[tweetmeme]Whether or not you chose to acknowledge it, your ability to sink or swim on the social web depends on how you participate, engage others and embrace the customs of the virtual gift economy – this is as true for individuals as it is for big brands who have a web presence.
The concepts of “FREE as a business model” and sustainable gift culture generally makes sense to people in the context of products, services, brands and community building, but the understanding sometimes breaks down when it’s mentioned in the context of individual relationships and social media. Seasoned vets know that there are a host of unwritten rules and customs for reciprocating that we should follow when we benefit from free content and receive help and advice from others on the web. I’ll discuss some of those rules, explain why they’re important and offer some ways to act on them below.
Reciprocity Is A Broad Community Custom
A creative, participatory culture based on “free” is only sustainable if we all give more than we take in the long run. I call this The Cookie Jar Principle. There are millions of people out there who have embraced the online culture of collaboration and participation. These people spend hundreds of hours creating free content and posting it on blogs, wikis, FAQs, and photo and video sharing sites like Flickr and YouTube (to name a few) so that anyone can use and enjoy it. That said, just because it’s posted online for free under a creative commons license doesn’t mean that all that creative energy has been spent JUST because these people believe that art and information should be free. If you take a deep look at why people chose to produce all this content, you’ll realize that they’re forgoing monetary compensation to build social capital. Even though there’s no money in it, they definitely DO benefit — they create things for others to learn from and enjoy to be recognized, networked and notable. They know that their contributions build relationships and beget trust, credibility and status. There’s a measure of self esteem, diginity and joy of contribution and connectedness they they get from the act of creating and giving. The majority of the online community recognizes this and it is (therefore) customary for community members that benefit from the time and energy these people spend creating content to reciprocate in some way to show appreciation – this demonstration of appreciation is the cultural norm. It’s crucial to see why this culture of reciprocation exists and embrace it. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
Whuffie (Social Capital) Matters Most Online
I can’t over emphasize this point. Reputation and social status are what we accumulate when we interact and build relationships online. The sum of our contributions and the level and quality of our participation and collaboration online are measured in the accumulation of whuffie or social capital, not material wealth. Anything that helps us collect, measure and display the accumulation of this social capital improves our reputation and helps us build connections and rapport with others (which helps us build more social capital that we can use to make more connections that help us get things done, and so on). The accumulation of this type of capital helps create a virtuous cycle for those of us whose contributions continuously add value – which is as it should be, no? The social web is the world’s largest and broadest meritocracy.
If you’re interested in the concept of “Whuffie” and how it can benefit you or your organization, Tara Hunt recently wrote a fantastic book that I highly recommend called The Whuffie Factor. Check it out. It’s the real deal. I was also was fortunate enough to attend and tape Tara’s presentation “The Whuffie Factor: The 5 Keys for Maxing Social Capital and Winning with Online Communities” at the Web 2.0 conference this year in San Francisco. The video is lengthy, but it’s worth watching. Tara is awesome and it was easily one of the best talks given this year.
The Social Web Has It’s Own Currency For The Social Capital Economy
Sure we get free access, but we pay tribute and show appreciation constantly. We contribute to discussion on each other’s blogs, we share and promote other people’s content on social media platforms like Twitter and Friendfeed. We recommend people to others, vote, make introductions, give credit and link liberally to content we like and benefit from. These small (free) actions are the currency of the social web. When we benefit from free, we should always make sure to give back this way and say thank you.
The Two Way Street
Ignoring the two way culture of the social web is a major faux pas. Participating in social media is about engagement, conversation, reciprocation and exchange. Participating on social platforms by broadcasting alone (even if you give your content away for free) isn’t enough – in fact, it’ll hurt you in the long run. In the end, broadcasting alone flags self-interest and people will turn their noses up at you. Debate, don’t preach. Swap and share, don’t broadcast. Promote the content of others, not just your own. And don’t forget, when you do these things, remember to use the currency of the social web.
Ways You Can Use Social Media To Reciprocate (Say Thank You)
I’ll keep this brief and just include the main currency evenues that I use to reciprocate, engage and say thank you on the web. Please, if you have a method you have seen that really has a positive impact on others (especially if that impact is highly emotional and public) include it in the comments.
- Recommend Someone - This is a powerful way to say thank you and you should always do it publicly if you can. Posting a recommendation on FriendFeed or Twitter is good, but I find that writing a recommendation that’s more lasting and attached to someone’s public profile is FAR more appreciated. LinkedIn is great for this – if someone helps you, and you think they’ve done great work or you’ve benefited from their insight and expertise, ask them if they’d mind if you wrote a recommendation for them. If they agree, be brief, personal and make it about them, not you. Say how this person has helped you, what it meant to you and why they are notable.
- Comment on blog posts – Comments are standard currency in the blogosphere. If someone helps you out, or you learn something from their post, take 5 minutes and add to the discussion. Note: Try not to just say “awesome post!”. It’s lazy. Always focus on adding value. Blog posts aren’t meant to be static – comments are all part of the game. Add a gem that increases the value of the overall post.
- Promote Their Content – Read something you liked that you learned from? Promote it on Twitter or Friendfeed, or email it , digg it, stumbleit with a provocative subject line. Producing content, it turns out, is the easy part – it’s getting found by an interested audience that’s really hard. Help people creating content achieve their goals by sharing. Note: I recently wrote an article on how to do this effectively with Twitter. Please check it out if you’re interested.
- Write a post Link and Give Credit - Google juice is huge. If you link to someone’s content in a blog post and give them credit, you’ll send them traffic and increase their ability to get found in search engines. In-coming links tell the Google’s of the world that something is worth a look. The more links, the higher they rank. Every link counts. Note: Linking with blog posts instead of social media is important because links from services like Twitter and FriendFeed don’t count towards page rank in search.
- Make An Introduction – It’s a much more direct way of recommending someone, but powerful if you can effectively connect them to someone new and start a relationship where both parties can benefit. You can do this over any social media platform, but email is better and doing it in real life is the best. The trick is to do it in a way where you catalyze the connection and immediately step way. Again, this is about them and the connection, not you.
- Take The Thank You Offline & Make it Tangible – The methods of the old school still work best. Hand written notes, a tangible gift that says thank you, a personal letter…these things still matter. In a world where we’re inundated with superficial messages and we get pinged from mulitple services hourly, taking the time to give someone something tangible that they can touch, enjoy and experience will mean a lot more to them than some text on a screen.