or protects. The Montreal School has had an important influence on organizational communication, the Frankfurt School had impressive epistemological unity, and theToronto School is known for its historical perspective and media personalities. There are also many fine departments and schools of communication across the United States, but I would argue none of these have yet to cohere into anything near a school of thought. The “La Jolla School” is the most identifiable department-centered school of thought in contemporary communication research in the United States.
Membership in the La Jolla School is defined through a way of knowing that produces richly textured, deeply analytical work on the cultures, infrastructures, and social implications of media and communication across behavioral, social scientific and humanistic approaches. Now, for the 30th Anniversary of the founding of the UCSD Communication Department, it is time to reflect on the project and what has been accomplished so far.
In an era when digital media require new ways of asking questions about the relationship between mass media and human communication, UCSD paved the way. What UCSD figured out –well before the rest of the field did– is that we can’t separate the medium from the interaction from the implications (social, cultural, or economic). What has been built over the last 30 years by the La Jolla School is based in a deep belief that intellectual conversation must happen across the perspectives on human interaction, media production, culture studies, and political economy. Of course, the ideas were and are always first in La Jolla. One of the particular quirks of UCSD is its dogged refusal to identify or police professional or disciplinary boundaries, and yet the work of La Jolla School has begun constitute an approach to being within the discipline. In La Jolla, interesting ideas always win out over pedigrees, and they usually won out over extended discussion during (sometimes seemingly endless) “Course Group” meetings. Oh, how I cursed those meetings when I was a first-year professor there, and how I long for them now. For it was there and then that these negotiations among perspectives were hammered out. The conversations about teaching and hiring that every department does were different in the La Jolla approach because of a deep commitment to intellectual engagement across these boundaries and a spirit of radical democracy that informed them. These conversations and people’s commitment to them, constituted a process of democratic sense-making among the core and periphery of the school of thought, allowing diverse voices, cross-fertilization across specialties, and new ideas to emerge. It might be difficult to articulate exactly what topically makes La Jolla style research, but people came to recognize it when they saw it in the work of others.
What then does make a work or a person part of this school? I’d argue that it is three main premises define it.
- A strong program for the study of communication cultures. Jeffery Alexander famously argued for a robust strong program of cultural sociology. Without re-hashing that debate, it is useful to pull in this idea of a strong program of culture to describe work that is inherently cultural and communicative. A defining tenant of the La Jolla school marries symbolic and structural approaches to understanding communication as meaning, process, and artifact. The La Jolla School does not reject textual approaches to understanding, but rather often uses them with historical, political, behavioral and social ones. Similarly, working in La Jolla school scholarship means being unafraid to directly investigate culture, rather than treating it as an aside, addition, or error term, regardless of one’s epistemological starting point.
- A firm belief in multiple levels of analysis of communication. While not all members of the La Jolla school do all things, there is a shared recognition that the valid levels of analysis for the study of communication include society, culture, economy, group, and individual. The ability to translate work across these levels is a defining marker of the La Jolla style of research. These levels of analysis are built into the 30-year old structure of the UCSD department that combines mass media, culture studies, human cognition and media production, making the founding vision for the La Jolla School seem prescient for the internet era.
- Deep dives. To say the dissertation projects of UCSD graduate students are ambitious is an understatement. The work of the La Jolla School is bookish, book-quality, and deep. Regardless of the particular methodological or theoretical anchors such as ethnography, history, or cognitive behavior, the tendency for La Jolla School work is to delve deep into a particular topic, even by scholarly standards.
My own time in La Jolla was brief. I worked there as an assistant professor for only one year before family reasons took me to my present job. Because I was trained as a sociologist, UCSD was my gateway drug for communication scholarship, and in that way my time there functioned for me like a postdoc for ways of thinking through, around, and about the field of communication. I was very lucky to be mentored there by incredible senior and junior colleagues–in particular, Mike Cole, Gary Fields, Dan Hallin, Robert Horwitz, Chandra Mukerji, Michael Schudson, and David Serlin. I find it ironic now that my professionalization into the communication field is due in large part to time spent at a program that purports to have little concern for the problems of the profession, disciplines, or careers. The program’s founding faculty were and are strongly associated with social and behavioral sciences and humanities disciplines outside the field of communication. What I didn’t understand at the time was how carefully UCSD cultivated this outsider status. But without that group of my first professional colleagues who cared deeply about a sociologically and politically informed study of culture, I doubt my transition into the communication field would have been as smooth as it was.
For a program purports not to care about the profession, it is having quite an impact. Three of the last eight ICA Outstanding Book Awards have been for “La Jolla School” books, this year for Sarah Banet-Weiser’s Authentic and recently for Tarleton Gillespie’s Wired Shut and Dan Hallin and Paolo Mancini’sComparing Media Systems. Just thinking through my colleagues from the subfield of communication technology, prominent La Jolla School members include Kirsten Foot, Steve Jackson, Matt Ratto, and Fred Turner. My own research within industry now brings me into rich conversation with alumniSuzanne Thomas at Intel and Mary Gray at Microsoft Research. The first generation of alumni are just now beginning to reach the ranks of full professor and other leadership positions that allow them to reach the full power of their influence such as Vicki Mayer at Tulane and Rick Bonus at UW. There are many more I could name, but these examples show the expansive reach of a small and relatively young program.
It is the La Jolla School spirit of recognizing exciting ideas that makes me deeply honored to have been, if only briefly formally, part of this mission. There are likely many more people who would recognize themselves informally as members of the La Jolla School by sharing in the spirit of its intellectual project and in working to help it flourish.