Consumption as a basis for social solidarity

June 20, 2006

The assertion that consumption can be a basis for social solidarity goes against conventional understandings of community organization. But a groundbreaking new study in the September issue of the Journal of Consumer Research argues that members of peer-to-peer file sharing networks, like the early users of Napster, were participating in a previously unseen social system.

"Everything that is crucial to establishing a system of social solidarity through gift giving - social distinctions, norm of reciprocity, and rituals and symbolisms - could also be found in the consumption activities of Napster users," says Markus Giesler (Schulich School of Business, Ontario).

Like traditional social systems, self-imposed rules emerge in the process of downloading and uploading files, and symbolisms show up in the usernames people choose for themselves. Members of online file-sharing communities also adhere to a norm of reciprocity - that is, they must share music if they want to receive any.

"One of the most interesting conceptual take-aways of this research is that social solidarity is not only to be found in the classic and often romanticized social organs of family, neighborhood, or church community," explains Giesler.

However, there are two key distinctions that differentiate online file sharing networks from other consumption-based communities. Online file sharing networks have a far greater scale than previously studied gift systems. Additionally, the gift is non-sacrificial, remaining with the donor after the transaction.

"Napster's consumer gift system is more global in nature and exhibits more nomadic and non-committal type of gifting solidarity in comparison to the more 'organic' gift systems previously studied," Giesler says. "This study has provided an alternative consumer-centric culturally grounded model of contemporary gift-giving."
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Marcus Giesler, "Consumer Gift Systems: Insights from Napster." Journal of Consumer Research, Sept. 2006.

University of Chicago Press Journals

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