Gift-Giving as a Conversion Device in Online Marketplaces

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The social foundations of the platform economy stand at the forefront of academic research in economic sociology, communication, and organization studies. Can a study of patterns of gift-giving in online marketplaces further our understanding of the social ties and normative structures underpinning trade? This study suggests that the answer is in the affirmative. Studies of gift-giving in offline markets assert that gifting is predicated on reciprocity and social obligation, and enables the constitution and reproduction of social ties that facilitate trade. This article presents a three-pronged theoretical argument. First, it extends the argument that gifting creates a social space that is open to manipulations and interpretations. Second, it asserts that gift-giving in the online marketplace should be viewed as a particular type of “market device,” an object that guides market actors how to make sense of their socio-economic actions. Third, the article argues that gifting operates as a “conversion device” providing buyers and sellers with a flexible material and symbolic resource that allows them to oscillate and convert between distinct moral frameworks that co-exist within the socio-cultural institution of gift-giving. Based on 54 in-depth interviews, this study finds that gifting flourishes around reputation systems, pointing to their central role in the platform economy. The role of gift-giving as a conversion device is developed and discussed, and the way sellers employ it to convert the normative framework depicting reputation systems as rational and calculative, into a framework highlighting reciprocity and obligation.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSocial Media and Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2022.


  • conversion device
  • gift-giving
  • market device
  • online marketplaces
  • reputation systems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cultural Studies
  • Communication
  • Computer Science Applications


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