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What Have You Done for Me Lately? - Keeping Score in Social Media

Lori Halley 25 July 2009 15 comments

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.

Except —

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.

✽ ✽ ✽

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 business contract.

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 one.

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?


Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Saturday, 25 July 2009 at 11:59 PM


  • Evan said:

    Saturday, 25 July 2009 at 5:33 PM

    I've exchanged with other bloggers - guest posting on each other's blogs and so forth.  Not sure whether this benefitted either of us terribly much traffic-wise.  But it feels good to have friends.

    With Twitter and Stumble I do have a few followers and my sense of responsibility to them helps me if I'm feeling pressured into a quid pro quo.  I usually follow those who follow me to start with and see if their stuff is worth following before I unfollow them (the only exception is those who follow hundreds and have only one or two followers - I don't want these good looking young ladies to feel rejected, but the quality of what they tweet usually isn't high.

    Your point about turning a relationship into a business relationship is a good one - and a difficult one.  I do want to make my income online blogging about what I love.  In practice I tend to ignore this (and many a make money online guru would point out that I'm not making lots of money yet!).

    At the moment my position is that the currency of the net and blogosphere is credibility - lose that and you're gone.  And no amount of money will buy it back.  A couple of well known and respected bloggers endorsed a course I signed up for which wasn't particularly good.  It was a couple of years ago but their credibility in my mind has never recovered.  It is much easier to lose credibility than to earn it.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post on a very important subject.

  • McLaughlin said:

    Saturday, 25 July 2009 at 8:47 PM

    I have my own 'rules' of how I follow people and it is different by each socail media. I only follow friends and family on Facebook, I follow everyone that follows me on twitter, I follow people that interest me in stumbleupon and I unfollow people quickly on SU and so on. I think that it is easy to create rules for each media because each serves its own purpose and I see social media as purpose driven.

    I would automatically not follow someone that use pressure and had one case that comes to mind. A socail media contact wanted to befriend someone that I know and asked me to connect him to her. She was not interested in him and refused. He came back and told me to (not asked, told) pressure her to befriend him. That is just annoying, so I broke contact with him.

    It's like you said, we need credibility, which he lost with his threats.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 5:12 AM

    Food for thought here, Rebecca. When someone boosts my content via social media, I say thanks. If I'm already connected to them, chances are that I'll return the favour at some point when I find something I really like. If I don't know them, I check them out and see if we have anything in common. When it comes to friending/following I have different rules for different networks. On Facebook, I friend people I actually know, and with people with whom I've connected only briefly I limit what parts of my profile they can see. On Twitter, I check the timeline for the proportions of interesting tweets to self promotional ones before making a decision. In most cases, finding someone interesting is a good reason for following them. If they then spam me, I can unfollow just as quickly.

  • John Haydon said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 5:13 AM

    My rule is that one has to give without an expectations in return and give for their reasons, not yours.

    1. This person wanted Chris to join his social network for their reasons, not Chris's.

    2. Because this person planned on buying Chris's book, he expected something in return (as if the content in the book isn't enough?).

    Months ago, I wrote a short post on keeping score vs. giving freely called <a href = "http://johnhaydon.com/2008/11/the-four-twitter-post-types-when-and-how-to-use-them/">How To Get The Universe To Promote You On Twitter</a>.

  • Ching Ya said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 6:04 AM

    It's like when a neighbor is lending you a hand on some tasks, you feel grateful and look for a chance to return the favor -- the intention is genuine. However it should be about the 'right timing' as well. It would look silly if you're forcing yourself to wash his car when he doesn't need it; or he was hoping you to mow his lawn by bringing up the subject, it would change the previous 'gratitude' feeling completely.

    It takes me some times to learn not to 'force' myself into any favors that I don't feel like it. I once triggered to help someone for a new post which I have little knowledge about, and I can't decide whether I"m totally agreeing to the content or not, so I ended up not doing it. It feels bad at first since the person RT most of my posts, later on I realize it's ok to 'choose' what we think proper for our audiences. I may be silly enough to think that if we treat people sincerely others would understand we're not against them by not returning the favors, as we can still help out in other ways, why just 1? It all comes down to relationships. If it ends up that the person stop RT-ing my content, let it be as if there's an intention in every kind gesture, that's not a genuine friendship at all.


    Social/Blogging Tracker

  • whitney said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 6:14 AM

    My concern with all of this starts with the difference between fair and equal.  Equal is everybody gets identical treatment where fair means everyone gets the treatment they need/deserve. Likewise with quid pro quo which implies some sort, but not necessarily equal exchange of what we lawyers call "consideration" to form a binding agreement or transaction.

    Given that starting point, social media asks us to consider the offers of friends, but like any invitation, we need not accept them all.  But just like in real life, if you never accept anyone's invitation, they will stop asking;  if we accept them all, we'll be overwhelmed and our acceptance taken for granted- the tricky part is finding the balance.

  • Deborah Bifulco said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 6:18 AM

    May I am just terribly naive, but I really do believe in the "pay if forward" mentality.  If I can help someone else out, I usually don't think twice about doing it.  If someone is doing or writing about something that I think is interesting or worthwhile, I like to support it, share it, retweet it, write about it, whatever.  And, I don't keep "score" - never have.  What I have learned is that good things seem to come my way.  Coincident?  I suspect not.  

    Chris, this is a great topic - thanks for starting the dialogue!

  • Jeremey Weeks said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 6:41 AM

    People need to recognize what kind of relationships they're developing.  

    I expect payment for my services from a customer (even then I'll give more than is on the invoice).  But I don't expect my business peers, friends and family to pay me "tit for tat".

    Truthfully, I can never pay back those who have helped me in life.


  • Terry Heath said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 7:05 AM

    I guess the old saying is true, and what goes around really does come around. If you give without expecting a return, you'll be taken care of somehow; the universe has a way of balancing things out. Was it Buddha who taught expectations are the root of all pain?

  • Becky McCray said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 8:25 AM

    I can just picture that farm scene. I believe it; the old timers are still talking about that score-keeping individual.

    I'd like to have us all get a farm mentality in one way: we don't expect that you personally will repay the favor. When I help you, you can help someone else. Then someone else may end up helping me, in some way I could never foresee. It all comes out in the wash, as grandmother said.

  • Mitchell Allen said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 10:12 AM

    “Cast your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will find it again.”

    It is in this spirit, an allegorical association with charitable acts, that we find the true meaning of reciprocity. Indeed, the dictionary definition of reciprocity is,

    “the quality or state of being reciprocal : mutual dependence, action, or influence”.

    Any other derivation constitutes an attempt to redefine the term to benefit the revisionists.

    Mutual dependence implies a relationship. As there is a spectrum of such human interaction, from parasitic to symbiotic to altruistic, we need look no further than the dynamics of how we connect to determine if reciprocity exists. In its absence, we have the question of pressure to adhere to the precepts of quid pro quo. True reciprocity requires no measure.



  • FSSimon said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 2:57 PM

    I worry that the value of social media will be undermined by quid pro quo expectations. If everyone is expected to give to get and get to give, it undermines credibility, and for me, cred is everything online.

    On Twitter, I only follow people who offer some information that is of value to me and to my followers. I thank everyone who RTs, mentions, or FFs me, but I don't always follow everyone who does. I also only RT, mention, or FF people who offer my followers serious value. I am pretty serious about business on Twitter...only an ocasional post about something personal.

    Facebook is a little bit less restrictive because I use it for more personal than professional purposes. I'm pretty relaxed about friending and accepting friends, but I manage my feeds and my privacy settings carefully.

    LinkedIn is strictly professional for me, so I link to people I might be able to help, do business with, or might be helpful to me. I only rarely and very specifically ask for recommendations. I always thank the people who provide them, but I don't always reciprocate unless it is an honest evaluation. Again, my credibility and reputation are on the line, and if I give every time I get, it looks like the recommendations I give and get are gratuitous.

    I think it's time to look at the balance being nice with building reputations. This is especially important for non-profit organizations, corporations, and consultants who are building their brands online. I would like a future wherein people can use social media with some expectation of reliability. Being nice to be nice and strictly adhering to quid pro quo policies just undermine reliability.

  • Maddie Grant said:

    Sunday, 26 July 2009 at 3:06 PM

    I had seen Chris' post earlier and this is a fascinating discussion.  I think, personally, that there is a big difference between "reciprocal follow" and an actual ask.  I think it's perfectly fine not to follow people back if they follow you on Twitter, or even to ignore friend requests on Facebook or LinkedIn (which obviously require reciprocal follow, technically speaking).  But if someone asks me to check our their stuff?  I will do it every time. Once I have, then it's up to me to decide whether the [post/site/app/whatever] is of enough value to my community to [retweet/post on FB or LI/blog about/whatever].  But I think being willing to respond to a request, at minimum, is something I don't want to lose. And maybe I'm still in that early thankful zone that people actually want to know what I think about their stuff...:) Of course my community is much smaller than Chris Brogan's, I might feel differently if I got a hundred pitches a day instead of a couple.  

  • HART (1-800-HART) said:

    Tuesday, 28 July 2009 at 1:18 AM

    I think others in front of me share my philosophy. Everybody is different though, and I know that. Until something otherwise happens that makes me not want to be friends with a person (and that takes a lot - believe me) - I will go out of my way to help my friends, if I can .. and especially if asked. And, especially if it doesn't affect me negatively.

    I don't ask for much in return but hope, that action speaks louder than words, or requests, etc and my friends will want to help me back when I ask .. or, even if I don't ask. I probably spend too much time 'giving' more than I am 'getting'.

    But, as for following friends .. I have a simple rule - I follow everybody who follows me. Yes, I do follow some people that don't follow me back, but that's okay - i followed them first for a reason - and it wasn't to be followed back.

    Generally  .. I don't keep score. If we're friends I presume that it will eventually work out in the end, even if it may seem lobsided either way at any given point. I would like to think that I'm a proud person, and rarely asks for help - as I try to do it my own, and succeed on my own - but, if I do ask for help .. my friends recognize that I'm not abusing their friendship or anything, and they sincerely want to help me - as much as I want to help my friends.

    (insert group hug here or something)

  • Cindy King said:

    Sunday, 02 August 2009 at 7:17 AM

    Definitely an interesting topic!

    I find my best answers by remaining myself in all circumstances. I have 1 clearly defined reason of why I am online and what I want to do here.  I acknowledge the fact that I am one person, and there is only so much time in a day.  This actually makes it easy to take the right decisions.

    I think that being online, it is easy to see the personal side of everyone out there.  I have bad days... and so do others.  I get rushed and do not read things right or react out of place... and so do others. I see others go through growing pains and I hope to do so myself :)

    So, in the end I think lots of tolerance and common sense goe a long way.

    Besides, I simply do not want to spend time dealing with nasty people. In my experience the bad apples always stay bad and they do infect things if you let them take up space near you.  Luckily the majority of the people I run into are fun people to be with.

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.

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