By Wil Forbis
November 1, 2008
These days, as we wade our way through an economic crisis of unknown proportions, there's a lot of chatter about markets. People talk about the failure of the market, or how we should or shouldn't intervene in the market. It seems we have come to view the market as an angry God who seeks to inflict vengeance on the tiny insect like race of mortals who probe and prod him during his slumber.
I've always found the view of the market as some sort of strange alien creature befuddling. For the most part, I've never even viewed the market as an "it", but rather as a description of a common human behavior. People place a high value on things that they need but don't have, and place a lesser value on things that they need but have plenty of. If you live near a lake, water ain't so special. If you live in a huckleberry bush, huckleberries aren't so special. But the guy with lots of huckleberries might want to cut a deal with the guy with lots of water. Each fellow places a certain value on his item, and via some haggling and bartering, comes to an agreement as to how many of his items equals what the other guy has.
The first instance of that behavior was the inception of the marketplace. Eventually we decided on the notion of currency, whereby neutral paper was used to represent these ethereal values that we humans place on things. To this day, most everyone accepts the concept of monetary currency. But is that the only form of currency that exists? I would argue that there is another, one that I would call social currency.
What is social currency? Let me explain with an anecdote. As some readers may know, I recently released an alt-country CD (which you should immediately buy!) One part of this process was to make the album available for purchase at the cdbaby.com website. As a result of my posting the album for sale, cdbaby sent me a guide on promoting music. I took the time to read it and thoughtfully digested its contents. I would summarize its advice as this: Be a good schmoozer. The guide fundamentally argues that musicians should build up a network of people and maintain genuine human interactions with them --- be willing to do these people favors, and they will do the same in return. And musicians, whether their egos allow them to admit it or not, are heavily dependent on the kindness of others. They need fans to support them live, to help them network with other bands and promote them to the world.
In essence, the guide is breaking down human interaction to a social marketplace. If I buy someone a beer I expect that one day they should buy me one in return. If I go to someone's show, I expect them to go to one of my shows. Fundamentally, how we interact with other people can be broken down the into the same bartering/trade system humans have used for things like food, goods, entertainment etc.
The problem with the social marketplace is that for most of its existence it's been in the huckleberry/water stage. Without any social currency it's always been very hard to put a quantifiable amount on social interaction. (Have you ever done a favor for someone, and have them do one for you in return, but you had this niggling sense that they got the better deal?) And it's hard to keep track of your own social worth --- how many friends you have, how loyal they are, how popular you are etc. And this leads me to really appreciate the genius of myspace. The online social network essentially came up with a dollar system of social currency*. Obviously, in life, we know who the popular people are, but there's no formal bank statement. But with myspace, there kind of is --- the number of friends a person has, the number of comments they have, the number of people that put that person in their top friends etc. And users of myspace can trade social credits of a sort, by leaving comments (and expecting them in return), by sending e-mails or by posting friends' music on their profile.
* In fairness, the credit really shouldn't go to myspace but Friendster . Or whoever they stole their idea from.
It might seem rather horrifying to break down the human social experience in such a capitalistic way, but haven't our social interactions always been determined by self-interest? No one gets married simply to fawn and dote on their partner. They want something in return --- sex usually. If there's any real shame, it's that most people don't realize their acts of friendship are fundamentally driven to satisfy their own social and physical needs. They think they're being "good" people by chatting with their friends, supporting them in times of crisis etc. But they're really just buying social credits that they may use in their time of need. They're engaging in a cold, heartless, almost robotic mechanical interaction between biological organisms.
I love you guys.