"[T]he arrangement I'm describing feels to me more like a kind of gift economy in which people do things for each other out of a spirit of building something between them, rather than a spreadsheet-calculated quid pro quo"
Altman, Kauffman, and others studying the epistolary genre identify the source of its essential "reciprocality" in the letter's seductive qualities: the occasion--indeed the insistent invitation--to respond to a letter provides a uniquely human, and usually welcome, opportunity to establish a relationship, potentially loving, with another, to confirm one's essence in the presence of an attentive other. Another way to account for this dynamic of "reciprocality" in everyday life, as well as in the epistolary genre, is to appreciate the mutual obligation generated by the offering and exchange of gifts. This concept of gift exchange maps well onto e-mail behavior, understood as epistolary art. It accounts, for instance, for the otherwise puzzling pain of rejection experienced by e-mailers who post to public listservs and receive no response or other acknowledgment, even when their postings are not framed as questions.
Gifts, like letters, are everywhere. They can be actions, for example, collecting neighbors' mail and newspapers whle they are out of town, as well as objects like birthday cakes. They can also be the epistolary process of addressing, in every sense, someone, or some others, who will receive mail. "A gift necessarily implies the notion of credit" (Mauss 3), and the ensuing obligation is pressing until discharged because prestige and honor are bound up in our need to return gifts, often with interest. A gift is only a gift when accepted. A gift cannot be bargained about. Once accepted, its new owner has automatically incurred a debt. Hence a dynamic, inherently unstable cycle. The word "gift" usually carries positive connotations, but gifts are not necessarily benign. For example, the potlatch rituals among west coast Native Americans, studied by Claude Levi-Strauss and other anthropologists, ruined many people. And there are obvious parallels in today's urban societies, for instance, the elaborate Quinceañera festivities organized by some Chicanos in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Moreover, the personal obligation to reciprocate, and to "up the ante," can be a heavy frustration. Discharging this debt brings relief even though it thereby triggers another cycle.
The emotionally seductive power of the epistolary genre, including e-mail, then, can also be understood in anthropological terms as deriving from this kind of gift exchange. Derrida's work is again illuminating. Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money draws on The Gift by earlier French social scientist Marcel Mauss: "Mauss reminds us that there is no gift without bond, without bind, without obligation or ligature" (27). Derrida borrows from Mauss's analysis in order to examine "a certain relation shaping up between writing or its subsitute (but what is a substitute for writing if not a writing?) and the process of the gift" (43). Derrida teases out of this concept some corresponding associations of debt, credit, faith and desire that apply well to electronic exchange. Derrida's suggestive perceptions can be linked to Lewis Hyde's more explicit work. Hyde explains his position this way: ". . . unlike the sale of a commodity, the giving of a gift tends to establish a relationship between the parties involved. It is this element of relationship which leads me to speak of gift exchange as an 'erotic' commerce, opposing eros . . . to logos. . . ." (page XXX) Sociologist Anthony Heath, invoking Marcel Mauss, can simply and bluntly stress that "the meaning of a gift is a declaration of friendship or alliance" (173).
If the exchange involved in the electronic conversation of e-mail can be conceived of as gift exchange, then what exactly is exchanged? Words, obviously: texts. But wherein lies their value? "Currency" is not the right image for this value because gifts are precisely what cannot be reduced to bargaining tokens, money, a price. Nonetheless, Howard Rheingold, referring to the online "pleasure of making conversation and creating value in the process" (61) does refer to the "valuable currency" of "elegantly presented knowledge" (59). He explains: "Wit and the use of language are rewarded in this medium, which is biased toward those who learn to manipulate attention and emotion with the written word. Sometimes you give [my emphasis] one person more information than you would another person in response to the same query, simply because you recognize one of them to be more generous [my emphasis] or funny or to-the-point or agreeable" (59-60). What is offered as online gift is aesthetic pleasure--"written conversation as a performing art" (Rheingold 61)--which, when accepted, that is, when read and experienced, must be returned: reader is obliged to become writer.
Hence e-mailers' experience of reciprocity, anxiety, and pleasurable anticipation. Gift exchange, then, unlike other sorts of exchange such as barter or a commodity market, imposes a reciprocal obligation on receivers to respond appropriately. So, too, receivers of e-mail messages, more so than readers of some other kinds of texts, feel an obligation to reply, to reciprocate in kind. Hence their prolix, emotional messages and the special rhetorical power of e-mail.