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A-Ha Moments

Tapping the Relational Surplus

Written by: Bill Sherman on Friday, 29 August 2008, 11:00 AM

Yesterday, we talked about the strength of weak ties within distributed social networks like icanhascheezburger. Today, we’re going to expand our perspective to other distributed social networks.

People can come together for any reason to form a social network or a community–whenever they share a common interest. Sometimes that’s a deep passion and sometimes it’s a passing fad. The power of a network resides within the bonds between its members. Individual efforts produce benefits for everyone.

Wikipedia is an example of a public good. When someone writes an article, many people can view/consume it simultaneously. Just like fireworks, if you display them for one person, you’re displaying it for everyone.

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, makes the following argument about the untapped cognitive surplus within our society. In the U.S., we spend 200 billion hours each year watching television. Wikipedia (all languages, all entries, all code) has been built in roughly 100 million hours of effort. If we turned off the t.v., we could build 2,000 wikipedia projects per year.

While there’s a few fudge-factors embedded within those numbers, that’s a powerful insight. It explains why social networks are capable of achieving surprising results. A leader can issue a challenge (like Kennedy’s moon challenge) or individuals can join a project for distributed social network effort.

Many people would say that they “don’t have time” to invest in building a community–whether it’s their local hometown/neighborhood, an affinity/social group, their company, or their nation.

Recently, I exchanged e-mails with Tom Sander at Harvard’s Saguaro Seminar. His point was that people often rely on the benefits within their community (safe neighborhoods, good schools, supportive neighbors). If you’re in a comfortable neighborhood, it’s easy to “coast” on these social benefits without making an investment yourself. And if you live in a struggling neighborhood, it’s hard to motivate the first few people to “give a damn” and take action. It’s easy to “coast” within the status quo of your community (wherever you live and spend your time). It’s much harder to break out of the cycle and actively invest your time. Even when it’s rewarding.

Tom’s argument hit home, because I’ve spent so much of the past six years traveling that I’d developed relationships outside of my hometown (and relied on the social capital others had built within my hometown). In that aspect, I was taking, rather than giving.

LOLcat pictures bring a smile; wikipedia makes information accessible; but for most people they’re weak-tie relationships. Most people don’t become deeply embedded within the community or form bonds with other users.

When we engage in distributed social network production, we create content and “release” it into the world. We invest our time, but we don’t invest in a relationship with anyone. These projects are a series of individual, (generally) uncoordinated efforts.

We can invest time to build knowledge, strengthen networks, and care for others. But we have to consciously choose to take action. Like everything in life, there’s an initial hurdle that must be overcome.

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