|I‘ve been thinking a lot lately about communities, in the social networking, intentional community and business sense. I was struggling to come up with a model that integrates all these types of communities, and I realized that I would have to come up with a more holistic approach, one not constrained by market-based definitions of relationships.
To do so, I began thinking about communities as they function in the gift economy (or as I prefer to call it, the generosity economy). — the growing economy that includes open source, the Internet, scientific knowledge sharing, much foundation and NGO work, blogs, file sharing and a host of other ‘price-less’ exchanges of value. How could we redefine the social constructs of the market economy to suit the framework of the gift economy? Here’s what I came up with:
If you use the more inclusive gift/generosity economy constructs, your communities, networks and identities within them merge into these five broad ‘circles’, and the need to distinguish between social and business communities, networks and identities disappears. In a sense this is what is already happening as more of us cease drawing the line between our social and business identities and lives, and as more and more of what we do, powered by the Internet, is done without expectation of financial compensation.
This of course is very threatening to the market economy, whose advocates would have you to believe that any activity that cannot be and is not denominated in money terms has no value (and is inevitably inefficient).
So, for example, those I give to (my ‘blue’ circle) includes you, my readers, those I coach (my children and grand-daughters as well as those who pay me money for advice), and those who pay me for my expertise during projects, whether in a ‘customer-supplier’ or ’employer-employee’ capacity. Likewise, those who give to me includes those who send me books to review, my electricity supplier, readers who send me e-mails or comments on my blog, other bloggers whose writing I read and value, the grocery store and the neighbours who give us free veggies and fruits from their garden and invite us to dinner. Whether money changes hands in any of these relationships becomes unimportant. Those I work with includes colleagues on various projects from innovation assignments to neighbourhood work bees to those in my fledgling AHA! network. Those I live with includes various degrees of relationship from those who share my house and land (human and other creatures) to the entirety of Gaia, all of us who share this tiny, fragile planet. And those I love is an amorphous group of people and animals and places that is growing at an astronomical rate.
There is substantial overlap between these five communities, but I believe they are collectively exhaustive — all of our networks and communities fit within this five-circle model. And this is a model of abundance and not scarcity — if we are generous, there is no limit to the number of people we can invite into any of these circles, and the larger and richer these circles grow, the better off we all become. This takes the concept of the information or knowledge economy as one without constraint or limit to the value that can be given, and expands it to include everything — atoms, bits, and emotions.
Using this model, we can define all relationships by their nature (which of the five circles they fit within) and their depth (how much we give, receive and love them, and how closely we live and work with them). And we can define ourselves by the circles of others (which circles and which others) to which we belong.
So we might evaluate the nature and depth (scale of 0 to 10) of our relationships like this:
while those who we see ourselves in close relationships with might evaluate them like this:
You may think it fanciful that I’m ascribing conscious and emotional assessments to non-humans, collective groups and even places, but I certainly feel these assessments — I feel my home, the wonderful place where I live (the land, and the diverse and collective life on it) welcoming me when I return to it.
Our circles, our communities do not belong to anyone, they are collective. To say these are ‘our’ circles, ‘our’ networks (as social software tries to do) is absurd — it is like saying that because we belong to the human race, or to a political party or other organization, that all of humanity, or all of the party, is somehow ‘ours’ by virtue of our definition of it including us and some ‘others’. The claiming of ‘ownership’ over such circles, such as when we talk about ‘our’ country or ‘our’ party can in fact be dangerous because it oversimplifies and homogenizes the relationship.
So how would we diagram these relationships, capturing the nature (which ones of the five circles) and depth of our relationships with others, and their reciprocal sense of their relationships with us? And what about situations where others consider themselves in ‘our’ circles (or us in ‘theirs’) but we do not? We could use arrows of five colours and ten widths pointing in each direction. And we might even use dotted lines to indicate relationships we hope to develop in the future (or which others might hope to develop with us). Very complex, perhaps, and inevitably judgemental and incomplete, but imagine how valuable it might be. And if the de facto communities to which we belong, which sets of mutual links between collections of individuals might portray, define (in a social sense, anyway) who we are, then such a map might in fact be a more accurate and useful portrait of us than anything an artist, photographer, genealogist or DNA scientist could come up with.
When someone asks us who we are, how do we usually respond? We say what we do (i.e. define ourselves by those we work with), and/or what company we work for (i.e. define ourselves by those we give to). Or we say who we are related to (i.e. define ourselves by those we live with or love). We sometimes even define ourselves by who gives to us (e.g. when we drive a certain prestige brand of car or wear clothes with a certian logo), the kind of ‘belonging’ that, pathetically, you have to pay for, Another form of this is when we define ourselves by our subject-hood, by the person or group who supports us (father-figure, cult leader, religion or citizenship). How you answer this question (“I’m a consultant. I’m an analyst at Microsoft. I’m the person assigned to your account. I’m the son of X. I’m Mrs. Y. I’m Amanda’s father. I’m a member of Z. I’m a Welshman.”) may say a lot about which circles are most important to us and which we feel we belong most to. In fact we have multiple identities and we may answer that questions in the context of who is asking (which of the five circles they are probing for) — If the question comes from Amanda’s best friend’s mother, I’m more likely to say I’m Amanda’s father than to say I’m an accountant.
Assuming we could develop such maps (maybe we need some way to link stories about each of our relationships to give them context and verifiability), how could we use them?
An application of all this that intrigues me is in assessing how we should (and can) change ourselves. I tend to agree with many of you that if we are to have any credibility as change advocates we need to be a role model, we need to show not tell people what needs to be done. We need to be the change. So do we start by a navel-gazing process that entails some personal, individual decisions and bold actions? Or, if our relationships and networks define us, do we start by first finding or redefining the circles, the communities to which we (and others) belong and then let those new and altered communities redefine and change us? For example, if we want to solve global warming or end world poverty do we first launch into personal study, self-improvement and individual activism, or do we first connect ourselves with those who can teach us and show us what needs to be done, and just get carried along with the collective wisdom of their activities? Could the map tell us what to do?
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A terrific post, Dave! I love both the simplicty & complexity of the map of overlapping circles.Coincidentally, I was trying to imagine recently what it would/might have been like if I had consciously asked for help in making myself over in my 20’s and 30’s. I realized immediately that the main obstacle was my need to feel in control already, and my inability to trust others with areas where I felt vulnerable. Still, I did benefit from suggestions from friends who took an interest, for example, in what I read, or actually, what I didn’t read.
Interesting but I think you need a different word for “those you give to”. In fact you probably need to split the circle into two – those you give to with some reciprocity expected (customers etc) and the true beneficiaries of the gift economy – those you give to without looking for something in return eg simply because you can. Indeed those you may never know! Myself for example. I don’t think describing me as a “customer” of yours really gets across our relationship…
David: I’m trying to get away entirely from terms like ‘customer’ or any of the other terms in the first column of my table. You/they are all ‘people I give to’ and (when you write back) also ‘people who give to me’. We need to get beyond expectations and reciprocity — if we give, we will receive (maybe from those we give to, maybe from others). But then, I’m an incorrigible idelaist ;-)
Dave, This information is very helpful to me, now that I am doing some online community managing. Do you have any new insights and updates for us since this posting in 2005?I love your book “Finding the Sweet Spot….” by the way. I wrote a quick overview of it on Sustainlane.com – perhaps you’d like to add a comment of your own to our readers there too?