Gift Economy

Nakamura labels the prevalent market structure in the propagation of memes, AIM buddy icons and viral media (etc.) as a gift economy. Gift economies are a characteristic of participatory culture wherein participants appropriate and transform existing media and co-opt their usage in participatory exchanges. The original and the transformed media are further available for the participants to appropriate, transform and propagate.

One illustration of a gift economy identified by Nakamura is the use of AIM buddy icons – small images (or animated GIFs) used by AOL Instant Messenger users as avatars. A more contemporary equivalent would be profile pictures on social media sites such as facebook. Nakamura analyzed some of the buddy icons available in one of the gift economy marketplaces – This networked community allows users to select from pre-existing images categorized by race, culture, nationality and religion and transform these images to represent their identity. The three cases analyzed, “Muslim”, “usachick” and “nails n cross” were all young women who had appropriated an existing buddy icon (an existing “doll” template) and transformed it to reflect intersectional identities. Thus, the gift economy enabled these young women to create and visually express their unique cultural, national and religious identities in online social exchanges. The ability to build on existing representations and “mix and match” is also an affordance of the gift economy and enables our multicultural society to represent itself visually in online exchanges. (Think about your own profile pictures for facebook, linkedin, google, UBC etc.)

However, the gift economy is not all good news for enabling unique cultural, gender and racial representation. Derogatory memes and viral media are also enabled by the gift economy. Some of the cases discussed by Nakamura came from the world of scambaiting, wherein potential scammers were tricked into taking and sharing demeaning pictures (and videos) of themselves. The demeaning images included shaming, nudity and humiliating religious practices and were shared as gifts by the scambaiters. Some might argue that the scambaiters have done the world a service by shaming scammers. However, considering that the preponderance of images posted in “Trophy Rooms” are of economically underprivileged African individuals, is evidence of a social, cultural and economic bias. Nakamura mentions, but does not elaborate on the current trend of exploiting Africa for its coltan deposits. This exploitation of Africa and its people is a few centuries old and existed even when professional savages were displayed for Western society even while the natural resources of the savages’ native land were plundered. The 419 scammers of today are underprivileged youth who are looking to get some payback for the exploitation they have suffered. Instead, they become objects of humiliation in “Trophy Rooms”. This contemporary display of professional savages is also enabled by the gift economy.

Some of you may have seen the following facebook privacy notice: As individuals, we are often confronted with a dilemma when it comes to sharing our private lives. However, few of us are as respectful of the privacy of others. We are eager to take and share gifts of demeaning memes, but often in violation of respecting the right to others’ data image.


Nakamura, L. (2007). Digitizing race: Visual cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Chapter 1.

Lisa Nakamura – “When internet shaming crosses the lines: racial spectacle and mimetic culture”

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