“Barn-Raising” and the Social Exchange of Labor

On page 63 of Henry Jenkins’, Sam Ford’s, and Joshua Green’s “Spreadable Media,” have an extensive discussion about the efforts of Web 2.0 companies to seamlessly mesh the economic and social. The authors use the example of a nineteenth-century “barn-raising”—the act of a community building (or rebuilding) a barn for its newest member, free of charge, to welcome them and establish a homestead—in order to properly illustrate the social exchange of labor.

image courtesy of dobbinstechnologycafe.wikispaces.com

image courtesy of dobbinstechnologycafe.wikispaces.com

“The labor involved in a barn raising is productive, contributing real value to the new community member. However, it is also expressive, signaling the community’s embrace. Since barn raisings are recurring rituals, the value created through this labor gets passed forward to future arrivals, and thus, participation is a kind of social obligation, a repayment of contributions that earlier community members had made towards one’s own well-being. Social bonding takes place…participants accept the unequal exchange of value…[and] the message of the barn raising is that the community benefits when each member’s economic needs are protected.”

This reminded me specifically of the concept of “housewarming parties” or “dinner parties” both for and hosted by a new member of a given community. Here, upper-class suburbanites, celebrities, and city residents come to mind. The authors write, in the context of the barn-raising:

“Suppose the newcomers refused to join in on the work…Suppose the newcomers turn the productive labor into public spectacle…Suppose the newcomers sought to sell parts of the barn to various community members…Suppose they sold outside economic interests the rights to sell snacks and drinks…or suppose they were to seek to use their neighbors’ labor to complete other tasks around their property or else…to use the barn for radically different purposes” (64).

I realized, with horror, that this already happens in my aforementioned housewarming/dinner party reference, if only because we’ve become so obsessed with building our online brand and with social media (and because it’s just smart business for celebs). For example, think of the last time you had friends over for dinner (or think of the last time your parents did.) Isn’t there always that person (people) who doesn’t offer to assist with the cooking, cleaning, or post-feast dishes? They sit on the couch and watch the hosts work. And in regards to the part about turning productive labor into public spectacle, consider the last time you saw someone Instagram their decorative or culinary achievement (this is even more applicable if it wasn’t theirs at all). They’re using someone else’s efforts (whether they be of interior design/architecture, or of ingredients) to get attention. If any of you follow fashion bloggers or engaged celebrities on social media, you’ll see that they’ve “sold outside economic interests the rights to sell snacks and drinks” at their events—thus making a profit while simultaneously assisting in the company’s commercial interests (if you need an example, think of designers vying for wedding dress privileges or having Magnolia Bakery cater your baby shower). Finally, “suppose they were to seek to use their neighbors’ labor to complete other tasks around their property”…kind of like a friend using your event to get a date, buddy up to a potential employer, or even as a way to get ahead socially.

image courtesy of guestofaguest.com

image courtesy of guestofaguest.com

We live in a reality built on social media that not only fosters but also encourages the social exchange of labor. Everything has spectacle and social capital potential, and we’ve been socialized and trained to embrace these lifestyles.


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