You scratch my beak and I’ll scratch yours

Someone quite well up on these matters recently described social networking
as “reciprocal altruism”. The phrase struck me as an oxymoron, because altruism
is a selfless approach that holds no expectation of a direct return.

The phrase was coined by Robert Trivers back in 1971. He argued that you’d
help someone if you thought they might help you in the future. Drowning was his
specific example, although that makes little sense unless the people involved
spent a lot of their lives near water.

Nor does the phrase really fit the social networking model in which people
are always pushing out links, advice and information for the benefit of those
members of the community that will find it useful. If you warn the group about a
software bug and later pick up a link to a YouTube movie, this is unlikely to
have come from someone who gained from your bug tip-off. In this sense, social
networking is not strictly reciprocal. However, the giving is primarily
altruistic and, if adopted by group members generally, pretty much guarantees
that some benefit will flow back to participants. I’ll leave you to figure out
the right phrase for this behaviour.

Twitter is an interesting place to watch this behaviour play out in practice.
Each member can determine who they want their community to be. The result is
usually rather asynchronous because, unlike other social sites, Twitter doesn’t
require you to enter into a relationship with those you follow and those who
follow you.

You see the tweets from those you follow, and your tweets are broadcast to
those who follow you. Some people ask for advice, some link to stuff they find
interesting, some self-promote (and find themselves being unfollowed if they do
it too much), some respond and some spread the word by retweeting. It’s worth
signing up and following people whose interests you share, just to appreciate
the amount of value that can be exchanged in a short amount of time.

If you’re unused to social networking, you will find Twitter quite an
eye-opener. It will give you an idea of a low-overhead way to collaborate.
Twitter doesn’t bog you down in blogs, wikis, social bookmarking and all the
rest of the social paraphernalia. You can just lurk and take, although it would
be better to give as well, especially since offering as well as receiving is
core to the new collaborative ways of working.

This brings me to a couple of videos that I learned about on Twitter. The
source was someone I first met online. We became friends through our shared
interests in social computing and so-called knowledge management long before we
met in real life.

Virtuous cycle

One of the movies was an IBM presentation about the benefits of social

networking. Crudely summarised, it tracked how online relationships lead to
trust, which leads to sharing, which leads to creativity, which leads to
innovation. You won’t be surprised to learn that social and search software
(which IBM both uses and sells heavily) is at the heart of this process.

The other video involved Lee
Bryant of Headshift, a social software consultancy. He is convinced the social
web and the recession are combining to make it a good time to recast
organisations around their people rather than persisting with the control
structures of the past.

However, he expects this to be a gradual transition to a simpler, flatter and
lower-cost working environment, which will also happen to be better for the
individual. He thinks that a full transition could be as far as 10 years away.
But reciprocal altruism, or whatever you’ve decided to call it, will undoubtedly
be a core component.

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