nath teresaTeaching a toddler how to share, and why sharing is better than hogging all the Thomas the Tank Engine figurines (I’m not bitter), is a lesson in frustration. First they don’t grasp the concept; then they realize that they like it when other people share, even if they won’t do the same; then they begrudgingly offer their toys up with the expectation of a reward for being so good.

It seems many of us are stuck on the middle step. Someone Tweeting out a link to a story, listening to an album on Spotify, or watching a movie on Netflix and sharing it to Facebook can highlight great content that we’d have missed otherwise. That’s fine. But when it comes time for us to share our own stuff, sharing becomes creepy and frustrating.

“Here’s a sad fact: Most people do not want to share. They want convenience. They want to be elated,” neigh*borrow co-founder Adam Berk wrote on Saturday. Everyone likes having easy access to something, but few people are willing to enable access themselves.

Unlike “sharing” physical items, which often has less to do with sharing and more to do with shilling, sharing something on the Web is ultimately driven by two things: Altruism and a desire for attention. Facebook Likes and upvotes on Reddit are worthless, even though we have convinced ourselves otherwise. Becoming a trendsetter on social networks might do wonders for someone’s Klout score, but beyond that, it’s next to meaningless.

Take Twitter as a news filter. Unless someone wants to follow a bunch of news sources and wade through BREAKING and EXCLUSIVE and SLIDESHOW-ed headlines among the rest of his feed, he probably relies on other users for all of his content discovery. Someone found something interesting, shared it on Twitter with no expectation of reward, and someone else was able to read something new.

Or consider music discovery. I’m definitely among the I-don’t-want-to-share-everything-I-listen-to camp, partially because of my secret obsession with the “Pitch Perfect” soundtrack and partially because I share an Rdio account with my Justin Bieber-liking fiancée. Yet some of my favorite albums only found their way into my collection after I saw that a “friend” had listened to them.

“Growing up, going on sleepovers and playing on the playground, there was this idea of reciprocity. social contract in sharing. You tell me your secret, and I’ll tell you mine,” writes Callie Schweitzer on Medium. “That’s all different in 2013 because we have an audience. Sharing used to be an exchange; now it’s a declaration.”

There are, as I said, two reasons to share something with that audience: To capture their attention, often because that allows the sharer to feel like the center of their social circle, and to show the audience something cool. The first covers every fanboy — sorry, enthusiast — and member of the social network echo chamber, while I suspect that the second is everyone who shares a link, just because they felt like it needed to be shared.

Companies have started to stake entire products on users’ altruism, like Facebook has with Graph Search. The souped-up search tool is powered by the Likes of users’ Friends (capital “F”) and, without them, is little more than a prettier way to stalk an ex-lover.

“As soon as we had Graph Search internally, I found myself liking more stuff and checking in to more places,” Graph Search product director Tom Stocky told The Verge. “I was giving a gift to my friends, in some ways. If there’s a reason it helps your friends, that might be a reason you share more.”

Building a service on the goodwill of adolescents and FarmVille-addicted grandmothers might not be the soundest of product strategies, but it does show that Facebook is taking seriously its “connections graph,” as Hamish put it. And, at the same time, it has built something that shows just how useful Likes, check-ins, photos, and all of the other stuff we share on Facebook can become.

If something like Graph Search becomes popular (it hasn’t been rolled out to all of Facebook’s users yet) then some of that reciprocity that Schweitzer mentioned comes back into play. Sharing something — on Facebook, at least — might prompt others to share, and it will be easier to create a give and take on the social network.

Until that happens, sharing content on the Web is more idealistic than sharing physical goods. Something is shared either because “OP is a karma whore,” as redditors would put it, or because the sharer simply wants to pass something worthwhile onto his friends-slash-audience. Attention and altruism.

Just like toddlers.

 [Illustration by Hallie Bateman]