Collecting dead souls in social media


Guestblogger Marina Gorbis is executive director at Institute for the Future.

Yesterday I posted an essay on Socialstructing–creating organizations around social connections rather than against them. I believe these types of organizational forms are growing and diffusing rapidly throughout the economy. However, I do not see them as panaceas from all our ills since they have a potential to bring with them new kinds of inequalities, exclusions, and Ponzi schemes. So this post looks at potential unintended consequences of socialstructing.

One of the best things about speaking Russian (possibly the only thing), is that it gives you an ability to access Russian literature in the original. Over the years I've tried many different translations of Russian writers and was disappointed every time. Nothing compares to the original. Maybe it is impossible to do justice to these texts because many Russian words are so deeply rooted in a uniquely Russian context and life circumstances. What I love about writers such as Gogol and Chekhov is that in portraying life in 19th century Russia they managed to capture universal themes of human inner struggles, desires, and life ironies. They created prototypes of characters and circumstances that are as real today as they were 150 years ago. People just work through those circumstances with a whole new suite of tools and technologies.

That leads me to one of my favorite pieces of Russian literature — Nikolai Gogol's Dead Souls, a novel first published in 1842. The story revolves around the exploits of Chichikov, a personality populating the lower rungs of the Russian society. Driven by a desire to enhance his social standing, Chichikov develops an ingenious scheme. He goes around Russian villages buying up records of dead serfs. It's a brilliant idea that capitalized on a unique and grotesque feature of the feudal Russian society — ownership by landlords of the people who lived and worked on their land.

The number of "souls" one owned was a measure of one's economic and social status. Landowners in fact paid taxes based on how many serfs or "souls" they owned. The government kept count of owned "souls" and this count was based on government census numbers. Unfortunately, the census took place only infrequently and many landowners ended up paying taxes on their dead serfs. Grasping an opportune moment between the two censuses, Chichikov bought records of these dead souls from landowners eager to lighten their own tax burdens. Papers certifying Chichikov's ownership of 400 "souls" rapidly elevated Chichikov's status: landed gentry opened their homes to him, tried to give away their daughters in marriage, and celebrated him at town functions. And all it took was a record of ownership of hundreds of "souls."
So every time I see another article or an ad about how to acquire more followers on twitter, friends on Facebook, or otherwise collect more "souls" for money, fame, or reputation, I start thinking about Chichikov. He did come to an ignominous end, finally fleeing town. Makes me wonder.

Dead Souls