Relationships, online or otherwise, are a balance of give and take.
We gravitate to those people who bring us knowledge or pleasure or
professional advantages, and others come to us for similar reasons.
Fair enough. That's how human society rolls...
Increasingly, however, users of social media feel
pressure to “return the favor” — sometimes against their best interests
or better judgment, sometimes for people with whom they have little
genuine connection — all in the name of reciprocity. As Chris Brogan has tackled the issue:
The basic premise of quid pro quo is that people attempt
fair/equal transactions. This makes perfect sense when the exchange is
obvious: I’ll give you $1.00 for that soda pop.
It’s a lot harder when it comes to situations between humans.
I was asked to join someone’s new social media application, but
because I have a lot of stuff on the go, I politely declined. What I
got back as a parting shot was, “Thanks. I’ll still buy your book.”
It left me feeling a bit awkward.
Think about it —
How often do you feel compelled to friend someone
on Facebook or follow them on Twitter, simply because they chose to
friend or follow you? When someone votes up your blog post on Digg, do
you then feel pressured to digg a post of theirs in return? And if
someone from another non-profit donates to your cause, do you feel
obligated to reciprocate, dollar for dollar?
Conversely, when you “do a favor” for someone else online, doesn’t one small shameful part of you almost look for the quid pro quo — and feel faintly slighted if it doesn’t come through?
As Brogan asks,
Do we expect reciprocal behavior all the time?
“Give to get” has become one of the established “best practices” of
social media — and somewhere along the line, disinterested altruism
seems to turn into expectations of Return On Investment, a favor into an obligation, and a human
relationship (be it ever so tenuous) into a business transaction.
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In many rural communities, including my own, an informal barter
system is very much alive. With farm laborers scarce and expensive,
neighbors help neighbors bring in the hay while the sun shines — one
day, this man’s field is mowed; the next day, another man’s cut hay is
baled. It’s been done this way for a couple hundred years, and no one
ever keeps track of how many hours of work are given and received.
They simply trust that it all balances out in the end.
Back in the 1940s, there was one fellow who gladly accepted his
neighbors’ help when there was work to be done on his farm — and he
always repaid the favor, too. But he was never well liked, never
respected, never fully trusted by the rest of community.
Because he never gave without expecting a return, or without keeping score.
He always knew how much work a neighbor had given him, and exactly
what he owed that neighbor in exchange. And when the debt of time had
been repaid — down to the exact half-hour — he’d pick up his tools and
walk away. It didn’t matter if the other man’s field was half-cut at
noon with rain clouds on the horizon, he’d returned the favor, fair and equal, and that was where the giving ended.
That man’s been dead for decades now, but the old fellows around here still roll their eyes when his name is mentioned. Not a great legacy.
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Sometimes, that’s where I fear we’re headed with the growing
expectation of getting “something for something” — and keeping score of
who does what for whom. Have we stopped trusting that others will
respect the balance of give and take in our relationships — the
implicit social contract that is just as relevant in online networks as
it is in tight-knit rural communities?
It’s inevitable that the line between social relationships and
business gets blurred at times — but we risk losing something of great
value if that unwritten social contract is warped into an unwritten
There’s a temptation to blame the get-rich-quick spammers, who see
the potential for rich pickings in social networks, but I’m not sure
it’s that simple. We’re in a brave new ‘Net here, where the rules are
made up as we go along — not by committee but by very loose consensus
about what works and what does not. And right now, reciprocity
(generally, in itself, a pretty good thing) seems to be getting badly
out of balance.
I suspect that sass has it right:
In the world of so-called Social Media, the tools make “quid pro
quo” so easy, and the underlying (and perhaps artificial) importance of
friends, followers, contacts, etc. might be putting undue
(unwarranted?) pressure on us all to pay more attention to the
reciprocation, and less attention to the relationship. Long term, the
real value is always in the relationship!
When we speak of relationships, it’s vital to consider the whole
community of which we’re just one part — because reciprocity is seldom
a simple two-way transaction. Online, we count on the people we know,
like, trust, and respect to act as information filters, to help us find
soundbites of value in the cacophany of social media. When we succumb
to the pressure to tweet or digg a bit of content just because we “owe”
someone a favor, how will the others in our online communities be
affected? What will it do to our own reputations, in the long term?
Social media is far too complex for the relationships we’re forming
there to be forced into a simplistic tweet-for-tweet, link-for-link
business model akin to exchanging coins for cans of soda. And perhaps
that’s something of what Tom Collins is getting at in his comment on Chris Brogan’s post:
I don’t see relationships as transactional. I’m fumbling for the
right word, but maybe “organic” or some such? Over the long term, it
could be more valuable to you if I wrote a post in my blog mentioning
yours, or retweeted the link from Rachel that brought me here. You may
never even know that my “help” … helped you.
I think people who look for immediate “return” on their
“investment” in a relationship won’t end up ever experiencing a real
What do you think?
Is it naive — is it even possible? — to say “Quid Pro No” to expected reciprocity; to focus on being good online neighbors, and trust that the give-and-take will all balance out in the end?