I sometimes wonder why we care so much about sharing. Not a day goes by that I don't read something about how social media and viral videos are transforming the way we engage with information, all of which seems driven by our love of chatting about news and entertainment. Traditionally, the reasons for sharing have been economic: either you share an object because it's too expensive to acquire on your own, or because it's so plentiful that it's simpler to split ownership. (House shares are a good example of the former, and sugar the latter.)
To answer the question of why we share, I started keeping a mental list of the different kinds of exchanges that occur. The first was obvious: digital file sharing has increased the quantity of media that we distribute. The exchange of these materials prompts conversation, but it's also about building identity, about dressing a window onto the user's ideology.
Still, we don't share our personal collections of media very much, for related reasons —it's a DJ faux pas to ask to borrow from another's repertoire, just as it is among graphic designers to ask for a colleague's fonts. In these professions, it's important to build a unique identity, and giving out your tools only encourages imitators. An unexpected analogy is the impossibility of sharing content between iPads, which points to our desire for exclusive hardware ownership. There are a number of reasons we might prefer not to use communal computers, phones and other devices, probably the most obvious being a need for privacy. For all the public exchanges that occur in social media, we still want to keep certain things for ourselves. I suspect that this has contributed to the decline of internet cafes and computer labs, though the idea of using a public computer also seems a little icky to most of us. So does using a public phone. We tend to avoid electronics touched by strangers.
By contrast, public institutions designed for sharing provoke fewer sharing willies. Library use has seen a slight up-tick due to the down economy, suggesting that we don't yet find old books gross. It's worth noting though, that overall use has declined. According to The O'Reilly Radar there's been a precipitous drop in research library loans since 1995.
Interestingly, The Art Newspaper found that institutions tasked with caring for the shared cultural resources of the country —museums —also saw their attendance rise in 2009. The report offered no explanations for this change, though I suspect it has more do with an increased number of blockbuster shows such as MoMA's Tim Burton exhibition, rather than an across the board increase in shared experiences of every kind. I say this in light of a recent trip to MoMA's Abstract Expressionist New York show, during which huge throngs of people were photographing the work, often while barely looking at it. Presumably those pictures would all soon be shared on Flickr and Facebook.
There are a lot of warm, fuzzy reasons for sharing, but the most powerful may well be as a means of impressing upon others the value of our own experience. As my MoMA visit and countless other experiences demonstrate though, it's a shame that we now often sacrifice the value of the experience itself in exchange for its transmission.
(image courtesy Constantin Film, YouTube)