One of the challenges in writing a book about sharing is that people use the word in such a range of ways, sometimes in a single sentence. We can see this in an article published by The Guardian yesterday by Maria Konnikova, a PhD psychology student. The article is titled, “Now for the good news – sharing can make you happy. Pass it on”, and its point is that sharing makes us feel good.
The article is fun and readable, but it uses the notion of sharing entirely uncritically. I don’t mean by this that the author should be critical of practices of sharing. What I mean is that she uses the word to mean lots of things at once, which is confusing. First of all, she lumps together the sharing of objects, information, and emotions. “We share emotions; we share thoughts; we share opinions; we share objects”, she writes. This is not the first time I’ve come across the merging of sharing objects and emotions, and I think it’s a kind of category mistake.
The common origins of these disparate types of sharing, if we are to believe the article, lies in our roots as cavemen: if I have some important knowledge, I will share it with my tribe as it will help all of us to survive. This is knowledge sharing. Konnikova rhetorically asks if there is any difference between knowledge sharing and forwarding a link to a YouTube clip: “Is it really so far from: ‘There’s a bear in the cave’ to: ‘Look at that adorable bear playing with the berries in that YouTube video’?” Well of course it is. Both are social activities, but while the former serves survival, the latter might be understood as a kind of phatic communion or small talk. Or as a Guardian reader commented on the article, “Cave people shared information for survival, not to fashion their self-identities”.
This, then, is just one confusion about sharing—that all types of telling people things are basically the same, when they are patently not. The thing is, that by confusion sharing as communication and sharing as distribution, people make bad conclusions about how “natural” sharing is, and how good it is for us (I say this without wishing to imply it’s bad). And this is to say nothing about the dodgy use of cavemen based on an equally dodgy version of social Darwinism (everything we do now we do because our ancestors had to do it to survive), but that’s for another day.