Lazily musing about sharing

Serendipity is a wondrous thing. 

Yesterday, as I did my leisurely trawl through the three hundred or so people I read regularly, I came across Tom Foremski’s intriguing post. Is Skype A Social Network? That set me off on a gentle, aimless wander on what makes a network social.

Then, a little while later, I noticed that Anne Zelenka, another person I read regularly,  had written a fascinating piece about mashed-up selves. And by the time I finished reading that, I was off on tangents of delight, ruminating about what makes a networked human social.

In our family, we have a simple routine when it comes to birthdays. As long as you’re in town you’re expected to make Sunday lunch, with the venue chosen by the person whose birthday it is. Today was one such day, and the cuisine chosen was Greek. We had meze, a family favourite. And it gave me the chance to observe, yet again, how wonderful it is for friends to sit and break bread together.

And then I went to Wembley to watch the Carling Cup Final. And everywhere around me there were people taking photographs. All kinds of photographs. The stadium. The teams. The play. And one other thing. The “We were there. Together” version. Mark Hillary’s photo showing Mark and Angelica with friends at an Oasis concert there a few years ago is a classic example of the genre.

Photo courtesy Mark Hillary

Being at Wembley today was like being surrounded by an avalanche of social objects. Which is where my mind turned to as I headed home on the train. And when I got home, what do I find in my twitter stream but a reminder of Hugh MacLeod’s excellent post some time ago, on social objects being the future of marketing. I could not possibly write about social objects without making reference to Hugh, and to Jyri Engestrom, the originator of the term; the two of them have really helped me think about this area.

I know, I’ve linked to quite a few posts already, all dancing around the theme of sharing. If all you do is to read those posts, then it’s been worth my while writing this one.

And for those who’d like to venture further, here’s where my head is at.

1. For anything to be social, it must be shared. The essence of “social” is in sharing. It doesn’t matter what you’re sharing: food, views, experiences, journeys, cars, computers, beds, whatever. It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that sharing swing.

2. Sharing, the act of making social, happens because people are made social. No man is an iland. [I couldn’t resist the temptation to link to Joan Baez’s reading of the Donne poem Meditation XVII, I’m a big fan of both]. People were born to share. Even something as apparently “individual” as identity is a concept steeped in sharing, in being part of a social environment. [This post on identity, written six years ago, may help you think about why].

3. Sharing is encouraged by good design. It’s easy to share meze. It’s a lot harder to share steak. Meze is designed to be communal, to be shared. I have some very close friends in New York, they live on the Upper West Side. And when we meet as families, we make every effort to eat at Carmine’s. They say their family style restaurant is legendary, and for good reason. It is. Family style. Designed to be shared.

4. When you share physical things like food, sharing reduces waste. You need less to go around. There’s a sort of portfolio effect in place, so when you have large groups eat at places like Carmine’s, you tend to leave less food on the plate and on the serving dishes. [Perhaps not the first time around, as you learn to cope with “legendary” helping sizes; but then the waste is a function of poor estimation, not poor design.]

5. When you share non-physical things like ideas, sharing increases value. As George Bernard Shaw is reputed to have said:

photo courtesy Wikipedia

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still each have an apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.


Sharing is serious business.

Very serious business.

And sharing has very serious consequences for business, especially if your business is modelled on not-sharing.

When people share physical things, they need fewer of them. And the net effect is to reduce the overall size of the market. Ever wondered why hardware manufacturers don’t like talking about the cloud, preferring to use terms like “private cloud”? Because a private cloud is a data centre under another name. An expensive, private, data centre. Ever wondered why some software companies also emphasise the need for “private clouds”? Why they use every excuse under the sun (and a few more suited to moonlight and darkness) to defend against the cloud? Simple. Because their licensing models are tightly coupled with the hard, physical, “analog” market of hardware and processor. There endeth the lesson.

Non-physical things have been shared for aeons, long before the digital age. Take the insurance market. Today you can contract to cover or protect against many types of risk; the insurance market exists to let you do this, ostensibly for peace of mind, ostensibly a sign of being prudent with your assets. But there was a time when the bearer of the risk was your community, a time when the premium you paid was participation in that community. If your house burnt down, your neighbours got together, sheltered and fed you, then worked with you to help you start over. There was a time when adults didn’t contract with their employers or their insurance companies for their pensions. They already had solid pension schemes: children.

I have never seen an assisted-living/retirement development/old-people’s-home/whatever you want to call it in India. Perhaps they exist. But I had never even heard of one during my time there, from 1957-1980.

Progress. Strange, the things we do in the name of progress.

[This train of thought always reminds me of the dialogue between Mahatma Gandhi and a journalist. When asked what he thought of Western civilisation, he is said to have replied “I think it would be a good idea”.]

People, we live in challenging times. Times when we need to be good stewards of the resources we have. Times when we have to ensure we don’t waste resources. Times when we have to learn to be less selfish. Times when sharing becomes more important, when the ability to share becomes crucial.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re thinking about, whatever you’re faced with, remember who we are. Or, as friend Hugh MacLeod put it:

Remember who you are.


12 thoughts on “Lazily musing about sharing”

  1.  Wonderful post JP. It made me think of one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Jefferson –
    “He who receives ideas from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine receives light without darkening me”.

    As to insurance and pensions, we’d all be much better off if we got closer to family and community. Those are healthy and real dependencies that shape our values, Outsourcing them alienates us from our humanity.

  2. I used to tell my former colleagues, who were enamored of the phrase “knowledge is power” that teaching (sharing with) others frees us up to move on and to take on new challenges. They would nod, then return to their never-ending quest to register another patent.

    Love your expression of these ideas. Excellent . . . sublime. Thank you.

  3. As always extremely valid thoughts and stuff to make one think.
    Sharing, in all the forms you mention, is at the core of the social network. The only point I would add to this is context defines the strength of the network.
    Like you mentioned ‘dinner’ a couple of times, I think that is the context of that sharing.
    However, I wonder whether the absence of a context makes for a richer, or weaker network. eg your post on FB was sandwiched between a photo of someone’s wife and a school project on my wall.
    So showing up for an event not knowing what to expect makes for a fun event but it could also diminish the value of it as it grows and create opportunities for sub networks with defined contexts.
    I wonder..

  4. Helps me grip why sharing, social and sustainability are product design tenants for the next generation of business applications for SME’s. And how the time for legacy / social coexistence strategies is now.

  5. “When people share physical things, they need fewer of them.” And they’re bound by the group’s (or for purposes of this discussion, face it–the service provider’s) judgment on what’s worthwhile to support. In the good ol’ days, your community would provide you with food and shelter–if you fit in. If you were the wrong sort, your fellow community members might have been the ones who set the fire.

  6. “Lazily musing about sharing” in the context of an online world where it’s so easy to do makes me “Lazily muse about doing.” (Which is usually more effort.) There’s always been this power law distribution idea for online content; a small group of deeply engaged posters on a bulletin board, followed by a few ‘drive by’ commenters, and then tons of readers. But in the real world it’s an even steeper curve for a lot of sharing. Maybe this was less true when collective survival depended on more communal physical effort; from barn raising to schooling to whatever.

    You seem to lament a bit of so-called ‘progress’ in Western (so-called) Civilization as compared to some Indian cultural practices. I’m not sure you have to go back home to feel the deficits. Some of them can be sensed with just the passage of time. It seems – to me anyway – like at least some degree of online sharing is a very poor proxy for a lack of real world action. For example, whatever one thinks of the Occupy Movements, it seems that the actual physical protestors were few and far between as compared to the Retweets, Likes and forwards. I can tell you from personal experience the volunteer rescue squad I’ve worked with for many years increasingly is challenged to find members and this seems similar to other organizations, though it seems that there’s more places online to find places to volunteer. Has the ease of sharing ideas or concerns caused some to think, “Well, I said my piece on Facebook, I don’t actually have to DO anything else!”

    Has the idea of sharing gone so virtual, from music files to little bits of information here or there, that people feel this is enough? That they’ve done enough? Even as I design or build such mechanisms in to products, I wonder sometimes of their true worth vs. distraction.

    So your premises regarding modern products and sharing may be all completely true. But when it comes to the reality of physical goods and resources in the real world, (including serious time commitment), sharing for the common good has broken down a bit. Perhaps a lot. It’s good that organizations like Freecycle and such help promote re-use, but that’s still not quite sharing. It could be we need to find good market mechanisms to help promote such activity. (Zip Car might be one good example, Net Jets another. And there’s certainly some recreational clubs such as for aircraft or boats as well.) I suppose what I’m saying is it’s not enough to build in Sharing capability alone. Some kind of behavioral economics have to come into play to make it worthwhile. Otherwise I’m not so sure it’s sharing vs. just social marketing.

Let me know what you think

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