The metaphor of sharing is central to the workings of social media and indeed to computer-mediated communication in its broadest sense. Online sharing includes posting statuses, photos and videos; it includes tweeting and blogging; it also includes sending information (a file, someone’s contact details) through email or a messaging service such as WhatsApp. So central is sharing to our digital lives that it can be considered the constitutive activity of social media. In recent years, moreover, online sharing has diffused into the applications that constitute the so-called sharing economy including services like Uber and AirBnB, where sharing gives this new field its digital and social flavor.

Dossier: How metaphors shape the digital society

What, though, does the metaphor convey? Sharing refers simultaneously to a form of distribution, or more specifically, to a form of just and equanimous distribution – we don’t just want a share, we want our fair share – and to a form of communication, or more specifically to talk with an emotional orientation. These connotations are neatly captured in the phrase, sharing is caring. The concept of sharing is thus pro-social and holds out the promise of a better future, in which people are brought together through the mutual understanding gained by open and honest communication, and in which resources are distributed more justly than is the case today. For some, this is precisely the promise of the sharing economy; for others, the term is an ideological distortion of what are actually exploitative social relations.

Sharing as communicating

In analysing the metaphor of sharing, I have found it useful to pay special attention to some of the layers of meaning that comprise the concept of sharing today. One particularly interesting layer has its origins in an evangelical movement that was active in the US in the 1930s, known as the Oxford Group. Meetings of the Oxford Group, which would take place in members’ parlors or drawing rooms, would entail individuals taking turns to publicly confess their sins to those present. This practice was called sharing, and while it was not the first context in which sharing referred to a type of talk, it would certainly seem to represent its institutionalisation. If this type of talk – the public confession of one’s fault for the sake of redemption – seems familiar, that is most likely because Alcoholics Anonymous was an offshoot of the Oxford Group. Founded by two alcoholic members of the Oxford Group, AA took the format of the public confessional, retaining the concept of sharing to describe the type of talk performed by members. From there, the notion of sharing as a type of therapeutic communication about the self spread throughout western culture, with the phrase, “thank you for sharing”, familiar to all of us.

Another key cultural moment in the evolution of the metaphor of sharing is the 1970s counterculture in the US. This is when sharing became associated with caring, adding a sense of distributive justice to the meaning of sharing as a type of talk. From this point on, sharing was socially desirable for two main reasons: on the communicative level, it enabled understanding of self and other based on a foundational principle of therapy culture, namely that it’s good to talk; on the distributive level, sharing promised equality and signaled an absence of exploitation or greed.

Sharing and computing

In order to become a key metaphor for the digital age, though, sharing needed to become infused with technology. This process started quite early on in the history of computing, but remained fairly niche. Indeed, while some have said that the internet has always been about sharing, it was not until the mid-2000s that the concept became attached to our increasingly multitudinous online activities. Sharing became part of the lexicon of computing as early as the 1940s and ’50s, when techniques for time sharing were developed. The sense of sharing here was actually quite literal: in the 16th century, “to share” meant “to divide” – the ploughshare was so called because it rent the earth asunder, not because it was shared by the villagers. And indeed, time sharing on computers involved dividing up the computer’s time between users. The sense of sharing as “being held in common” was also early to appear in the field of computing: shared disk drives were accessible by a number of people, as were, later on, shared printers and files. Given this, calling the reproduction and distribution of digital content sharing was a fairly natural linguistic progression, and as computers entered the home, followed by the internet, talk of sharing in this context multiplied. Significantly, though, and in the specific context of computing, it lacked a powerful normative dimension, at least until Napster brought “file sharing” into the mainstream, with variations on the theme of “it isn’t sharing, it’s stealing” in hot pursuit. Notably, up until this point, the metaphoric usage of sharing had not been contested, and there is no evidence that file sharing was originally so called in order to imbue the practice with the pro-social connotations of sharing that were by then quite accessible (otherwise, the “it’s not really sharing” accusations would not have been able to get off the ground).

Analysis of usage of the sharing metaphor by social network sites between 2000-2010 shows that here too the term lacked normative clout at first. Users were told they could share information or photos, for instance, but the sense here was technical. It was not until the mid-2000s that the meaning of sharing as digital reproduction and distribution was married to the meanings of sharing as a type of authentic and honest communication and as a means of expressing care. Of course, these are also the values that supporters of the sharing economy (however we define that) hope to affix to it.

The age of sharing

As a key metaphor for social media and digital culture more generally, sharing is powerfully multivalenced. It conveys digital engagement for pro-social purposes; it stands for the type of speech that is constitutive of authentic interpersonal ties; it refers to a fair distribution of resources. Most recently, in the guise of the sharing economy, it has come to represent disruption to a range of marketplaces and the reorganization of labor relations. It is sometimes argued that certain practices are not really sharing when it is perceived that they violate one or more of these features. For instance, some say that if the sharing economy merely serves to enrich venture capitalists and high-tech entrepreneurs then it is not really sharing. My pragmatic interest in the metaphor of sharing leads me to sidestep these debates. But what does become clear from a close examination of sharing and its history is that the layers of meaning that give sharing its redemptive qualities and some of the practices that are accused of not really involving sharing have common cultural roots. The age of sharing is an age of increased publicness: sharing our emotions, holiday pics, or indeed our car or spare bedroom, all involve greater openness and making public that which had been private. They are also often mediated by for-profit companies, such as Facebook and Airbnb. The point, though, is that the adhesion of subversive or transcendent qualities to sharing is as much an outcome of capitalist society and culture as are the for-profit companies that mediate – and thus, according to some, contaminate – our practices of sharing.  

Nicholas John is a Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. His recent research has been about social media unfriending. He tweets as |a|nicholasajohn.
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