Reciprocity: Understanding online social relations


  • Etienne Pelaprat Researcher
  • Barry Brown Associate Professor



Reciprocity, Online ethnography


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.

Author Biography

Barry Brown, Associate Professor

Barry is currently an associate professor of communication at UC San Diego. His recent work has focused on the sociology and design of leisure technologies - computer systems for leisure and pleasure. Recent publications include studies of activities as diverse as games, tourism, museum visiting, the use of maps, television watching and sport spectating. He has also edited books on music consumption (with Kenton O?Hara), and mobile phone use (with Richard Harper and Nicola Green). Before coming to California he was a research fellow on the Equator project at the University of Glasgow and a research scientist at Hewlett-Packard's research labs in Bristol.




How to Cite

Pelaprat, E., & Brown, B. (2012). Reciprocity: Understanding online social relations. First Monday, 17(10).