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The Strategic Side of Social Media

Developing a Strong e-Social Ethos

There are many reasons why people spend time documenting their opinions for others whom they have no connection with, or improving open-source software they have no commercial interest in. Empathy is a good catch-all category for giving vent to the urge to help others. But there are additional motivations at work, too, many of them more akin to pure self-interest. It takes time and effort to share an opinion, so why do it at all? Because we enjoy sharing our perspective or ideas, that's why. Some of us feel fulfilled by offering advice, and some of us get a thrill from influencing others' opinions. If you're a revolutionary protester in the Middle East, China, or Myanmar, you want the world to know what you're going through. And, according to Eric von Hippel in Democratizing Innovation, one reason often given by computer programmers for volunteering their efforts to an open-source project is simply "control over my own work"—something more difficult to obtain working at the direction of an employer. 

In addition to reciprocity, empathy, and the desire to avenge injustice, our social interactions are subject to a whole set of customs and unwritten rules that have developed over untold generations of people conversing with each other. For example, when you discuss something with a friend, colleague, loved one, or stranger you adhere to these customs without thinking. Don't interrupt. Listen first, show an interest. Respond to what others are saying.

But there are subtler principles at work, as well.
Suppose, for instance, that a good friend were to ask your assistance in getting a job at the company where another  friend of yours works as a vice president. All he really wants is a personal introduction. He's your friend, and he would certainly do the same for you. But what if, in asking for this favor, your friend also offered you $100 to make the requested introduction? Wouldn't you be totally put off by this? Maybe he's not really your friend after all, you might think, because this certainly isn't how friends treat friends. 

Sensibilities matter, but the social and commercial domains are colliding more and more. Offering to pay a friend to make a business introduction might offend your sensibilities, but it isn't hard these days to find borderline cases where the boundaries have blurred. If your grocery were to ask you as a favor to help it stock shelves you might be offended, but what about when JetBlue or Southwest Airlines asks passengers to clean out their seat-back pockets, as a courtesy to the passengers on the next flight? Most people accept this suggestion at face value. However, what if it were United Airlines, say, asking the same thing from its first-class passengers?

Interaction, not commerce
The unfamiliar workings of the e-social ethos can easily trip you up if you try to deal with social media simply as a new channel for marketing or generating positive word of mouth, because most marketing and business tactics that make sense in the commercial domain just don't apply in the social domain.

Marketing is a vital part of the commercial economy, a setting characterized by people freely exchanging money with other people. But most people leverage social media channels to interact for the same reasons they attend parties or participate in casual conversations with friends and coworkers—not for a financial benefit, but for the pure enjoyment and fulfillment they get from connecting with others.

Mixing up these two domains can lead to real problems, because social influence can't be bought any more than friendship can. You can buy advertising exposure with media dollars, you can buy enhanced customer insight with data and analytics, and you can buy Facebook "likes" with sufficient discounts or giveaways. But you can't buy word-of-mouth recommendations or social influence, so don't try it. That's just not how friends treat friends.