Reciprocity: Understanding online social relations
First Monday

Reciprocity: Understanding online social relations by Etienne Pelaprat and Barry Brown

Reciprocity is a key concept for understanding social behaviour. It involves complex interactions of giving and returning. This paper examines the concept of reciprocity to think about, and design for, online social interactions. We argue that reciprocal exchange is symbolic insofar as it produces and enacts many forms of social life by drawing individuals into a relation of recognition. Indeed, reciprocal interactions underlie much online activity, and a fuller understanding of the concept explains important aspects of how social life is conducted with others online. We contrast our understanding of reciprocity with those of more dominant theories of interaction built on the assumption that actions, including those that seek reciprocity, are self–interested or otherwise altruistic. This assumption ignores how social actions that solicit a return–action seek to neither profit nor benefit, but rather express a desire to draw in others into social life and relationships. After analysing three kinds of online activity (web forums, social networking sites, and online games) using our view of this concept, we conclude with implications for designers who seek to support the development of our digitally–mediated social life.


Understanding online behaviour
Expansive views of online behaviour
Rational choice theory, exchange, and reciprocity
Reciprocity in online behaviour
Designing for reciprocity




Many distinctive features of contemporary modern life come from how new communication technologies affect our social relationships. A host of technologies, which only recently seemed strange and unfamiliar — such as e–mail, mobile phones or SMS, are now routine channels of social mediation. For many, social interactions are predominantly carried out online. While we should be sceptical of grand claims about the transformative reach of online platforms, it is true that new online technologies remediate social relationships in new ways.

This paper argues that a key sociological concept, reciprocity, can be used to understand the changing nature of these online social relationships. Broadly speaking, reciprocity is always a return–action in a broader context of exchange, where an initial giving necessitates a return. We argue that reciprocal exchange needs to be understood in symbolic terms. That is, reciprocity is a gesture that enacts and produces a social institution with an individual who, by their initial gesture of giving, sought reciprocity. Reciprocity is sought not to profit or benefit, as in a contract or economic exchange. It is the symbolic nature of the object gesture given and returned that is critical to forming social relations between partners. As a concept, reciprocity has a long sociological and anthropological lineage, in particular by reference to Mauss (1954) and his seminal book The Gift, where he explored the nature of ceremonial and market exchanges in pre–modern societies. Although the properties of digital technology shape different behaviours, we argue that this concept is still crucial to understand how online behaviours constitute social patterns of everyday life. Reciprocity, we argue, foregrounds how reciprocal interactions form particular kinds of obligations — obligations to recognise another and share in social life It is crucial for our argument that this exchange be understood as symbolic exchange, where the range of objects and gestures that mediate interaction explain how a social relation is formed, maintained, or changed.

We draw a contrast with the dominant way in which online interactions have been analysed, where notions of rational self–interested action have been central. In contrast, we argue that many reciprocal exchanges maintain and reproduce social life. As our relationships are increasingly mediated online, reciprocity as a concept can helps us to understand why users behave online in certain ways, and why they remain committed to online interactions when there is little or no discernible individual gain. Although this paper develops a conceptual argument, it has direct relevance to the design of online systems and we describe how systems can be designed for reciprocity, through supporting disclosure and visibility.

The paper starts by reviewing more prominent approaches to understanding online behaviour. Rational choice theory, based on assumptions of individuals as self–interested, profit–seeking actors, is typical of analyses of online behaviour. To propose a new definition, we turn to the anthropological studies of reciprocity and place them in the context of recent work on online communication. We then analyse three online social systems using reciprocity to understand users’ behaviour. Lastly, we discuss how these concepts can be used to understand and design future online systems.



Understanding online behaviour

Work in the social sciences can be hampered by a poor understanding of technology, often dramatising technology in utopian or dystopian narratives (Kling, 1996). The requisite disciplinary distance from technology in the social sciences, it seems, disrupts its ability to frame and contextualise the work of technological systems. For example, many social science discussions of surveillance ignore the technical failures of most automatic image recognition systems (e.g., Andrejevic, 2007). The potential for understanding digitally–mediated social relations and phenomena, however, requires not only a rigorous (and critical) engagement with theories of social and technical life, but also the development of conceptual apparatus grounded in our own concerns and motivations. Our goal then here is to develop a space for a distinctly theoretical contribution, something as valuable as empirical investigations of online technology in design and use (Dourish, 2006).

Specifically with regard to understanding online behaviour a number of classic publications have lead the way, such as Malone, et al.’s (1987) discussing how online systems promote horizontal (“market–based”) social structures, as opposed to hierarchical ones (see also Gurbaxani and Whang, 1991). Other examples include Connections, Sproull and Kiesler’s (1991) discussion of electronic media as a genera of organisational communication, and Turkle’s (1995) Life on the screen, an inquiry into practices of identity and meaning online (see also Donath, 1999). Hollan and Stornetta (1992) critiqued notions of presence to understand the structures of online interaction, just as Grudin (1989) dissected the organisational context of collaborative applications.



Expansive views of online behaviour

In recent years, social online activities have developed into a central topic in computing. Drawing on increasingly sophisticated theoretical approaches, work on this topic has grown into a impressive corpus of empirical studies of activities — such as blogging (Nardi, et al., 2004), tagging (Marlow, et al., 2006), and online forums (Donath, 1999), as well as including studies of “synthetic worlds” as economic and social realities (Gee, 2007; Castronova, 2005; Malaby, 2006). Despite this emerging collection, however, there have been only sporadic attempts to coalesce distinct studies of online behaviour into a broader understanding of social life. Online behaviour is usually discussed on a case–by–case basis, failing to constitute common insights into the social nature of online behaviour itself. We find little connection, for example, between studies of social life on Facebook, instant messaging, support forums, e–commerce, and World of Warcraft.

One exception to this trend, however, is Pirolli’s (2009, 2007) “information foraging theory,” which has expanded into a full–fledged inquiry on the social nature of online activity. This approach draws an analogy between online behaviour (mainly searching) and a common animal behaviour (foraging) as a model of human behaviour. Pirolli develops a model of agents with adaptive strategies to living in a complex world through the search for information. By casting behaviour as “foraging,” Pirolli re–frames a large number of online activities. This approach claims considerable explanatory power because it proposes a framework in which a wide range of online behaviour is explained in rational, individual–centred terms.

This work is exemplarily in the way it moves from a concept (foraging) to a theory of interaction and adaptation (foraging for information), to a set of behavioural predictions, and finally to an outline of how systems might support or disrupt such behaviour in ecologies of information. It points the way forward for a comprehensive approach to online behaviour. However, as we argue here, an account of social life’s finer points and complexities is greatly impoverished in this approach. Essentially, online behaviour is reduced to needs–based information–seeking, rational agents. Describing online behaviour as “searching” or “foraging” simplifies the complex meanings of behaviour within social relationships (even when people are searching), not only because “search” and “information” may be a poor concepts by which to explain behaviour, but also because Pirolli cannot explain the vast gamut of computing in its social complexity. As a simple example, we might ask someone’s advice not to help with that search but as a way of segueing to a broader interaction around that topic, as an apology, or even a joke.

This comprehensive theory of online social behaviour assumes that individuals are goal–directed; that they seek to gather and consume data; and that this fundamental model can be used to understand and interpret most, if not all, behaviour. This underplays the roles culture, history, relationships (even between strangers), moral commitments and social interaction play in ordering our behaviour. Social life is reduced to a space of utilitarian rational actors, where each experience is merely the search for “information” or some other “rational” model of action.

Indeed, the existence of long–term relationships, mediated online, suggests phenomena that stretch beyond one–time acts with few long–range consequences. Kollock (1999, 1998), writing on online support forums and other venues where “public goods” are produced, describes behaviour in terms of social cooperation. Kollock includes in his discussion the commitments and engagements that arise online in the process of making public goods. Yet, as with Pirolli, his assumptions about individuals as social actors is limiting. Cooperation, Kollock argues, unfolds when actions (e.g., posting or responding to messages) are beneficial to individual actors. Consequently, among the first questions Kollock asks is why any online social activity exists at all when, for example, responding to other’s requests for help provides no immediate return benefit. Kollock solves this dilemma by arguing that in cyberspace the (transaction) costs of responding are low. Prestige and reputation, he proposes, are also “benefits.” But Kollock goes further: forum–posting–and–responding actions are elements of generalised exchange, in that while we do not expect immediate return from those who use our contributions, we do expect that in due course others will contribute in ways that benefit us.

There is much to like in Kollock’s account, and certainly it incorporates what we believe are important aspects in the terms “prestige” and “public space.” As with Pirolli’s theory, social actors are still one–dimensional. Kollock argues essentially for a game theory analysis of cooperation as self–interested exchange in a way that focuses primarily on individual utility. Individuals, under this rubric, remain strangers in a crowd. Social life spontaneously emerges via competing logic of individual and collective rationality, and then dissolves just as quickly. Social relationships and social actions in these terms are translated by turning a focus on interaction into transactions, over–emphasising utilitarian rationality in the process.



Rational choice theory, exchange, and reciprocity

Underlying Kollock and Pirolli’s perspective (and, broadly, much work on online behaviour) is as set of assumptions about action known as “rational choice theory” (RCT) (Becker, 1976; Arrow, 1990; Sen, 1997). RCT has underlined many key assumptions in analyses of technology use and its description of users as goal–directed is, in many ways, foundational. The notion that users are directed by self–interest and optimise their use of systems takes many forms. Many studies of computing interfaces assume that completing tasks in the shortest time — efficiency — dominates behaviour (Nielsen, 1995). While research in most fields has moved us away from this narrow focus, RCT still underlines many understandings of user behaviour. RCT has in particular been key in the analysis of online social behaviour with distinct online interactions described as the optimisation of the search for information (Russell, et al., 1993; Katz and Byrne, 2003; Evans and Chi, 2008). This has also inspired attempts to use market based incentives to encourage participation in online systems (Ba, et al., 2003; Kraut, et al., 2005; Hsieh, et al., 2008; Hsieh and Counts, 2009).

In recent studies of online behaviour, RCT has, in part, also been furthered by the view that online social platforms (such as World of Warcraft) are real economies of exchange (Castronova, 2005; Malaby, 2006). While it is true that there is economic exchange here, the widespread adoption of micro–economics and game theory to comprehensively explain social activities — particular exchange and reciprocity — is risky. RCT has been a incredibly powerful approach. But its shortcomings become serious when it has to consider motivations for action that are not in any way related to self–interest. A different model of rationality is required in those cases. In short, the problem with RCT is that fails to understand forms and patterns of social life where action is not governed by gain and interest or, for that matter, altruism.

Indeed, at its heart RCT argues that all social phenomena can be explained as the aggregation of discrete, isolated decisions made by individuals (Kollock, 1998; Takahashi, 2000; Bendor and Swistak, 2001; Buchan, et al., 2002; Molm, et al., 2007). Most social phenomena end up reduced to problems of social cooperation — i.e., of acting because one expects to receive an eventual benefit in return. Often, social phenomena are interpreted as a dilemma between individual rationality (doing what is best for oneself) and collective rationality (acting in a way that may eventually return a benefit). Thus “society” means collaborating or contracting to further different interests, and then it’s over. Online behaviour is therefore social insofar as self–interest motivates collaboration, and it is meaningful so far as utility explains our actions.

It is through this prism that the online social behaviour as forms of reciprocal exchange become objects of inquiry, but in a puzzling manner. Suppose social interaction in a popular Web discussion forum. Two major questions always persist in RCT: why spend time responding to messages (reciprocating) if you derive no utility from it — i.e., why cooperate without clear benefit? Why volunteer time and energy to posting new messages when you have no expectation that others will respond to your messages? Kollock (1999) answers by claiming that posting or responding to messages is either “altruistic” or “public” (i.e., a “common good,” to which others might also contribute and which one could benefit from). He concludes that the provision of services by people (as in discussion forums) who spend time and effort to respond and help others without the expectation of immediate reciprocity is explained by the low costs of digital collaboration. A “quick and easy” way of acting lowers the cost of participation and alters the motivational and incentive structures of rational actors.

Often, in RCT, cooperating and reciprocating can be explained by unearthing, or supposing (and sometimes inventing), a model of behaviour that seeks to transform observable outcomes into “rewards” for “behaviours.” It is not uncommon, too, for scholars to assume that a latent notion of contract exists between the behaviours of two individuals (since this is often understood as the best context for rational behaviour). This would be a good model indeed for explaining actions that solicit reciprocity in terms of self–interest (as in economic exchanges). But the problem is that when self–interest and utility cannot easily be deduced, it is argued that no exchange or reciprocity exists at all.

The problem with self-interest and rational choice as models of social interaction is that one can, ex post facto, deduce self-interest from anything anybody does. As Sen [1] has argued, in RCT it is “possible to define a person’s interest in such a way that no matter what he does he can be seen to be furthering his own interests in every isolated act of choice.” The problem with RCT, Sen [2] concludes, is not rationality as such (indeed rationality is not limited to individual action), but rather to “the acceptability of the assumption of the invariable pursuit of self–interest in each act.” When it disaggregates social phenomena into the sum of “isolated acts of choice,” RCT fails to understand the complex, diverse social meanings of behaviour. To understand many forms of social interaction we have to do the reverse: society is constituted through reciprocal exchanges. By assuming that a model of self–interest is at play in each observable behaviour, RCT ends up concerning itself more with the integrity of its own models than explaining the meaning or sociality of individual activities. Utility and preference are, in this regard, categories that keep the theory internally consistent rather than explaining how social relations exist.

While there have been a number of productive attempts to “socialise” RCT (e.g., Goldthorpe, 1998), and RCT has been a incredibly powerful and valuable as a explanatory framework, it still fails to represent important aspects of social life. Yet there are alternatives to RCT for understanding behaviour, and especially reciprocal exchange, as we now explore.




The concept of reciprocity in anthropology is central for understanding behaviour. In contrast to its definition by RCT, anthropological studies of reciprocity draw attention to the symbolism, types of bonds, and obligations produced and maintained by giving and exchange. We are not the first to draw on anthropological studies of reciprocity in relation to technology use (Taylor and Harper, 2002). In contrast to that work, however, we draw on the anthropological literature to show that reciprocity is a concept that reveal aspects of the online which RCT obscures and have at times become neglected in design. We describe four key parts of our understanding of reciprocity: symbolic exchange through objects; obligations; the ambiguity of the economic value of objects; and, the role of giving and reciprocating to facilitate social bonds.

  1. Reciprocity and symbolic exchange

    Historically, the study of gift–exchange in anthropology has been a key domain for investigations of reciprocity. In his classic book on ceremonial gift exchange, Mauss (1954) argued that reciprocity is not an action that belongs to market exchange, but one that belongs to symbolic exchange. Mauss showed that giving in order to solicit reciprocity is not explained by an expectation of profit. Certainly, the objects given and returned in reciprocal exchange are precious, but that preciousness is not the same as price. Instead, Mauss says, the gift is a symbol of the giver himself; this is why it is symbolically precious (and beyond price). To reciprocate a gift is, in Mauss’ formulation, to give oneself in return (through the symbolic object) because the initial gift was a symbol of another person offering their self. Thus, the symbolic medium allows for a particular sort of meaning to emerge from individual behaviours: they are actions directed at particular others. Furthermore, the kind of object used to mediate this symbolic relation characterises the relation we are forming or maintaining. Returning a dead fish for a precious shell, for example, insults the other, turning a possibly amicable exchange and bond into an agonistic or belligerent one.

    After the straightforward descriptions of RCT this can all seem quite mysterious — rather than profit we have symbolism. Giving oneself through an object does solicit a return–action, but not in order to benefit. Rather, the purpose of the initial giving is to draw the other into a relationship. As you accept the gift, you challenge the other to enter into a social relationship with you. This is not a transaction for profit. By giving and reciprocating each other through precious gifts, Mauss understood the partners of ceremonial gift exchange exchanges to be demonstrating their intention to produce or nurture a social bonds (such as those between social groups). The symbolic nature of the gift extends beyond the individual object or action itself. It stages the formation of a social bond. In subsequent exchanges, the function of giving and reciprocating is to reproduce and maintain the social bond between partners. The symbolic domain, Mauss argued, was critical to formation of bond, here, and not giving and returning out of self–interest. Symbolic exchanges need not be benevolent. In fact, the symbolic domain allows for an enormous variety of relations to be formed and reproduced: revenge, war, and competition.

  2. Obligation and recognition

    One of the most compelling examples Mauss gives of the complexity, diversity and richness of reciprocity in social relations is the potlatch of Northwest Native Americans. Amongst these tribes, public ceremonies would be be held regularly, each characterised by the conspicuous, frequent exchange of goods between individuals and social groups. The potlatch would often be an event with much hospitality, yet the function of the potlatch went beyond whatever food or goods were provided in the event. The potlatch was an event in which alliances, rivalries, and competitions (games) between tribes were made or renewed through symbols. Like any contemporary get–together (and like many online social platforms), the potlatch is a place of encounter, where to receive a gift or an action from another person (that you know is directed at you) entails a particular kind of obligation, one that is critical to the formation (or non–formation) of social bonds.

    Gouldner (1960) and Sahlins (2004) describe the obligation, in morals terms, as akin to the “golden rule” — do unto others as they have unto you. Hénaff (2002) has recently given a less functional and more subtle description that follows from the widely observable fact that reciprocal actions are directed at particular persons (or particular groups) and not others. At its heart, writes Hénaff, to reciprocate means to recognise the other as a person who has (or is offering to have) a relation to me. What is recognition? It is respect and esteem returned to another because they have given in it as a first gesture. The symbolic character of the object that mediates a bond of recognition between two partners is key: it articulates a desire by the giver that they seek to exist within a social bond with an other. To have such an action directed at you produces and enacts an obligation of a specific kind: the obligation to respond to a person who is offering a gesture of respect and admiration in order to have it given in return.

    Public ceremonies such as the potlatch are spaces in which the obligation to recognise and be recognised is critical to the production and maintenance of many kinds of social relationship (games, friendship, marriage, political alliance, etc.). Practices of reciprocal recognition are not archaic institutions, although in many ways similar practices do not serve to produce the dominant bonds of community in contemporary society. Still, one finds them manifest in many contemporary forms such handshakes, offering and reciprocating rounds of drinks at the pub, or political recognition between nation–states.

    Across the diversity of social relations we experience, the symbolic medium may change, but the obligation to respond tied to a logic of recognition remains operative. Reciprocity facilitates social life because the behaviours that make up reciprocal actions carry, symbolically, the identity of the persons who make up the social relationship. To be clear, we do not mean by “obligation” that one must do it; one has the choice to refuse (and we often do). Nor do we mean that by “recognising” a person once that it may never be done again. Reciprocal recognition bears repeating; in fact, social relations are strengthened as individuals keep reciprocating to each other in one form or another — the strongest friendships are characterised by strong practices of reciprocal recognition. Thus commonplace exchanges (small favours, time spent with each other, help) all have meaning and social effect beyond the actual activity: they are intended to draw others into social life and institutions. As each reciprocal action recognises the particular other, and as each person intentionally reciprocates because of the other’s previous actions, so their relationship is maintained. Without this symbolic repetition — without the ability to demonstrate a a desire to recognise the other and solicit it in return — the relationship can fade.

  3. The “ambiguous” value of what is exchanged

    Gouldner and Sahlins make a key observation about the “value” of objects in reciprocal exchanges. In enduring social relations with long histories of reciprocal exchange between partners, they argue, it is nigh–on impossible to place a clear value on the objects of each give–and–take. The value is ambiguous. Indeed, each reciprocation aims to not return exactly for what has been received; partners of a social relation do not seek to clear their debts. That the object or service returned must not be the same as that received is essential so that, Gouldner and Sahlins each claim, ambiguity remains about who “stands” where in relations of debt. For each partners in a series of exchange, the ambiguity of the value of the object is critical because if one cannot clear a debt, one cannot end a relation. The non–equivalence of the good reciprocated to the good received enhances the relation.

    To complete our break with rational choice theory and its emphasis on goals and benefits, however, we would argue that one should not understand the value of the objects, and hence their ambiguous value, simply in terms of loss or gain. It is true that the value of what is exchanged is ambiguous from the point of equivalence. But in contrast to what Gouldner and Sahlins argue, it is not the case that this ambiguity results in a useful confusion about debts. Rather, the “ambiguity” makes a the question of equivalence impossible. Reciprocal exchanges of a symbolic nature have nothing to do with gain, equivalence, or loss. Should an individual try and see if they are ‘ahead or behind,’ they will have little success. Again, the preciousness of the symbols exchange has to do with the fact that they “stand in” for the partners of a reciprocal exchange. For a relation of respect and esteem to be mediated by exchange, the objects cannot have any equivalence; indeed they must be “priceless.” The ambiguity value, then, is explained by the performative — symbolic — aspect of soliciting reciprocity from an other by giving them a precious object. The symbol — objects — stand in for the person giving or reciprocating. Hence they cannot be the same, for they have to be tied to the identity of the person in the exchange. If the two objects were the same — or in some way a clear imprint of the giver — they could not facilitate recognition. That is to say, they could not form a social relation in which the partners of the exchange acknowledge the singularity of the other as different from each other, yet existing together within a social bond.

  4. Reciprocity facilitates patterns of social life

    These three points start to build up a notion of what reciprocity is and how it might act to enable patterns of social life online. We have discussed the importance of reciprocity as a symbolic action, that draws participants into a relation of reciprocal recognition. To be sure, our goal has not been to define reciprocity once and for all. Rather, we have shown how some kinds of exchange enact practices of reciprocal recognition. Giving and exchange in these cases exist outside the logic of self–interest or gain. Indeed, in those cases, our actions towards another generously offer recognition in order to have it reciprocated in return. Online life is replete with these sort of exchanges though digital objects: the constant contribution of, and reaction to, personal information to sites like Facebook, or perhaps gestures that form friendships and relationships with strangers in online games, fora, and public message boards.

    The horizon of social phenomena these sorts of interactions encompass extends far beyond what can be described as “interested” and “cooperative,” as RCT tends to understand reciprocity and exchange. They can be present in market and commercial exchanges, although there the logic of price and contract is indeed far more dominant. Reciprocal relations are also critical in agonistic and competitive relations, not only in games, but in social phenomena such as revenge, which is, after all, a return–action to someone who as acted on you. Indeed, recognition is crucial to agonistic relations, whether competitive or belligerent (as when two competitors acknowledge respect for each other). Reciprocal relations are also present in greeting practices: to be greeted and to greet in return. In all three of these examples, it is crucial that recognition is produced: the purpose of these actions is precisely to single out a particular other or group and form a relation with that particular person and no other.

    Reciprocity is also an important mechanism that bootstraps the generation of broader social phenomena. Buying a “round of drinks” in a pub is a very well known manner of giving oneself to the group, and in turn being recognised by the group (as when they return gratitude and prestige), but many rounds into the night the group may begin to feel a sense of solidarity, pride, and mutuality. Mutuality (the way we are the same) is not the same as reciprocity (the way we are distinct but have a relation with each other), but reciprocal relations are gateways to mutuality. We often take for granted these simple gestures, but they are crucial to social life itself, which requires that we preserve our individuality within social relations without letting those differences distance us too much.

    Our arguments here refer to exchanges broadly, to social relations as relations of exchange, and not just to exchanges of material goods, or even exchanges of presents. Any object that can be given and reciprocated — such as tokens, time, a firm handshake — can, depending on the social context, reproduce individuals in social relationships. Our relationships can be struggles, they can be antagonistic (this too is social life), because we are caught in the logic of having to reciprocate and, thereby, inaugurating a new obligation in the other to do the same.

    To be clear, we are not suggesting whatsoever that the economic or market value of objects or goods that mediate social relations is irrelevant. There is indeed such a thing, for example, as exploitation in social relationships. Many social phenomena are increasingly organised in relation to economy and markets. Yet not all — or most — of our social interactions are arranged that way. Assumptions of self–interest as the rational for action are powerful for understanding how markets work as social and cultural processes, but can lead one astray when looking at other forms of social interaction. By understanding social patterns as partly constituted by relations of reciprocal recognition, where giving seeks out the other to draw the other out, we argue that researchers are better equipped to understand how online interaction constitutes social bonds. As with any theoretical approach, there are absences in this description — we do not pretend to have introduced a theory of all social life, but one dimension of its explanation. We believe, however that reciprocity is a diverse and complex dimension and one that is particularly rewarding for understanding online interaction.



Reciprocity in online behaviour

After this lengthy explanation we now turn to understanding reciprocity in online behaviour and its implications. The reader may already have noticed a correlation with some aspects of online activity and the description of reciprocity we have given. Below, we review three examples of online systems through the lens of reciprocity to examine this question as well as to begin to foreground the concerns of design.

  1. Online discussion forums

    Web discussion forums are among the most visible social arenas online. They are as variable as there are topics to discuss. The interactions they facilitate allow different kinds of social phenomena and relations to emerge: some are communitarian, others cooperative, pluralistic, democratic, reflective, or agonistic (i.e., flaming), and often a mix of these types within in the same group of related forums. Let us return to the question Kollock finds puzzling why do people make or respond to posts on a forum? The question is why “cooperate” when no immediate benefit is immanent? The best answer Kollock can propose is that the responder is either behaving altruistically (i.e., with no expectation of reward) to produced a public good or that the costs of responding are extremely low and, therefore worth the potential payoff in the long run. Pirolli’s answer similarly focuses on the individual utility of information exchange and the collaborations that may follow from the judgement of future expected utility; people act as a product of the probability of benefit and the value of that benefit.

    Under our rubric, messages posted and the forms of social life they are part of can be explained as actions that solicit reciprocity in symbolic terms. Kollock is partially right when, invoking Hobbes, he notes that cyberspace is full of strangers. The online forum (the message board) is, among other things, a space structured to facilitate encounter ... and hence recognition. Strangers recognise each other in a manner that preserves and discloses their status as others — thus, initial posts by one is not only a call for support, or a response to an article, but also an invitation to dialogue. This is not always the case but, in the language of Mauss, it is an “opening gift” a gesture expressing a desire to recognise others. Certainly, as in the case of support forums, there is a goal of being helped. But the social mechanism of receiving “help” also includes disclosing and seeking reciprocity, not to benefit but to engage the other and enlist them into a social relation. By replying to a question, a poster is not only providing help, but also may respond to the call to recognise and be recognised.

    Ploderer, et al.’s (2008) study of a passion–centric body building Web forum underlies these points. The body building site that they studied was not important simply a site for information exchange, but as a site for appraisal, self–promotion and recognition. Participating by forum posters acted to recognise others through their exchange of support, complements on each others’ self–portraits, and the recognition of others’ body building efforts: “self promotion [...] triggers appraisal, which motivates individuals for their off–line activities.” [3]

    Indeed, if one looks at questions and answers on online forums most questions are not answered in a “one–time” reply — a narrow information exchange — but conversations with cascades of new questions and replies. As Adamic, et al. (2008) comment on the use of Yahoo answers: “What is surprising is just how much of the interaction in [yahoo answers] is in fact pure discussion, in spite of the question–answer format.” Threads often extend beyond narrow question–and–answer pairs, into series of discussions, sub–questions, expressions of gratitude, which along the way can draw in more participants. The reciprocal relations of the forum expand, or open the door to, larger social groups.

    Posting a question or responding to a question on a forum is not an isolated social action where the goal is simply having your question answered. It is, rather, a first move of in a series of turn–taking exchanges that form social bonds of diverse kinds. Such bonds form becomes actions that seek reciprocity are actions that seek to draw others in. They express a desire to be–with. True, there is a search for information; but the message is also, at the same time, a symbolic object caught in the logic of reciprocal exchange. The symbolic nature of asking, responding, and iterating this relation is necessary to the production of help itself.

    Some question and answer systems have attempted to “clean up” the somewhat ad hoc arrangements of Web forums constraining answers and providing more focused tools for information seeking and provision (Hsieh, et al., 2008). Yet even in these arrangements the basic back and forth structure of reciprocity in question asking and answering can re–emerge. Some systems go so far as to offer virtual currencies to reward the effort in answering questions (Hsieh and Counts, 2009). Yet, as they do so, these sites may also disrupt reciprocal relations and discourage contributions as much as they replace them with market–centred relations.

  2. Online gaming

    Persistent multi–player games (e.g., World of Warcraft or Farmville), and rich, textured online environments (e.g., Second Life) are virtual worlds that produce complex social relations and phenomena. They manifest many social practices that can be understood with a concept of reciprocity but what is also central in these environments is the plethora and diversity of digital objects. Thus, persistent multi–player games have become the subjects of economic analysis, and social behaviour in these games is often understood in economic terms (Castronova, 2005; Malaby, 2006). However, we would argue that such an analysis fails to account for the diversity of the social forms often observable in these games. Indeed, the most socially interesting and diverse games are those in which the “wealth” of objects produced and exchanged cannot be captured by quantitative measures such as price. Frequently game objects are designed to behave in ways that focus attention on their symbolic role rather than exchange for profit.

    Blizzard’s World of Warcraft is among the most successful at complementing the social relations of a market economy with social relations produced through objects that can be made, distributed, and exchanged outside the logic of self–interested exchange. On the one hand, many of the objects (“loot,” “gear,” etc.) that one obtains in Warcraft are “soulbound,” meaning they cannot be exchanged. This effectively removes these items from market exchange. The major mechanism for earning gear is to attain them in relation with others in group quests and raids that require certain political structures (i.e., guilds, parties, and ad hoc groupings). These raids depend upon a division of labour and some power structures, making a range of social (often enjoyable, sometimes infuriating) phenomena possible (guild solidarity, group mutuality, petty theft, crime, as well as friendships and even romance). The distribution of gear and who receives what from the group then becomes a key site of reciprocity with the sharing of effort and time amongst members of guilds, and in turn the sharing of gear obtained during quests. The group can work out, at each turn who is grabbing what loot leaving goods for others. Smartly, high value objects obtained this way are prominently displayed on users’ avatars. Pace, et al.’s (2010) study of Warcraft explores these relations — in particular the ways in which the exchange of game objects enables intimate social relations between players. They documents how through the exchange of objects between longstanding players intimacy can arise. Intimacy follow not only from explicit gifting but the exchange of effort, time and help, so that “reciprocity is a vehicle by which [players] achieve mutual solidarity through a sense of moral obligation.” [4].

    On the other hand, Blizzard have reacted to this in their game design — each new game patch has expanded the ways in which individuals can pass around trivial objects (balls, skulls, trinkets) between players. Many of these objects serve no interest or game function except to draw attention to who has done what to whom, and generating interest and curiosity, and hence soliciting responses from others. Indeed, part of the richness of World of Warcraft relies on the fact that it is a world full of objects whose worth, wealth, and meaning exists outside of market logic and economic action, but within the symbolic logic of reciprocal exchange.

    As with Warcraft, social network games, like Farmville, are also replete with symbolic forms of reciprocity. Indeed, Liszkiewicz (2010) has argued that much of the addictive nature of games, like Farmville, come from the way they enroll players in social commitments: “The secret to Farmville’s popularity is neither gameplay nor aesthetics. Farmville is popular because in entangles users in a web of social obligations. When users log into Facebook, they are reminded that their neighbours have sent them gifts, posted bonuses on their walls, and helped with other farms. In turn, they are obligated to return the courtesies.” (Liszkiewicz, 2010)

  3. Social networks

    Social networking Web sites give us our closing example. Web sites like Facebook and LinkedIn feature many examples of reciprocity in that many of the key user actions seek reciprocal actions not to profit, but to encounter, engage, and be–with. Microblogging systems, such as Twitter, enable similar actions that seek reciprocity and recognition such as following and being followed. Sociometric analyses of Twitter suggests high degrees of reciprocity within social networks (Java, et al., 2007). Some Twitter users have even gone as far as to describe the ‘law of reciprocity’ in Twitter use (Colvin, 2009).

    The popularity of Facebook and Twitter in part come from how they offer an infrastructure where diverse, relatively public yet intimate, reciprocal exchanges are the dominant modes of interaction. Contributions, such as updating individual status, are invitations for others to contribute with updates of their own life, or even just clicking ‘like’. A “status” is an offer for others to respond, not simply an informational blip that you send out for others to receive. By writing on a friends ‘Facebook’ wall, a private message becomes a public action that can be seen and reciprocated. Indeed, writing on one’s wall in Facebook is not only information. It is a call for a response, i.e., a form of disclosing oneself that seeks reciprocity, in order to produce or reproduce social relationships. With Twitter, retweeting and @replies fulfil similar roles. In her study of MySpace, boyd refers to the “the spirit of reciprocity” and how ill–advised features (such as the ‘top friends’ list) can create social problems for users (boyd, 2010).

    This exposure of quasi–public reciprocal actions is important: they lend a special quality to the obligation to reciprocate, a quality that infuses the action with an added symbolic aspect. Just like a ceremony requires an audience, so now the actions of each individual unfold as though on a stage reserved for only some and not all. We see friends acting back and forth on each and, in this manner, not only feel a certain level of participation but also feel the sense that they belong together. Interestingly, originally Twitter had no feature for replying to others’ tweets — this feature was added to Twitter after its designers noticed the use of the “@” tag by users (Williams, 2008). The tag, and ‘retweeting’ generally, can be used as a powerful way of publically acknowledging others — recognition through reciprocation.



Designing for reciprocity

These examples give us a brief outline of how reciprocity functions as a social mechanism constitutive of diverse and distinct social relations. We have not, certainly, exhausted the range here. In this section, we review draw out some design lessons for building online platforms that mediate social relationships. Three lessons are drawn from the examples above: the centrality of designing for encounter; the public visibility of actions directed at specific others; and lastly, the importance of objects and practices that exist outside of the logic of utility and economic exchange. Each lesson, in our view, presents special design challenges and opportunities for social and communicative artefacts. They each contribute to the following, major lesson. Everyday social life is often produced by giving to others in ways that solicit reciprocation. But this reciprocation has nothing to do with contract, interest, or profit. It has to do with the fact that we express a desire to live life with others through forms of giving and exchange. We form and establish bonds through a play of freedom and obligation. We form social life through the pleasures of being–with. Or we honour an adversary. In any of these cases, social life is formed because we act to recognise an Other in order to be recognised in return — that is, to respect, and hold in esteem, others so that one can be held similarly in return. This is the lesson of reciprocal exchange: it is a practice by which we draw out the individuality of the Other in relation to the individuality of my self.

  1. Encounter

    The question of encounter is key to online computing and the social life of digitally mediated communication. A plethora of concepts and design lessons already exist to address this question. They include, for example, concepts of security, trust, data encryption and, of course, “privacy.” These are important (e.g., in e–commerce), but they usually fail to account for the way social life is made through the set of reciprocal actions that, in online social platforms, disclose who the partners are for each other. The lesson here is that social life requires a repertoire of social actions that demonstrate one’s intention to recognise the other and to be recognised in return. Individuals develop social relations with others and maintain them by having available the means of giving generously to others in a variety of social relations. Such actions — at least in online environments that do well to support social life — go beyond “consenting to trust” a third party, encrypting one’s data transmissions, or “protecting” oneself behind passwords. What needs to be invented, supported, and then sustained, are various means of showing and expressing oneself (Palen and Dourish, 2003) through one’s actions in a manner that is directed at specific others. In some cases, disclosure can be granular; in others proportional to reciprocal actions between partners. In either case, designers ought to factor into their design that individual actions in online social platforms are always, potentially, an invitation to respond by others. Recognition must be developed as a key design goal, allowing persons to produce social life through a reciprocal relation with others. Sequences of reciprocal exchanges can help to establish a recognition of each other.

  2. Symbolic exchange

    Digital objects are everywhere in online platforms that mediate social relationships. One of the truisms of digital objects is that the costs of production are near nil. From the perspective of building reciprocal relations of symbolic exchange, the challenge from a design point of view is developing platforms by which users can produce a finite number of objects that bear the market of the giver. In this regard, the costs of producing the goods can be high, but the issue of price and profit must disappear from the exchange. Giving trivial objects that represent nothing precious will not often solicit meaningful responses from others (but they may).

    The function and work of the objects stems from their symbolic nature: the objects given and exchange stand–in for particular persons (and only those two in relation to each other) who are acting together such that one is responding to the other. These do not necessarily imply friendship or kinship; they can be agonistic and competitive actions, or those that seek to one–up each other turn by turn. After all, the symbolic exchange that obligates a response takes the form of a challenge to respond. Supporting the visibility of the symbolic nature of reciprocity should therefore be a primary design challenge. Objects should be precious, but not because they are worth a high price on a market. By making reciprocal relations publicly visible, a vast number of larger phenomena are also possible.

  3. Recognition and the diversity of social forms

    Cooperation and altruism are important forms of social action and interaction. But everyday social life is not typically best understood in those terms. Rather, much of everyday social interaction exists, on one important level, through practices of reciprocal recognition; that is, of acting on others through the mediation of objects so as to solicit a return action on oneself from another. Indeed, practices of reciprocal recognition are paramount in forming, and sustaining, many kinds of social relationships such as friendships, kinship relations, adversarial relationships, competitive games, and so on. There is one basic reason for this: reciprocal recognition is the social mechanism by which we draw others into a social relation and are drawn into social relations by others. Respect and esteem — one can feel them for oneself, but they can also be given and reciprocated by others. That they can be given and reciprocated is a constant fact of social life.

    The difficulty of designing for reciprocal recognition in online social platforms is that the logic of exchange that animates recognition is not easily quantifiable or trackable in discrete terms. Relations of reciprocal recognition are often ad hoc. In contemporary societies where culture practices remain driven or framed by the consideration of gain, loss, and profit, relations of reciprocal recognition resist institutionalisation. Nevertheless, they can be designed for insofar as certain criteria of interaction are met — objects that bear the identity of an individual (and only that individual) must exist, they must be able to be given generously to others outside of the logic of both interest and altruism, and they must in some way solicit a response from the other. All social forms of interaction begin in such a way, with one individual generously desiring to bond with another through the mediation of a symbolic object that seeks to be returned.




Reciprocity is a key concept for understanding social interactions. Rational choice theory — which in many ways is the dominant mode in contemporary social science for understanding social patterns and social phenomena — understands reciprocity in terms of self–interest and profit. Reciprocity is rational insofar as it is part of a contractual and self–interested exchange. Thus social interactions with others online is reduced either to a form of altruism (i.e., as a public good or service that by definition expects no reciprocity), or it is understood in terms of social cooperation in which some latent form of contract is discernible. In contrast, by drawing on anthropological sources, we have defined practices of reciprocal exchange as symbolic exchange, where the function of giving and reciprocating is not to benefit, but to recognise in order to be recognised. Reciprocity in these cases is a return–action of recognition to one who has generously acted to recognise us in the first place. This is a critical social mechanism that is found in diverse social practices.

As a response to RCT–based approaches, our approach casts light on many aspects of social interaction that RCT ignores. Of course, in doing so it suffers from some the same shortcomings - not all behaviour is best explained in these terms, nor would we claim a primacy for reciprocity as we have defined it here. There are forms of interaction where other analytic frames are more appropriate. Yet for much that happens online our understanding of reciprocity highlights how it is that actions produce and sustain social life and how stable relations can be established using even rudimentary communicative forms. End of article


About the authors

Etienne Pelaprat is a Sanford I. Berman Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of California, San Diego.
E–mail: epelapra [at] ucsd [dot] edu

Barry Brown is Co–Director of the Mobile Life Centre at Stockholm University, Krista, Stockholm.
E–mail: barry [at] mobilelifecentre [dot] org



1. Sen, 1977, p. 318.

2. Sen, 1977, pp. 46, 340.

3. Ploderer, et al., 2008, p. 341.

4. Pace, et al., 2010, p. 238.



L.A. Adamic, J. Zhang, E. Bakshy, and M.S. Ackerman, 2008. “Knowledge sharing and Yahoo answers: Everyone knows something,” WWW ’08: Proceedings of the 17th International Conference on World Wide Web (Beijing, China), pp. 665–674.

M. Andrejevic, 2007. iSpy: Surveillance and power in the interactive era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

K. Arrow, 1990. “Economic theory and the hypothesis of rationality,” In: J. Eatwell, M. Milgate, and P. Newman (editors). The new Palgrave: A dictionary of economics, pp. 25–37; version at, accessed 20 September 2012.

S. Ba, A.B. Whinston, and H. Zhang, 2003. “Building trust in online auction markets through an economic incentive mechanism,” Decision Support Systems, volume 35, number 3, pp. 273–286.

G. Becker, 1976. The economic approach to human behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

J. Bendor and P. Swistak, 2001. “The evolution of norms,” American Journal of Sociology, volume 106, number 6, pp. 1,493–1,545.

d. boyd, 2010. “Friendship,” In: M. Ito, S. Baumer, M. Bittanti, d. boyd, R. Cody, B. Herr, H.A. Horst, P.G. Lange, D. Mahendran, K. Martinez, C.J. Pascoe, D. Perkel, L. Robinson, C. Sims, and L. Tripp. Hanging out, messing around, geeking out: Living and learning with new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, pp. 79–115.

N. Buchan, R. Croson, and R. Dawes, 2002. “Swift neighbors and persistent strangers: A cross–cultural investigation of trust and reciprocity in social exchange,” American Journal of Sociology, volume 108, number 1, pp. 168–206.

E. Castronova, 2005. Synthetic worlds: The business and culture of online games. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

K. Colvin, 2009. “Twitter & the Law of Reciprocity,” at, accessed 20 September 2012.

J. Donath, 1999. “Identity and deception in the virtual community,” In: M. g and P. Kollock (editors). Communities in cyberspace. London: Routledge, pp. 29–59; version at, accessed 20 September 2012.

P. Dourish, 2006. “Implications for design,” CHI ’06: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 541–550.

B. Evans and E. Chi, 2008. “Towards a model of understanding social search,” CSCW ”08: Proceedings of the 2008 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, pp. 485–494.

J. Gee, 2007. What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. Revised and updated edition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

J. Goldthorpe, 1998. “Rational action theory for sociology,” British Journal of Sociology, volume 49, number 2, pp. 167–192.

A. Gouldner, 1960. “The norm of reciprocity: A preliminary statement,” American Sociological Review, volume 25, number 2, pp. 161–178.

J. Grudin, 1989. “Why groupware applications fail: Problems in design and evaluation,” Office: Technology and People, volume 4, number 3, pp. 245–264.

V. Gurbaxani and S. Whang, 1991. “The impact of information systems on organizations and markets,” Communications of the ACM, volume 34, number 1, pp. 59–73.

M. Hénaff, 2002. Le prix de la vérité Le don, l’argent, la philosophie. Paris: Seuil.

J. Hollan and S. Stornetta, 1992. “Beyond being there,” CHI ’92: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 119–125.

G. Hsieh and S. Counts, 2009. “mimir: A market–based real–time question and answer service,” CHI ’09: Proceedings of the 27th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 769–778.

G. Hsieh, R. Kraut, S. Hudson, and R. Weber, 2008. “Can markets help? Applying market mechanisms to improve synchronous communication,” CSCW ’08: Proceedings of the 2008 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, pp. 535–544.

A. Java, X. Song, T. Finin, and B. Tseng, 2007. “Why we twitter: Understanding microblogging usage and communities,” WebKDD/SNA–KDD ’07: Proceedings of the 9th WebKDD and 1st SNA–KDD 2007 Workshop on Web Mining and Social Network Analysis, pp. 56–65.

M. Katz and M. Byrne, 2003. “Effects of scent and breadth on use of site–specific search on e–commerce Web sites,” ACM Transactions on Computer–Human Interaction, volume 10, number 3, pp. 198–220.

R. Kling, 1996. “Hopes and horrors: Technological utopianism and anti–utopianism in narratives of computerization,” In: R. Kling (editor). Computerization and controversy: Value conflicts and social choices. Second edition. San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 40–58.

P. Kollock, 1999. “The economies of online cooperation: Gifts and public goods in cyberspace,” M. Smith and P. Kollock (editors). Communities in cyberspace. London, Routledge, pp. 219–239.

P. Kollock, 1998. “Social dilemmas: The anatomy of cooperation,” Annual Review of Sociology volume 24, pp. 183–214.

R. Kraut, S. Sunder, R. Telang, and J. Morris, 2005. “Pricing electronic mail to solve the problem of spam.” Human–Computer Interaction, volume 20, number 1, pp. 195–223.

A. Liszkiewicz, 2010. “Cultivated play: Farmville,” Media Commons: A Digital Scholarly Network (9 March), at, accessed 20 September 2012.

T. Malaby, 2006. “Parlaying value: Capital in and beyond virtual worlds,” Games and Culture, volume 1, number 2, pp. 141–162.

T. Malone, J. Yates, and R. Benjamin, 1987. “Electronic markets and electronic hierarchies,” Communications of the ACM, volume 30, number 6, pp. 484–497.

C. Marlow, M. Naaman, d. boyd, and M. Davis, 2006. “HT06, tagging paper, taxonomy, Flickr, academic article, to read,” HYPERTEXT ’06: Proceedings of the Seventeenth Conference on Hypertext and Hypermedia, pp. 31–40.

M. Mauss, 1954. The gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

L. Molm, J. Collett, and D. Schaefer, 2007. “Building solidarity through generalized exchange: A theory of reciprocity,” American Journal of Sociology, volume 113, number 1, pp. 205–242.

B. Nardi, D. Schiano, M. Gumbrecht, and L. Swatz, 2004. “Why we blog,” Communications of the ACM, volume 47, number 12, pp. 41–46.

J. Nielsen, 1995. Usability engineering. New edition. Boston: AP Professional.

T. Pace, S. Bardzell, and J. Bardzell, 2010. “The rogue in the lovely black dress: Intimacy in World of Warcraft,” CHI ’10: Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 233–242.

L. Palen and P. Dourish, 2003. “Unpacking ‘privacy’ for a networked world,” CHI ’03: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 129–136.

P. Pirolli, 2009. “An elementary social information foraging model,” CHI ’09: Proceedings of the 27th International Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 605–614.

P. Pirolli, 2007. Information foraging theory: Adaptive interaction with information. New York: Oxford University Press.

B. Ploderer, S. Howard, and P. Thomas, 2008. “Being online, living offline: The influence of social ties over the appropriation of social network sites,” CSCW ’08: Proceedings of the 2008 ACM Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work, pp. 333–342.

D. Russell, M. Stefik, P. Pirolli, and S. Card, 1993. “The cost structure of sensemaking,” CHI ’93: Proceedings of the INTERACT ’93 and CHI ’93 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 269–276.

M. Sahlins, 2004. Stone age economics. London: Routledge.

A. Sen, 1997. “Maximization and the act of choice,” Econometrica, volume 65, number 4, pp. 745–779.

A. Sen, 1977. “Rational fools: A critique of the behavioral foundations of economic theory,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, volume 6, number 4, pp. 317–344.

L. Sproull and S. Kiesler, 1991. Connections: New ways of working in the networked organization. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

N. Takahashi, 2000. “The emergence of generalized exchange,” American Journal of Sociology, volume 105, number 4, pp. 1,105–1,134.

A. Taylor and R. Harper, 2002. “Age–old practices in the ‘new world’: A study of gift–giving between teenage mobile phone users,” CHI ’02: Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp. 439–446.

S. Turkle, 1995. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. Simon & Schuster.

E. Williams, 2008. “How @replies work on Twitter (and how they might),” Twitter Corporate Blog (12 May),, accessed 20 September 2012.


Editorial history

Received 3 December 2010; revised 14 September 2012; accepted 18 September 2012.

Copyright © 2012, First Monday.
Copyright © 2012, Etienne Pelaprat and Barry Brown.

Reciprocity: Understanding online social relations
by Etienne Pelaprat and Barry Brown
First Monday, Volume 17, Number 10 - 1 October 2012

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.