Wither Twitter: An Essay on the Crude Beginnings of a Post-Money Economy

Recently, Twitter has received a lot of attention in the press because of its use around the world in response to the situation in Iran. Most of that attention has been hyperbolic and often misleading about the role that social media plays in real world events. Going against some of the more extreme claims for Twitter’s role in the Iranian situation, Guarav Mishra, argues that

…Twitter was more useful as a media tool and not as an organizing tool. We will see that Twitter didn’t really change much in Iran in terms of organizing the protests, but it did play an important role in engaging the international community in the protests and focusing media attention on the protests… Link

Twitter, and social media in general, have also become targeted by marketers who are constantly looking for new and novel ways to manufacture desire and get you to buy crap. Anyone who has been on Twitter for a year or more can attest to the increase in spam that is crufting up the site.

Of course, Twitter is by no means relegated to performing just one function and, just like any kind of social space/interaction, what you get out of it is highly determined by what you put in to it. Lately I’ve been thinking about Twitter as a crude harbinger of a post-money society. Specifically, I am thinking about the concept of Whuffie as presented in Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom and the way Manfred Macx lives without money in Charles Stross’s novel Accelerando.

The Wikipedia entry on Whuffie gives a good overview of Doctorow’s concept, but in a nutshell, Whuffie is a reputation based economic system, whereby a person’s wealth is tied to his/her actions and the perceptions of those actions by society. Keep in mind, Doctorow is writing about a post-scarcity society, so all the necessities of life such as food, shelter, clothing, information access, etc, are available to anyone. Poverty, in the way we understand it, does not exist. However, people being, you know, people, systems of exchange and economics so still exist. Being wealthy (as opposed to being rich) remains a desirable state. Because whuffie is based on social feedback, a world famous rock star will still be “wealthier” than a teacher. However, if you go around hurting people and being an asshole, it will be a lot harder to attain wealth than it is in a cash-based economic system where the marker of success (money) is not necessarily correlated to an individual’s personal actions and behaviors.

Doctorow writes that:

…Whuffie recaptured the true essence of money: in the old days, if you were broke but respected, you wouldn’t starve; contrariwise, if you were rich and hated, no sum could buy you security and peace. By measuring the thing that money really represented—your personal capital with your friends and neighbors—you more accurately gauged your success. Link

Twitter is fast becoming a valid marker for a kind of celebrity “wealth” based on the number of follower’s a user might have. Thus, we have Ashton Kutcher challenging CNN in a race to get 1 million followers (currently, Kutcher is at 2,463,513 followers and CNN is at 2,025,426) and, as one might expect, the wealthiest Twitterers are some of the most famous, with Kutcher, Ellen Degeneres, Britney Spears, and Oprah leading the pack. In fact, the top 50 spots are almost all either well known organizations like CNN and Time, or well known celebrities. What is interesting, however, is looking at some of the people ranked between 48 and 100 in term of the amount of followers (and yes, I picked 48 simply so I could include Wil Wheaton):

You would certainly not be putting any of these four people in the same top 100 list as Oprah if looking at monetary wealth. Neither would their name recognition come anywhere close to Kutcher, Britney Spears or Ellen Degeneres. In that sense, Twitter as a crude form of Whuffie is limited to a relatively small and technologically wealthy demographic. However, the fact that Ashton Kutcher is only 3 times wealthier as Felicia Day on Twitter is astounding, and demonstrates the beginnings of a new kind of celebrity and wealth.

Of course, Whuffie, at least as developed by Doctorow, depends on a complete integration with the individual mind and some future form of extelligence that makes the internet and Twitter look as primitive as the supercomputers of the 50s look to us now. In addition, we still live in a money based economy, where even having hundreds of thousands of followers won’t, at the end of the day, pay your bills.

Or will it?

This brings me to Charles Stross’ novel, Accelerando and his character, the venture altruist, Manfred Macx. Macx lives in a culture where money is still used as an economic system, but he has figured out a way to get beyond that system:

Manfred has a suite at the Hotel Jan Luyken paid for by a grateful multinational consumer protection group, and an unlimited public transport pass paid for by a Scottish sambapunk band in return for services rendered. He has airline employee’s travel rights with six flag carriers despite never having worked for an airline. His bush jacket has sixty-four compact supercomputing clusters sewn into it, four per pocket, courtesy of an invisible college that wants to grow up to be the next Media Lab. His dumb clothing comes made to measure from an e-tailor in the Philippines he’s never met. Law firms handle his patent applications on a pro bono basis, and boy, does he patent a lot – although he always signs the rights over to the Free Intellect Foundation, as contributions to their obligation-free infrastructure project . . . Manfred is at the peak of his profession, which is essentially coming up with whacky but workable ideas and giving them to people who will make fortunes with them. He does this for free, gratis. In return, he has virtual immunity from the tyranny of cash; money is a symptom of poverty, after all, and Manfred never has to pay for anything. Link

Macx has a high Whuffie factor, albeit one that is still tied into a money economy since his money free life is dependent on other people’s still operating within a money system. This lifestyle, while seemingly fantastic, is becoming more and more possible to attain, even for someone whose Twitter wealth is only a mere 35,194 people: Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer is a Boston based musician and has released a number of albums as one half of The Dresden Dolls as well as her recently released, Ben Folds produced solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer She is currently ranked 932nd in Twitter rankings but she, more than anyone else I am aware of, is turning her Twitter wealth into real world capital. Instead of patenting ideas and giving them away, as Macx does in Stross’ novel, Palmer is offering up her music and herself and, in return, is generating more money than her proceeds from a major label released album. In a recent blog post, she outlines three Twitter based projects that netted her nearly $19,000 for about 10 hours worth of her time.

However, I’m even more interested in Palmer’s ability to forgo expenses such as equipment rentals and even transportation costs.

In the same blog post that she describes her money-raising events, she writes that:

and i twittered looking for a keyboard when i landed in LA, since i decided i needed to practice, and a few hours later… voila. this awesome and lovely girl sarah showed up with one in her trunk. i love my fucking life…

What really got me started thinking about Twitter as a tool for removing oneself from a cash-based economy was this series of tweets by Palmer:

going out on a limb, since the force is with me: anyone near hermosa beach want to give me a ride to hollywood at 1:30? will save cab fare. 1:54 PM Jun 24th from web

first twitter-hiking experience ACTIVATE! with @devilsnight!!! i sort of know him, so i’m not TOTALLY taking my life in my hands. 2:35 PM Jun 24th from web

….and thank you to everyone else who offered. i swear to god, i’m going to end of doing an entire twitter-hiking tour if this keeps up. 2:35 PM Jun 24th from web

And here is a video she took as she began her twitter-hiking experience:

Sure, getting a free ride isn’t that big a deal and I’m not suggesting that Amanda Palmer is in a position to stop using money altogether. But the power of Twitter coupled with Palmer’s personal Whuffie factor may very well be the humble beginnings of a post-money economy. How close is Palmer to being able to live someplace without paying rent, not having to pay money for free rehearsal space or equipment? If she, Neil Gaiman, Wil Wheaton, Felicia Day, or Veronica Belmont asked for a place to stay while working on a project, it seems likely that someone would offer a rarely used apartment in a city, or a vacation home in the country. If they asked to borrow a car while visiting friends in, say, Providence RI, it seems likely that someone would offer to lend one. If I happened to have a lot of airline points, more than I could use, I’d happily offer them to any number of artists that I respect and whose work has affected me. This is not charity or patronage, but a economic transaction based on reputation and an individual’s body of work. The value of allowing Wil Wheaton to write a book while staying at your summer place in Maine or giving Amanda Palmer a ride to Hollywood is, like the commercial says, priceless—at least when price is within a monetary rubric.

Twitter enables people to begin an economy of value that is measured by personal accomplishment, actions, and behavior. Palmer could not succeed at using Twitter to provide for her needs if she treated her fans poorly because a post-money economy is still one of exchange. Palmer’s success depends on these transactions being meaningful for those who take part. If she were imperious and viewed free rides to Hollywood or fans buying her autographed stuff through a web auction as her right, as something that she was owed because she was a rock star, I guarantee that her Twitter wealth would quickly mean absolutely nothing.

Will a post-money economy look exactly like the ones outlined by Doctorow or Stross? Probably not. Is Twitter going to bring down capitalism and offer everyone the opportunity to take part in a new kind of economic exchange? Certainly not. I do think, however, that Twitter offers both a glimpse of, and the possibility to experiment with, new systems of exchange between individuals that may very well presage future economic systems.

On this day..

2 thoughts on “Wither Twitter: An Essay on the Crude Beginnings of a Post-Money Economy

  1. Of course Twitter only works if your peers/”fans” are on Twitter as well or if you can create enough of a following.

    I do not put a lot into Twitter which I suppose is why I don’t get a lot out of it. For me, I just see a bunch of people trying to outwit each other. But maybe I’m following the wrong people? 😀

  2. Yeah – I certainly couldn’t even raise the cost of a pizza on twitter . . . but then again, I haven’t created anything that reaches as many people. But any kind of economic system will have people who are more and less successful in that particular system. I just wonder if the roots to the future are lying in these 140 word messages and networks.

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