A few weeks ago I was making a page to invite people to support the work. I started writing about how my weekly horoscopes and other writings are presented in the spirit of the gift economy. And then I started thinking and writing about how the idea of the gift economy has been exploited by corporations in the information age, so that we no longer understand how to participate in it. It was getting pretty long, so I turned it into a blog post. Here’s a quick explainer on what I mean by the gift economy:
The gift economy differs from the market economy in that gifts are given, rather than traded or sold, without an explicit agreement for immediate or future reward.
A gift always needs a willing recipient. If you are happy to receive these horoscopes every week, you are already supporting the work.
If you feel genuinely moved to exchange something in return, there are many types of valuable exchanges in a gift economy.
The gift exchange can be reciprocal: a voluntary monthly subscription in exchange for the gift of weekly horoscopes.
The gift exchange can be circular: you forward the horoscopes to a friend who could use some inspiration, or donate to support horoscope creation for those who cannot afford to financially support the work.
The gift exchange can ripple out: an insight from the horoscopes inspires you to do something kind for another person.
The gift exchange can spiral into a new circle of exchange: you book a consultation because you like the horoscopes.
Artists and writers have always relied on the gift economy, because art and writing is rarely assigned value in the market economy. So those independent creators who have not been assigned commercial value by an arbitrary market continue to create anyway, in the spirit of the gift. People who create are often called “gifted,” having the ability to invoke some creative power. If we think of creativity as a kind of invocation, the gift moves from spirit or muse, through a creator, and out to a larger community. It is not a commodity. It is something more than that. Artists and writers still need to eat, so various cultures have historically valued their gifts through a gift economy. That might include patronage, artists’ grants, and non-monetary gifts like loaning an artist space to work. The same gift economy, in various cultures, has often benefited spirit workers, shamans, healers, and their communities.
The gift economy does not run on data, advertising, or exploitation.
The internet started with the ideals of a true gift economy: information freely exchanged in the spirit of strengthening community and making knowledge more available to everyone. But we all know that didn’t last. The ideal of truly free exchange gave way to global capitalism. Now we get a lot of “free” information and services in exchange for our privacy, our data, and our attention on advertisements.
The information economy that we have right now exploits the gift economy. It’s taught us that online services should be faux “gifts” with hidden terms and hidden costs, but no conscious exchange. It’s taught us to devalue information to the point where we expect to take whatever we can find for free (or “free”) without considering the other end of the exchange. It’s taught us to pay a lot less than we used to for information and art. When was the last time you bought a musician’s album? How about a book from somewhere other than Jeff Bezos’ ruthless empire? It’s taught us to devalue our own attention and privacy. And perhaps the saddest part: it’s taught us to mistrust gifts.
This system is based on exploitation from all sides. Corporations exploit us by collecting and selling our data, manipulating our attention, and publishing biased brand-sponsored content that people don’t immediately recognize as advertising. Corporations have exploited writers, designers, producers and other creators by driving down the value of writing, design, and video with their endless hunger for marketing content. Corporations exploit independent creators by maintaining the rights to creative work that we post for free on their social media platforms in the hope of attracting an audience. In turn, audiences have learned to exploit independent creators that still participate in the gift economy by taking the information we offer and ignoring our requests for reciprocal exchange. Individuals even exploit each other, by stealing and curating others’ ideas and images without providing credit. The high expectations for productive online engagement and original content creation from corporations, small businesses, solo entrepreneurs, creatives, and regular people just trying to be social exhaust all of us by exploiting our time and attention.
How did this happen? The exploitation of the gift/information economy is a direct result of the exploitation that’s coded into capitalism. We take what is available to us without considering how much we’re taking, and without considering the worth of what is freely given, with the same mindset that we use to exploit the earth’s gifts. The scarcity mindset of capitalism tells us that there is never enough—never enough posting, never enough time, never enough likes or attention, and certainly never enough profit. So everyone is competing for whatever they can get.
This means that independent creators are often out here trying to participate in the gift economy, and finding it in need of repair. Because we’re not big brands. We don’t want your data. We just have creations to share. We’re often sharing with the hope that our audience will be moved to give something in return because they love our work, even in some cases without an explicit agreement to exchange.
Why am I writing this post?
I’m not saying all of this to motivate people to become supporters out of guilt. I don’t want your guilt money! I only want what Lynne Twist, author of The Soul of Money, calls “blessed money”: money exchanged with positive, conscious intention. If money is not among the resources that you can share easily, there are non-monetary ways to support the work in the spirit of genuine reciprocation.
The reason I’m saying all of this is to make the invisible work of independent creators more visible. That includes the labor that activists and healers like astrologers often do outside of the market economy as a way of offering accessible services to a range of people. I’m writing this because by offering opportunities for conscious reciprocation from my audience, I am making it clear that the horoscopes are a gift of my time, labor, and intention. Social custom usually dictates that a gift is given without a request for exchange, but that custom also assumes an unspoken agreement about the nature of gifts. That agreement has been exploited by the current market. My explicit request is an effort to restore the gift agreement.
I’m writing this because it’s worth thinking about how we might heal our existing economic system. It often does seem like information is free and available online for the taking. That’s just the way it is, right? Why should we exchange anything in return for a creator’s writing, art, or insights? Hasn’t social media made all of us into creators, freely giving our ideas and images to anyone who will pay us in likes? Doesn’t every business have to provide a lot of quality content for free to attract clients these days? Isn’t someone who tries to make the gift economy viable just kind of a sucker? Well, maybe. But I’d like to think we can change the way we think about exchanging value.
Can we change the way we think about exchanging value?
What happens in a world where all information is “free,” is that the cost is offloaded onto someone else: often, your future self, who will have to face the consequences of giving up all rights to data and privacy. And/or the cost is offloaded to a future self who has consumed so many subliminal advertising messages that they are mysteriously drawn to purchase brand name products, without a memory of why.
In the case of independent creators, the cost of you taking information without actively participating in some kind of exchange is offloaded onto the creator, who spends a lot of time making gifts that people freely take without reciprocating. In the best-case scenario, the cost is offloaded onto other people who choose to reciprocate financially, making it possible for the creator to continue making gifts. In a world where all information is “free,” we expect the creator to go get paid by someone else, like a corporation that publishes their work and makes a return on their investment by advertising to the audience (us) and mining their (our) data. In fact, that’s usually how we define “success” for creators now. But you only need to listen to YouTubers to know that this doesn’t work. Publishers exploit content creators, who don’t have unions to help them fight for their rights.
Probably most independent creators would prefer to participate in the gift economy or the person-to-person marketplace, without involving corporations. But since the default expectation we have now is that creators will either find advertisers to pay them, get enough attention for their free content to get hired by a corporation, or use their creativity to build a business, the gift economy seems like a quaint idea. The only entities who really benefit from our current information economy are corporate executives and shareholders.
Independent creators have some other options. They can bring their information and creations to the market economy with freemium membership models like Patreon. I think creators originally hoped that Patreon would function as a home for a gift economy, with people choosing to support whatever artists chose to create. But because of the pressure to incentivize patronage, and the fact that Patreon is a for-profit business that charges creators 10% of their earnings, it’s now a platform for membership businesses run by creatives. Even though Patreon calls subscribers “patrons” and the money they give “donations,” I would argue that subscribing to a membership in an explicit exchange for premium content is in the realm of the market economy, not the gift economy. Creators can also choose to use a different platform to host their membership content, open a store to sell their work, or offer services for payment. This requires scaling up from independent creator or artist to small business. This is obviously fine by the way. It’s been great for a lot of people, and I think it’s important for creators to own their worth in a market economy. Business is a very creative endeavor.
However, even if a creator chooses a different economic model, merging art and commerce, participation in the “free” information economy is not optional. A relatively new creator can have a shop, courses, workshops, or a membership, but they will still need to share free content on social media platforms owned by Big Tech so they can build an audience, so they can sell their wares, which means nobody (except maybe the independently wealthy creator and the already successful creator) is exempt from participation in the exploitative information economy. Social media was originally more focused on gift exchange. At its best, sharing on social media is about building relationships and strengthening community. Algorithms, data mining, and paid social have made these platforms more complicated. We have to think about the value of the time we spend sharing on these. What are we giving away and what are we receiving for our gifts?
I have a lot of gratitude for the good that has come out of the internet and social media. I would not be able to connect with a global audience so quickly and so easily if it were not for the technology available to me. Because of the speed and relatively low cost of setting up an online business, I was able to create a website and host all of my own content here. I see the gift economy operating well all over the internet, from crowdfunding projects to nonprofit donations, to support for independent creators and genuine sharing. I also recognize that just because somebody calls themselves an independent creator, that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to an engaged audience. Artists and writers earn audiences (and patrons) by demonstrating consistent excellence. Astrologers earn clients by participating in the marketplace and demonstrating consistent excellence. These questions aren’t coming from a cynical place. They are coming from a place of critical thinking. I think that we always have to ask what is being exchanged and who benefits from that exchange. I think we should expect a world where we can exchange value without exploitation. I think we can create that world if we think critically about the sickness in the systems we have now, and seek to heal them.
What happens if a gift economy made up of artists, writers, and thinkers is allowed to thrive on its own terms, alongside a market economy?
Most importantly, reciprocation moves full circle, so that participants in the gift economy give and receive. In a true gift economy, exploitative corporations are not involved in any way. Your future self does not have to pay for information with data or the share of your “heart and mind” that advertisers so creepily aim to “win.” (I’ve been at those conferences and that is the rhetoric: brands want to conquer our hearts and minds.) Choosing to revive a gift economy also probably means that you have to think more carefully about what information you want to consume, once you’re fully participating in an exchange. If you decide to consciously reciprocate gifts from creators whose work you often enjoy, you will find that you are more discerning about where you give your attention.
Astrology done well is worth a conscious exchange in return.
The problem of the “free” information economy is doubled for disciplines like astrology, which is already devalued in our culture. People love astrology, but they often seem to feel that they shouldn’t have to pay for it, because they have been told so often that it is not valuable. And it’s easy not to pay for it, because there is so much information available online for free (and “free”, i.e. in exchange for your data or attention on advertising). This is a big tension for me as an independent creator, between wanting to be of service to people and wanting my services to be appropriately valued. So I’ll say this once more: astrology, done well, is worth a conscious exchange in return.
The horoscopes I write here are the result of my skill with astrological techniques, skill in interpreting symbolism, skill as a coach, and skill as a writer. I want my weekly horoscopes not only to make predictions, but to coach people to lead thoughtful, authentic, wholehearted lives. I make space to open myself to the channel that brings me the right kind of wisdom for these, every week. Just like I only want to participate in a gift economy of blessed money here, I only want to give you blessed horoscopes, by which I mean horoscopes written with total focus and conscious intention.
I’ve chosen to give the horoscopes freely without expectations.
Really. No expectations; I just enjoy writing them for you. Writing them has made me a better astrologer and a (slightly) better deadline-meeter.
I realize that I am also running a business, and that my horoscopes are functioning to market that business. But if this was just my marketing plan, it would be an inefficient one. I could create consistent astrology content without the hours that I put into the horoscopes every week. Marketing is not the number one reason that I write these. I have other content to use for that.
While I don’t have expectations, I do have hope.
My hope is that the people who come to rely on these horoscopes, who look forward to them every week and find insight that helps them improve their lives, will choose to participate in this exchange in the spirit of the gift economy. I hope that the people who come back again and again will feel compelled to support this work in some way, whether it’s by becoming a monthly supporter, or booking a session, or sharing my writing with other people who will love it too.
If you have chosen to participate in this exchange, thank you. It makes me grateful to know that my gift has been received with intention.
Here are some more resources for thinking with economic healing:
You can choose to support the work here.